Entries in Wylie Dufresne (5)



Note: Alder closed in August 2015. Wylie Dufresne, the chef and owner, did not explain the decision, but when we dropped in a couple of months earlier, we found the dining room almost empty on a weeknight. Earlier in the year, he instituted a tasting-menu format that, perhaps, didn’t go over as well as he’d hoped.


Give Wylie Dufresne credit. Give him double-credit.

When WD~50, his modernist—and not always approchable—restaurant, struggled during the Great Recession, he stayed open. For a while, he was doing just five nights a week, but he didn’t give up, and he never dumbed down the menu.

And for ten years, WD~50 was all he had. Unlike most chefs with three New York Times stars, he didn’t open a more casual restaurant that might’ve distracted him, or competed with the flagship for his attention.

In May 2012, WD~50 abolished the à la carte menu in the main dining room. Tasting menus are now all you can get. They’re also back up to seven nights a week. I guess the Great Recession is over. (Not everyone thinks the new format is an improvement.)

About that time, he started planning Alder, a new casual restaurant in the East Village, which finally opened in March 2013. Alder is à la carte and less elaborate than WD~50. It’s Dufresne’s take on classic pub food, recognizably in his style, but not as avant-garde as WD~50 sometimes can be. There are four cooks in the kitchen at Alder, as opposed to twelve at WD~50, so the food is a lot simpler.

Generally, you’ll recognize what you eat, which at WD~50 is not always the case. You can take grandma or perhaps even your picky Aunt Gertrude, provided she doesn’t mind the noise. Sound levels in the dining room can be punishing. We visited on a warm summer evening, and fortunately were able to sit outside. Indoors, I might like Alder a lot less.

But we ate outside, so I loved it.

The menu consists of eighteen items priced $8–24, served tapas-style, and suitable for sharing, with no explicit division between appetizer and entrée. Like most small-plates restaurants, it only seems inexpensive. Our fairly modest order of five plates, a cocktail each, and a $48 bottle of wine, ran to $177 before tax and tip.


Every meal at Alder begins with a serving of Giardiniera (above left), an Italian–American relish of pickled vegetables. It’s a bit odd, as several critics have noted, as it doesn’t really go with the rest of the food, and no bread is served with it. But it’s very good on its own terms: we made fast work of it.

“Pigs in a Blanket” ($13; above right), like so much of the food at Alder, is a play on the old classic, here made with Chinese sausage, Japanese mustard, and a sweet chili sauce. Consider it a must-order.


Sun Gold Tomatoes ($18; above left) are served with Peekytoe crab, fried naan, and edamame; but what comes through is mostly tomato, and not enough of the crab.

I could eat the foie gras terrine ($19; above right) all day. It was served with watermelon and shiso on a Ritz cracker. (Some critics have mentioned poached apple, so I think the recipe changes periodically.) But the Ritz cracker is a constant: who knew it paired so well with foie gras?


New England Clam Chowder ($16; above left) comes with “oyster crackers,” which you toss into the soup. It’s a terrific combination. A party of two need not worry about ordering this: they send it out in two bowls.


The kitchen aced the Roasted Chicken ($21; above left), served with oyster mushrooms and charred romaine. But Halibut ($24; above right) was bland and dry: I was more fond of the corn underneath it than the fish itself.

The pacing of the meal was just right; silverware was replaced after every course.

There’s about 40 bottles on the wine list, plenty of them below $50. The server decanted our 2010 Morgon ($48), which was served at the correct temperature, but in juice glasses. For a check that rises above $200 after tax and tip, you’d think they could afford wine stems.

Out of five dishes, I count three hits, one dud (the Halibut), and another in between (the tomatoes with crabmeat and edamame). That’s pretty much what everyone says about Alder: Dufresne and his team don’t hit a home run with every dish, but there’s more than enough to make the restaurant hugely worthwhile.

Alder (157 Second Avenue at E. 10th Street, East Village)

Food: A modernist take on pub food
Service: Very good; would be great if they’d bring in real wine glasses
Ambiance: East Village chic, and too noisy: east outside while you still can





Note: WD~50 closed at the end of November 2014, giving way to a condo development. Chef Dufresne still has his casual restaurant Alder nearby, but at present he has no known plans to ressurect WD~50.


