“What’s happening is that people are just getting more familiar with it and they’re seeing it’s not just guys down there in lab coats, like, electrocuting bunnies and stuff.” Thus New York City’s madcap genius of modernist cuisine, Wylie Dufresne, helpfully divulges regarding his Lower East Side restaurant, wd~50. A former sous chef at Jean Georges, Dufresne opened the restaurant (an amalgamation of the chef’s initials and the street address – 50 Clinton Street) in 2003 with Jean-Georges as a partner. It has achieved enormous success and notoriety (this is the guy who used hydrocolloid gums to fry mayonnaise and tie foie gras into a knot) but defies easy categorization – it is ambitious, experimental, playful, eccentric, revolutionary – and uneven. But when it is good, it is very, very good. Dufresne’s type of avant-garde cuisine can be explosively creative but also mannered. It’s a delicate balance – being innovative without lapsing into a kind of cerebral conceptionalism to the exclusion of things tasting good – and sometimes Dufresne miscalculates it. But these instances are increasingly rare, and most of the items offered are truly delicious as well as pioneering and fun exemplars of his signature style.
Dufresne has honed and perfected a number of signature dishes over the past few years, such as his foie-lafel, a fried chickpea ball filled with liquid foie gras, crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside. To make it, a foie gras terrine was coated in sake, cognac, cumin, all spice and caramelized onions, then frozen in molds and breaded with dried chick peas, fava beans and egg, then deep fried. There was also his monkfish with smoked barley, beet mustard and nori, which was cooked sous vide and finished in a pan with brown butter; his quail with chartreuse yogurt, turnip and nutmeg, which was deboned and rolled, cooked sous vide, breaded in Panko and then deep fried; and his lamb loin with “red beans and rice” and chayote squash, which was pan roasted with pine nuts cooked in a pressure cooker to resemble the texture of a bean along with sushi rice cooked, ground and rolled into very thin sheets that are then cooked in clarified butter to resemble pita bread. David Chang proclaims in his Momofuku cookbook that Dufresne’s “chicken ball with mole paper and egg carpaccio is one of the greatest dishes of all time” – quite a compliment, considering the source.
In May of 2012, Dufresne scrapped the entire menu, opting instead for a tasting menu only approach. Some past favorites are still available on a smaller five-course "from the vault" tasting menu, but it is clear that Dufresne's focus is now on expanding the culinary frontier even further. He is far too much of a restless visionary to have his greatest hits preserved in amber: he wants to pioneer new ground, to take risks, to experiment.
The design of the restaurant is an aesthetic mess, but then so is the Lower East Side, so it’s hard to cavil given that Dufresne may just be engaging in some solicitous fidelity to local tastes. The service, while largely excellent, also has some occasional hiccups. One final blemish worth mentioning: for all the culinary wizardry of the cooking, there was surprisingly little explanation of precisely what transmogrifications had occurred back in the kitchen. A little handholding might aid the average diner’s appreciation of the technical virtuosity required to produce each dish. We have provided in-depth explanations in the captions of our accompanying photographs so that diners can appreciate what went into each preparation. These drawbacks do not greatly detract from the overall effect of the restaurant, however, which is deeply impressive in its juxtaposition of risk-taking adventurism and delicious cuisine. It isn’t food that you will encounter anywhere else, and so you owe it to yourself to experience Dufresne’s distinctive brand of high-wire culinary artistry at least once.
50 Clinton St.
New York (nr. Rivington St.)
212-477-2900 Mon-Sat, 6pm-11pm; Sun, 6pm-10pm
RECOMMENDED DISHES See All
- Sesame flatbread
- Eggs Benedict
- Chicken ball with mole paper and egg carpaccio
- Poached egg in the shell, pumpernickel, caesar dressing, lily bulb
- Rock shrimp, miso noodles, chicory, yuzu
- Monkfish, smoked barley, beet-mustard, nori
- Quail, chartreuse yogurt, turnip, nutmeg
- Lamb loin, ‘red beans & rice,’ chayote squash
- Wagyu flat iron, coffee gnocchi, coconut, cipollini, sylvetta
- Milk Chocolate, black bean, plantain, soy, peanut
- Rice kripsy treats