January 28, 2008 | BITE: My Journal
    Am I an Old Fogey or a Sage Elder?       

 WD50’s octopus reality with Campari-lychee leather.
 WD50’s octopus reality with Campari-lychee leather.

        When Wylie Dufresne morphed from charm and delicious reason at 71 Clinton Fresh Food into the bold chemistry wizard of wd~50 in April 2003, I became a passionate brick-thrower.  Ever since I gagged over his quixotic foie gras with anchovies and cocoa nibs, I have been citing that nastiness as the poster child for chefs-run-wild. It’s not that I would deny the laboratory research of Ferran Adria and all the molecular warriors and just plain bad boys who want you to love them even while they insult your palate.  There is no evil in fried mayonnaise or olive oil girdled in a membrane or root beer-date-lovage and pulverized black rice clots.  All I ask is that it taste good.  Do I want to eat it?  Would I long to eat it again?

        When I recently hired Jason Spiro, a young cook/writer/computer whiz, to help on this site, he forwarded a passionate dissection of a dinner at wd~50 from his blog.

        “I can’t believe you really love that food at wd~50,” I said.

        I decided it was unfair to still be ranting about a meal I ate in 2004. After all, I did once eat a Dufresne 24-hour cooked egg that was sublime.  Perhaps the chef had found enlightenment. I would return with Jason.

        Jason’s unabashed faith and loyalty has won us a prime booth with a partial view of the kitchen action.  His smile fades as he realizes Dufresne is not there.

        “He’s on his honeymoon,” says the waiter.  “In Hawaii…you can’t deny the man his honeymoon.”

        I give the wine list my usual penny-pincher’s scrutiny, annoyed how few reds come in under $60.  But Jason seems reassured, or maybe amused, when the waiter -- asked to choose a Pinot Noir under $60 -- nominates my choice,
 Tissue crisps like tissue wrap.
Au Bon Climat, at $58 the only Pinot under $60. I wish I could say I loved every morsel of our long drawn-out dinner, that I loved the cobia amuse with candied granola, the reasonably edible fried quail with its cloyingly sweet banana “tartar,” the supposedly grilled octopus with no kiss of the grill, only an odd after taste of unseasoned beast -- or was that the juniper?  And why would one destroy the sensuous textural joy of a lychee by turning it into lychee-Campari leather?  The tissue-thin crisps massed in a basket -- the house “bread” -- are as much fun to eat as gift wrapping tissue, though I admit I keep breaking off shards in the long wait between courses, nervously hoping that eventually I’m going to get some delicious sustenance.

        My three Lilliputian roll-ups of corned duck and rye crisp are not bad at all -- a nice bouquet of smoke, garlic and horseradish cream.

        Jason is eager for me to taste the onion soup he adores, so he orders a soup course for the three of us -- starting with popcorn soup. Yes, literally,
 New World onion soup.
a sticky mucilage of pureed popcorn with jicama rounds and discs of shrimp paste, not unlike shrimp toast but not nearly as good. And his favorite mock onion soup for me.  Two tissues of crouton painted with a swath of caramelized onion sit on the edge of a small bowl containing onion broth with balls floating in it. These balls are the sorcerer’s masterwork -- cheese frozen and wrapped in pectin that holds up in the broth to explode in your mouth.  Fun.  Granted, good fun, but a pretty wan stand-in for a great onion soup.

        And having scanned the menu for something that has a chance of pleasing me -- rejecting scallops with cranberry and pecan in a spice bread consommé, the parsnip tart with quinoa, and  wagyu flat iron steak with coffee gnocchi -- I manage to choose the best dish of the evening: loin of lamb that tastes like lamb, deliciously rare as requested, against the stern admonishment of the waiter. It arrives minus the “fat cap” he said precluded cooking it rare.  Just mustard crumbs, a few gawky mustard clots and noodles of potato in pretzel consomme.