I probably spend far too much time seeking out the newest restaurants—which often aren’t that great anyway. Either they haven’t worked out the early jitters, or they just aren’t destined for excellence.

The Great Recession still casts a long shadow, and it’s harder than ever to find exciting new restaurants. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop looking, but perhaps it’s time to shift the balance a bit towards old favorites that are overdue for a fresh look.

WD~50 has been on my revisit list for a while, not because anything has changed, but simply for the pleasure of discovering the latest creations to come out of mad scientist Wylie Dufresne’s laboratory. His food might not be to all tastes, but in the avant garde niche he occupies, his work is without peer in New York City.

A few years ago, people wondered if Dufresne could keep the place going, but on a Saturday night, at any rate, it was packed. He has held a Michelin star for five years running, and two years ago Frank Bruni gave WD~50 a much deserved and overdue promotion to three New York Times stars.

The food is expensive, with most of the entrées over $30. Most of the bottles on the wine list are in three figures, and there is hardly anything under $65.

I’m not necessarily complaining about how expensive WD~50 is, merely putting the restaurant in context. Dufresne’s cuisine is well worth the tariff. It is also labor intensive, and Dufresne has only five services a week in which to cover his fixed costs: he doesn’t serve lunch, and he is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

The restaurant sells a lot of tasting menus at $140, up from $105 just three years ago (though I think it had fewer courses then). We had it, and so did the tables on either side of us. At a restaurant where so much of the food is unfamiliar, it is better to try a dozen items, as you do on the tasting menu, than to guess which two or three you’ll like.

Our tasting menu was one hit after another, with only one dud among twelve courses. I’m not going to try to describe every one, but I’ll list them all and describe the highlights. (The staff deposited a printed souvenir copy on our table before it began, so that we could follow along.)

The bread service (above) might seem initially disappointing, but sesame flatbread is surprisingly addictive. Before the end of the evening, it was all gone.


1) Veal brisket, honeydew, black olive, fried ricotta (above left)

2) Everything bagel, smoked salmon threads, crispy cream cheese (above right)

These dishes, like everything else on the menu, derive their success from unusual and often surprising combinations of ingredients that just happen to work perfectly. The “everything bagel” is actually a small donut-shaped circle of deep-fried cream cheese.


3) Foie gras, passionfruit, chinese celery (above left). When you see a disc of foie gras on the plate, you assume it’s a terrine. In fact, Dufresne has managed somehow to stuff the foie with passionfruit, which runs out when you cut into it.

4) Scrambled egg ravioli, charred avocado, kindai kampachi (above right). No Dufrene tasting menu would be complete without an egg dish, and this one was masterful.


5) Cold fried chicken, buttermilk-ricotta, tabasco, caviar (above left). We didn’t much care for the cold fried chicken. I’m sure Dufresne has a reason for serving it cold, but it was beyond our comprehension.

6) Striped bass, chorizo, pineapple, popcorn (above right). The striped bass was perfectly cooked.


7) Beef and bearnaise (above left). I think this was meant to be a neighborhood-appropriate play on matzo ball soup.

8) Lamb loin, black garlic romesco, soybean, pickled ramps (above right).


9) Chewy lychee sorbet, pistachio, yuzu, celery (above left).

10) Hazelnut tart, coconut, chocolate, chicory (above right).

12) Rainbow sherbet, rhubarb tarragon, orange, olive oil (no photo).

I have less to say about the desserts individually. Alex Stupak is the pastry chef, and he is every bit Dufresne’s match and alter-ego in the mad science department.

We wrapped up with Cocoa packets, chocolate shortbread, and milk ice cream (right), which took the place of the usual petits-fours.

The standard wine pairing is $85. We didn’t want to drink that much wine, nor was there a particular bottle that caught our fancy, so we asked the sommelier to choose four wines by the glass, and space them out over the two-hour duration of our meal, which he was perfectly happy to do. Like everything else at WD~50, his choices were off the beaten path, but excellent nevertheless.

Although WD~50 is a casual-looking place, the service is as polished and professional as at almost any three-star restaurant in the city. If you haven’t visited, you must. If you haven’t visited lately, it’s time to go back.

