I’ve been told by those who know that a key aspect to any creative enterprise is expectation. The enterprise tends to fall flat without the expectation of success (or fear of failure), but too much expectation leads the writer to block, the athlete to fumble, the unseasoned actor to gag or go blank. I’m not quite sure what the antsy chef does under these conditions, but I would guess that his or her expectations are keenest not with the first restaurant but with the second. It’s the difference between toiling in happy anonymity Off Broadway and making a full-blown Broadway debut. In one venue, you’re relaxed, confident. Your discovery is considered a kind of unexpected marvel. In the other, of course, the stakes are considerably higher. You may be prone to staginess and histrionics, and it can take time to become yourself again.
Clinton Street, on the Lower East Side, isn’t quite Broadway, but for gastronomes these days, it’s close. Four years ago, Wylie Dufresne began practicing his own clean, artful brand of cooking at a small, briefly anonymous restaurant called 71 Clinton Fresh Food. He left there in 2001, and though he’s been associated with several other Clinton Street spinoffs since then, he hasn’t had a place to call his own. Now comes wd-50, a restaurant that looks in every way like the talented chef’s big-time debut. You can tell by the self-referential name, and by the limousines idling at the curb. You can tell by the gleaming, semi-open kitchen, and by the room, which incorporates the latest trendy-restaurant motifs: burnished-wood tables, colorful clown-hat light fixtures, deluxe bathrooms sheathed in bamboo.
But mostly you can tell this is Dufresne’s big debut by the menu, which is more ambitious, more studied, and also more self-conscious than anything he ever attempted at Clinton Fresh Food. The first dish I ordered was an innocent-sounding plate of Wellfleet oysters, which arrived shell-less and flattened into a perfect, gooey square the color of sputum. They were supported by bits of Granny Smith apple and a daub of pistachio purée. If I had to guess, I’d say this impressive bit of architecture was influenced by the work of the great Spanish chef Ferran Adria, whose madcap recipes—he’s famous for serving his guests shot glasses filled with ocean mist—have influenced ambitious followers around the globe. This particular dish, however, tasted altogether more bland than it looked. After that came an artichoke soup, which was also a little bland in spite of a neatly constructed trellis consisting of a tuile made of chorizo (Adria is a big proponent of chorizo), on top of which was balanced half a wobbly quail egg.
This kind of gourmet performance art is always interesting to look at, but it helps if it tastes good, too. Luckily, most of the other dishes I sampled at wd-50 tasted quite superior, although the pure, seemingly effortless style Dufresne cultivated at Clinton Fresh Food has mostly disappeared. My favorite among the appetizers was a small tile of foie gras terrine, about the size of a very expensive cell phone. It was covered with a row of silver cocoa-dusted anchovies, and when the sweet foie gras evaporated in your mouth, you were left with a chewy, faintly crackly taste of the sea. Everyone at our table admired the squid linguini (presented in a bowl with shavings of serrano ham and Asian pear, all bound together with paprika-spiced yogurt), and my chowhound brother and I fought for bites of the pork-belly entrée, dressed with a subtle, plummy concoction made from soybeans and star anise.
In fact, most of the entrées were expertly prepared, albeit in a similarly mannered style. I liked the skate, which was curled beside a pile of soft lemon-flavored gnocchi and garnished, as a kind of textural complement, with crunchy hazelnuts. Sturgeon—a delicious, delicately meaty fish when handled properly—is delicious and delicately meaty here, served with pearl barley and a spritzing of bread crumbs spiced with cinnamon. My friend the lamb nut enjoyed her lamb loin (flavored with wood sorrel, of all things, and resting in an extravagant bath of spiced-pear consommé), and I admired the artistic qualities of my rabbit, which was stuffed with tangy dried cranberries and celery and arranged around a square of Martian-green spaetzle. Most satisfying of all, though, was the cut of sliced Flatiron beef, served with a healthful mound of Chinese greens and an excellent though extremely unhealthful tart decorated with perfect, moon-shaped discs of melting bone marrow.
At this early date, the crowd at wd-50 is more or less what you’d expect at a grand theatrical opening. There are admiring fellow chefs (Jean-Georges is one of the co-owners), claques of beady-eyed food intellectuals, and fat-bellied critics in their stained dinner coats (that would be me). By the time dessert rolls around, it’s clear to everyone that we’re not really on Clinton Street anymore; we’re in Monaco or Geneva or the bowels of some stately midtown hotel, where dinner is not just dinner but a grandiose (and pricey) cultural event. The accomplished pastry chef, Sam Mason (formerly of Union Pacific and Atlas), produces quite delicious kumquat confits topped with sesame ice cream and caramel sauce spiked with soy, and elaborate pineapple constructions supported by tuiles made from manchego cheese.
My wife, a traditionalist in all things crème brûlée, turned up her nose at Mason’s exotic renditions of this classic dish, which contained rice pudding one evening and chocolate and saffron the next. I thought they were perfectly okay, although as I peered and prodded and puzzled over all this precious, accomplished food, I occasionally peeped out the windows at the old beauty parlors and neon-lit bodegas along Clinton Street. I couldn’t help missing Mr. Dufresne’s familiar old neighborhood, just a little bit.