"Bacon is the candy of meat."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Further Adventures in Eating

Last Saturday night, Mr. Gateau and I actually went out to dinner with friends in NYC. Like grown-ups and everything. This was a partial reunion of our Jamaica group, only this time we were nice enough to let Mr. Gateau and Pam's husband come along. I'd always wanted to try Wylie Dufresne's restaurant, WD-50, and everyone was up for what we hoped would be a pretty exciting dinner.

It's hard to describe my overall feelings without sounding utterly disappointed. I wasn't -- the dinner was in fact very good (and the company and atmosphere were perfect). But it wasn't the transporting, innovative experience I'd been hoping for and expecting.

We were the first to arrive, so we sat at the bar and had a drink. They offer an amazingly extensive wine and cocktail list, and I was in the mood for something creative. I've been on a bit of a Manhattan kick lately, so I ordered a Bourbon Bounce, made with Makers Mark, sour cherry, Peychard's, and burnt orange peel, with a giant ice cube and some sour cherries floating in it. It was really delicious, but I'm not convinced it was worth over $16.

We were seated, and the waiter came over to get us started and to find out how familiar we were with the type of cooking the restaurant does. I thought this was a good sign that things were going to be so way out and interesting that we'd need a guide. In the course of this conversation, he pointed out that, though the a la carte menu had plenty to recommend it, the only real way to get the full experience of what "Chef's cuisine is all about" would be to order the $140 9-course tasting menu. Wine extra (though the restaurant is offering a recession special of half-price bottles of wine when you order the tasting menu). Nobody was really up for that, so I asked the waiter which of a couple of entrees was most likely to give me a more full-fledged WD-50 cuisine experience, and he said that it was a good question he'd never been asked, and guided me to the lamb over the duck.

We ordered, and out came a basket of paper-thin crispbread liberally sprinkled with white sesame seeds. These were addictive and delicious, but light, and we enjoyed that with our drinks. In fact, when we told our waiter how much we liked it, he beamed, and said "Yes, well, we lace it with opiates." Hahaha. Ha.

First courses arrived. I chose the sweetbreads:

From the menu description, which was simply "Sweetbreads, peanut, beet-pomegranate, pickled sweet potato" I was expecting a play on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There was a note of that, but really the flavors were in the Thai realm -- the sweetbreads were crusted in crushed peanuts, and very creamy inside. With it were the little diamonds of beet-pomegranate jelly, plus some dots of mint puree and a touch of lemongrass. This was a very delicious dish, though I couldn't have predicted how it would be from the menu description.

Megan had a play on smoky bacon with the lamb belly, served with eggplant, dates, and smoked feta, which stressed the strong gamy taste of the lamb as a stand-in for bacon. John and Pam each had a very visually stunning octopus terrine (see below, partially eaten) served with pine nuts, saffron, and pickled ginger. It had nice flavor, but nothing that blew me away.

Mr. Gateau had foie gras with fennel, malt, and sherry vinegar jam. This had something interesting going on, with foie gras textured like a malted milk ball, and the sherry vinegar jam added nice tang.

John was appointed wine czar, and he kept us supplied with Laurel Clos, Erasmus 2006, which kept us all happy and docile.

We moved onto main courses. I had gone for the lamb loin, which the menu noted included green apple, chartreuse, and "green tomater tots." This was actually just simple slices of medium-rare lamb loin with a natural jus that was slightly flavored with licorice and a streak of tangy raisin sauce, served with pieces of gala apple and celery, and with the green tomato tots (which were delicious, and a very brilliant idea -- clever and comforting). But the lamb, nice as it was, was ordinary, and the chunks and apple and celery seemed like an afterthought.

Pam had the pork ribs with fried plantain, hibiscus, and jerk jus.

Megan had the duck breast with worcestershire spaetzle, parsley root and mustard greens that had tempted me.

Mr. Gateau had monkfish with red pepper oatmeal, turnip, and black olive.