        Poor Jason seems less than thrilled with his bright red ocean trout with forbidden rice
 Quail boldly paired with sweet banana.
pulverized and glued together, looking like pieces of coal on the plate.  Both he and his friend Brian seem impressed with Brian’s soft layer of pork belly, eating fat and meat alike, with ancho-pineapple that might work better if the belly was crunchy and caramelized.  Maybe I am a wuss, eating around the fat.  I wish both of them long life and hope they never wake up to discover their arteries are feeling abused.

        If it says cherry, I have to have it. And I get a giggle from the idea of cherry-covered chocolate but am sad that the cherry couverture tastes like reconstituted Jello inside a rubbery skin. Either the toasted coconut cake with brown butter sorbet or gianduja balls with hazelnut, fennel and a gorgeous egg of ice milk are far better choices. And I actually liked the pre-dessert of yogurt, with ribbons of saffron and apple leather on raisin puree and a reprise of candied granola -- though I think the granola act twice in one meal is a definite misdemeanor.
Good Heaven. This lamb is really lamb.  

        I paid the check…$327.50.  Jason gallantly left the tip -- an excessive tip I would bet. I hope he doesn’t feel it was anything he did that made my latest hookup with wd~50 an almost total washout.  As you can see from his blog, his passion is undiluted, though reality has made a few fissures in his celebration.

50 Clinton Street between Rivington and Stanton Streets. 212 477 2900


Sandro’s: The Happy Gladiator    
 The chef sends a tornado of pastas to our table.  Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s impossible for me to say what’s it’s like to eat these days at Sandro’s. Except that the wandering Gladiator is still there nine months after his latest landfall, bigger than ever in his gaudy pajamas, and seemingly fulfilled, every table occupied in his pleasant plain-Jane space, folks still pouring in till midnight (for free spaghetti at the bar, no doubt).  And everyone at our table has fallen for what looks like cuttlefish pizza…actually a luscious fried pancake of seppioline and artichoke. A dish worth the trip all by itself.

        Please forgive me, sitting at a table with Sandro Fioretti’s long time friend and current money man, San Domenico’s Tony May, does not provide a measured view of what it means to walk in unknown and order from a menu. What’s new since last May?  That I can answer. Anna Fioretti, Sandro’s indulgent wife at the door, never stops smiling. The full house and the big red Rolls Royce of steel salumi slicers has landed on a table with rounds of parmigiano. One particular waiter hefts a culatello round big as an elephant’s leg, cranking the slicer again and again all night, as if no one in this Upper East Side zip code can ever get enough meat. Huge platters of prosciutto di San Daniele, speck and that culatllo hit our table, mostly ignored, after each of us has eaten a giant sunflower-size fried artichoke.  I am immediately reminded of the remarkable little artichokes and baby calamaretti that won our allegiance when May first brought Fioretti to America and settled him on 59th St., practically under the Queensborough Bridge.

 Sandro’s wife Anna cuts parmigiana chunks on the salumi table. Photo: Steven Richter

        The belated unbidden arrival of the cuttlefish-artichoke pancake meets no further not-another-bite resistance. Then suddenly our table is covered with large plates of pasta. Sandro’s expansiveness is hard to counter.
 Cuttlefish-artichoke pancake. Photo: Steven Richter
We confront enough bucatini amatriciana to fuel a Roman soccer team, tomato-less amatriciana too - la Gricia.  My favorite sea urchin ravioli is alas overwhelmed by sauce and slivers of scallop. I keep tasting it, trying to find the elusive perfume of the sea.

        Much to my regret I have announced out loud that I will have the sautéed chicken livers antipasto as an entrée, “if they can be rare…”  Now I beseech May to cancel the chicken livers. Too late. They arrive along with other roast meats no one will be able to eat. It’s been so long since I’ve had a perfectly caramelized rare chicken liver, more beloved to me than foie gras, I must taste one, if only not to break Tony May’s heart.  But these, deglazed with balsamic vinegar, are too sweet for me.

        Of course we are soon surrounded by desserts to sample -- espresso granita, the torta di nonna, and affogato, vanilla ice cream drowned in espresso coffee.  It’s late and a weeknight, but we’re slow to go home. There’s a feeling of being on vacation, Sandro’s is that far from the heat of Manhattan.

306 East 81st Street between First and Second Avenues. 212 288 7374.


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