WD~50 (50 Clinton Street between Stanton & Rivington Streets, Lower East Side)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: **
Overall: ***


The Payoff: WD~50

Yesterday, Frank Bruni upgraded WD~50 to the three stars that some of us believed it deserved all along:

[Chef Wylie Dufresne] pushes hard against the envelope of possibility and the bounds of conformity to produce food that’s not only playful but also joyful and even exhilarating, at least when the mad science pays off.

It pays off more frequently now than in the past, when his attitude was cheekier, his judgment wobblier and too many of his creations gratuitously perverse.

Foie gras with anchovies? Venison tartare with edamame ice cream? I’d often shake my head, drop my fork and glance longingly toward the exit.

When William Grimes reviewed WD-50 in The New York Times shortly after the restaurant’s opening in 2003, he gave it two stars, saying that for all Mr. Dufresne’s ingenuity, he demonstrated “a certain contempt for the pleasure principle.”

But most of the dishes I tried over the last few months were knockouts, their measured eccentricities in the service of something other than eccentricity itself. These dishes validate the kind of experimentation that culinary pioneers like Mr. Dufresne undertake, and they reflect a thoughtful, mature equilibrium between what’s merely edgy and what’s truly enjoyable.

I’ve quoted Bruni at more length than usual, so that I can ask a question: has the restaurant really changed that much since the original two-star review? Or have Bruni’s tastes just caught up with what Dufresne was doing all along? It’s difficult to say, because there remain plenty of people who still think that the cuisine at WD~50 makes no sense at all.

In all of Bruni’s re-reviews, he tries to exaplain how the restaurant is different than before. But usually there is something far more specific—a change of chef being the obvious example. Bruni does admit that the restaurant “isn’t right for everyone or every mood,” a rare concession in a three-star review. Is there any restaurant that’s right for everyone or every mood?

Eater and New York Journal both took the three-star odds. We both win $2 on our hypothetical one-dollar bets.

          Eater        NYJ
Bankroll $68.50   $84.67
Gain/Loss +2.00   +2.00
Total $70.50   $86.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 32–14   33–13

Rolling the Dice: WD~50

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews the city’s lone successful example of haute molecular gastronomy, WD~50. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 8-1
One Star: 5-1
Two Stars: 3-1
Three Stars: 2-1 √√
Four Stars: 5,000-1

The Skinny: WD~50 currently carries two New York Times stars, per William Grimes in June 2003. It also carries a Michelin star, and for whatever it’s worth, three stars on this website.

Frank Bruni’s re-reviews almost always come with a change of rating, unless there has been an intervening event to justify a fresh look—and there has been no such event at WD~50. The restaurant certainly hasn’t regressed in the last five years, which suggests the rating has nowhere to go but up.

The X-factor is that Bruni generally doesn’t like food you have to think about. The few examples of avant-garde cuisine that have come along during his tenure have not won favorable reviews. This would also be his third 3-star review in just five weeks.

But we have to agree with Eater that this review is pointless unless Bruni upgrades the restaurant to three stars. One can never put it past Bruni to waste a review slot, but we’re not betting he will. Expect Bruni to give Wylie Dufresne credit for staying in the kitchen at WD~50, when most chefs of his calibre (and fame) would surely by now have opened a second restaurant…or a third, or a fourth.

The Bet: We agree with Eater that Frank Bruni will award three stars to WD~50.



wd50.jpgI haven’t had the best luck with restaurant visits on holidays, such as New Year’s Eve. Restaurants tend to simplify and reduce the scope of their menus, while charging more—in some cases a ton more—than they normally would. Our dinner last year at Picholine was a particularly egregious example of this: $800 for two, for a menu that wasn’t worth half that.

Perhaps the common-sense solution this year would have been to stay home, and save the blow-out meal for another evening. But I reasoned there must be a New Year’s Eve dinner in New York that isn’t a rip-off, and I was determined to find it. At WD-50, we hit pay dirt. It was my first holiday meal at a fine dining restaurant that was worth every penny. I reasoned that the eccentric avant-garde chef Wylie Dufresne wouldn’t suddenly start serving airline food just because he has a captive holiday audience. Dufresne did not disappoint.