John had wagyu skirt steak with long beans, tamarind, and peanut butter "pasta." This last item was probably the most interesting thing on the table, quite literally pasta made with peanut butter instead of eggs and flour, and it was melting and delicious.

Bites were passed around, another bottle of wine was opened, and discussions of spa and golf weekends future were enjoyed. And then it was onto dessert. WD-50 does something smart, which is to offer 3 or 5 course dessert tasting menus, depending on how deep into it you want to get, and at $38 or $48 per person, that's pretty deep. However, we all opted to order single desserts. I was tempted by a jasmine custard with black tea, but since it is served with bananas, the Devil's own fruit, and I was told the ingredient could not be substituted, I opted for ginger ice cream in a ginger tuile cigar with "spiced bread foam," beet, candied walnuts, and molasses. Basically, this was deconstructed gingerbread, and it was wonderful, the kind of dessert that has you running your finger around the plate to get the last bits.

Pam had cornbread pudding with lemongrass and prune.

Meg went for the hazelnut tart with coconut, chocolate and chicory that she described as "boston cream pie, deconstructed."

while John opted for caramelized brioche with gala apples, sage, and brown butter sorbet.
Mr. Gateau shocked us all by not getting anything chocolate, but instead having cheesecake with pinapple, saffron, lime and pickled raisins, which looked like ice cream dots from the Good Humor man.
Then our waiter was back asking if he could offer "dessert wine, tequila shots, bottles of scotch?" And noting that drugs would involve a separate transaction. Oh tee hee hee. The gentlemen opted for port, while I had an espresso and we finished our wine. A little dish of petits fours arrived, which were centers of sweetened condensed milk ice cream surrounded by chocolate and cocoa, and which tasted like the best frozen Oreos you ever ate. Then it was time to settle up and go. But we weren't done yet, so we decamped for the bar across the street where we topped off with some beers and I had a glass of (less fancy, and less expensive) port.

Bottom line: WD-50 is a really good restaurant, and it's a terrific place to enjoy a night out with friends. It's not a temple of molecular gastronomy, so adjust your expectations accordingly, and don't be afraid to bring less adventurous members of your personal entourage, because we didn't encounter anything that offbeat. It may be more exciting if you're willing to pony up for the tasting menus, but I'm more than a little put off by the notion that unless you're willing to do so, "Chef" isn't going to bring his A-game to mere $30 entrees. And don't forget to bring your wallet. My great-grandparents are no doubt spinning in their graves realizing that I had a $16.75 cocktail where they used to sleep in tenements.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Is it still good for you if it's fried?

I was out at a little lunch place in the Berkshires with my mother and sister, and we noticed they were offering fried chickpeas as a special appetizer. We got an order to share, and we were all instantly transported to the very simple but flavorful seasoned chickpeas my grandmother used to serve along with cheese, chopped liver, crudites, and other simple hors d'oeuvres.

My sister took a stab at it later that week, and reported that my niece loved the fried chickpeas dusted with a little curry powder. So I gave it a shot yesterday, frying one can of drained and rinsed chickpeas (I used the Goya brand, which I generally find are nice and firm and not mushy) in about an inch of canola oil in a deep saucepan. I cooked them until golden brown (and could have even let them crisp longer), drained on paper towels, and then tossed with lemon zest, sea salt, and zaatar, following with a little sprinkle of fresh lemon juice. We devoured them in about 10 minutes, with glasses of Spanish rioja.

Tonight I'm following a pasta recipe from one of my favorite vegetarian cookbooks, Jeanne Lemlin's Simple Vegetarian Pleasures (yes, someone who has bacon as her personal icon does enjoy vegetarian cooking). It combines cubes of fried extra firm tofu with black olives, roasted peppers, basil, parsley, and garlic over penne. I'm adding capers, sundried tomatoes, and some red pepper flakes for more of a puttanesca flavor. But the bowl of fried tofu chunks sprinkled with soy sauce is going fast just sitting there in the kitchen. Very tasty, crispy bites that are tender in the center. The key: squeeze as much water out of the tofu as you can before cooking to get a nice chewy consistency.