KANDINSKY IN THE KITCHEN

WITH A PINEAPPLE SCRAMBLE AND SOME EMULSIFIED POPCORN

WD-50 (First Course), by Joe Shlabotnik/Flickr

In the current issue of Intelligent Life, Jon Fasman writes about new American cooking. Here are his notes on a dinner at WD-50, an innovative New York restaurant, and a conversation with its chef, Wylie Dufresne ...

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OF THE 12 courses Mr Dufresne presented, only one disappointed--and it wasn't bad, just flat. That was the opening course, which consisted of a single rock shrimp, charred lily bulbs (bitter, rather acrid), some crisped goat cheese, and what the menu called "pineapple scramble": this was pineapple that had been roughly puréed and mixed with a bit of gelatin (I think; any explications of technique that follow are purely guesswork) to attain the precise texture of scrambled eggs. The four components remained unacquainted; the dish never gelled.

The second course, "shrimp and tarragon macaroons", sang out loud. Clumsy as it sounds, it was among the most beautiful, thoughtful, well-composed dishes I've ever had. Three little white puffs sat on a stark white plate; each puff consisted of two meringue-like halves held together with a smear of reduced and pureed tarragon. The puffs had an etheral texture--with a slight pressure from the tongue, they melted--and a haunting, intense shrimp flavor that the tarragon complemented perfectly. Imagine those Indonesian shrimp puffs made by a classically-trained pastry chef, and you're halfway there.

The most playful dish on the menu was conceived, I imagine, as a sort of neighbourhood tribute. WD-50 is on Manhattan's Lower East Side, which for decades was the centre of Jewish New York. Mr Dufresne composed a deconstructed corned-beef sandwich (the area's most famous deli, Katz's, is still churning out sandwiches as big as your head; if you eat a pastrami sandwich and press your ears shut, you can practically hear the crackle of hardening arteries--and what a delicious crackle it is).

The meat component was pickled beef tongue, which was quite mild, with a silky texture (and no visible taste buds). With it came tomato, lettuce and onion, of course: a stripe of tomato molasses, a little pile of romaine chopped in infinitesimally small dice, and a sprinkle of dehydrated red onion. Rounding out the dish was the condiment: tiny cubes of fried mayonnaise. This was a dish for the mind and heart--the sort of thing that makes you laugh and applaud as you eat it. Also, it tasted great.

We opted for the wine pairing, which let us try seven unusual wines with our meal. My companion is far more of an oenophile than I; she liked a Dolcetto that was served with our miso soup and langoustine (the latter came atop emulsified popcorn, and was served with tart hibiscus tuiles and braised endive). To me it had a barnyard scent, but I'm just classless enough to love New World fruit bombs. I preferred a sweet, refreshing Grünhauser Riesling served earlier in the meal. But all seven wines were exceptionally well-chosen, and pretty obscure: it takes some guts to end a meal with a sparkling Gamay and a Greek Muscat.

The food at WD-50 scores 22 out of 30, good but not great, in Zagat; and it isn't for everybody. You have to get involved. It succeeds more, the more you think and talk about it. It is the work of an artist.

The following day I spent the better part of an hour talking to Wylie Dufresne in his restaurant. The first thing that struck me about him was his extraordinary curiosity. How many Michelin-starred chefs can wax poetic about the making of Doritos? How many would want the sort of industrial technology that produces chip flavours (that is, a spray drier, which mixes liquid with a carbohydrate, shoots them into a silo through a high-powered, fine nozzle, whereupon they fall to the bottom of the silo as powder) in their own kitchen?

He knows diners have atavistic, almost hard-wired memories of candy and chips and cereal and all sorts of foods not associated with high-end restaurant cuisine in their memories, and his food plays with them. It doesn't matter whether that elevates the low or debases the high; it's unexpected, playful, fun and artistic. Why should the only proper response to expertly prepared cuisine be bare-headed reverence; why shouldn't it be laughter?

The second thing that struck me was how defensive Mr Dufresne seemed at times, as if expecting that any journalist would take the cheap and easy route of sneering at his unorthodoxies--"Look at the guy who turns foie gras into a breakfast cereal; isn't that weird?"--without trying to understand the logic and rigour behind them. I could only respect his prickliness. It would be unacceptable for an art critic to slate a picture for not being pretty; why let food critics slate a chef for not making food predictably?

Mr Dufresne's food may be more difficult and more cerebral than roast chicken with green beans and mashed potatoes, but a Kandinsky is more challenging than a Kinkade. You can hum a tune from "Cats" more easily than "Verkarte Nacht," but there's no question which composer is the greater artist is. If cooking is an art--and, of course, it is--then it needs its Schunberg, too.