At WD-50, the nine-course tasting menu normally sells for $105 [since increased to $125]. I don’t mind a reasonable premium, and the cost on New Year’s Eve was $145. That included a champagne toast, and a free disposable camera and party favors on every table, so the price was fairly close to what you’d pay anyway. The optional wine pairings were $85, again a reasonable cost for 9 half-glasses apiece.

This was the menu, with wine pairings shown in italics:

Crispy carmelized cauliflower, bone marrow, wild American caviar
Cava, Avinyo Brut, NV (Penedes, Spain)

Oyster, salsify, fried lentils, kimchee puree
Cava, Avinyo Brut, NV (Penedes, Spain)

Foie gras in the round
Viognier “Sanford and Benedict” Cold Heaven 2005 (Santa Barbara, CA)

Smoked eel, blood orange “zest,” black radish, chicken skin
Pouilly-Fuisse “La Croix” VV Robert-Denogent 2004 (Burgundy, France)

Melted cheddar, black truffle, crispy potato, powdered toast
Pink Wine Pax 2005 (Sonoma, CA)

Mediterranean bass, edamame-rye bread, chive mashed
Valpolicella Classico Superiore TB Bussola 2003 (Veneto, Italy)

Lamb loin, cucumber, pickled tongue, spicy pear, sorrel
Shiraz “Lloyd Reserve” Coriale Vinyards 2001 (McLaren Vale, South Australia)

Banana puree, hazelnut, coffee, parsnip
Commanderia St. John NV (Lemesos, Cyprus)

“Creamsicle,” rooibos, squash, orange blossom
Commanderia St. John NV (Lemesos, Cyprus)

Mango jelly-mastic; Milk chocolate-menthol

Champagne toast
Guy Charlemagne Rose Brut NV (Champagne, France)

Many of the dishes are really indescribable. Dufresne and pastry chef Alex Stupak create combinations of ingredients that you’d never imagine together. How, for instance, does one think of smoked eel, blood orange, black radish, and chicken skin? Just to ask the question is to realize how bizarre it is. And how successful. My friend, who said she normally hates eel, loved this dish.

“Foie gras in the round” was another really odd concoction. Somehow, Dufresne managed to produce little pellets of foie gras, each about half the size of a small pea. Incredulous, we asked the server how it was done. He replied that it’s a trade secret, but it involves liquefying foie gras and combining it with another liquid, an explanation that only adds to the mystery.

Each dish is rather small, and sometimes an ingredient is just a dash of crumbs, such as the powdered toast that came with the melted cheddar, or the light dusting of ground coffee that came with the banana puree. Dufresne’s gimmickry does not stand in the way of good solid cooking. The Mediterranean bass was impeccably prepared, as was the lamb loin.

With so many wacky experiments on the menu, not all could be hits. The gooey oyster (our second course) was dull and not very appetizing. But that was really the only course that I could have done without.

The restaurant was full, and service was a bit variable. Several times we were served food before the associated wine pairing arrived. When I asked our server to slow down the parade of courses, he replied, “Sorry, I don’t control the kitchen.” Our reservation was at 9:00, and we didn’t leave till past midnight, so I wouldn’t say we were pushed out the door. Still, it wasn’t an acceptable answer at a restaurant of WD-50’s calibre.

WD-50 is one of the more casual fine-dining restaurants in town, although on the Lower East Side it’s hard to imagine anything more formal. There were guests in sport coats and fancy dresses, and there were guests in t-shirts and jeans. Most were on the young side, although one table was taken by two older ladies.

In 2003, William Grimes of the Times awarded two stars to WD-50, noting Dufresne’s undeniable talent, but also that “diners are more likely to respond with respect than love.” Three years into the experiment, Dufresne is as sure of his palate as an adoring public is sure of him. This was my second visit to WD-50, so I’m fairly confident that this New Year’s Eve performance was no fluke. WD-50 isn’t for everyone, but for those open-minded souls willing to to think broadly, it’s as good a restaurant as there is.

[Update: In March 2007, Frank Bruni of The Times upgraded WD-50 to three stars.]

WD-50 (50 Clinton Street between Stanton and Rivington Streets, Lower East Side)

Food: ***½
Service: **
Ambiance: **
Overall: ***