We live in dangerous times. Not only do we, as responsible, analytical diners, need to concern ourselves with issues of freshness, taste, authenticity, technique and presentation, but more and more, we have to make a distinction between the daring, the original and the just plain silly.
We are facing a decade in which foam machines, cappuccino whizzers, electric dehydrators and science and technology can reduce our food to a froth, a fluff, a frazzle or some other form of frippery.
Much of the food at our high-end restaurants is manipulated to amuse, outrage and provoke. Ice-cream tastes of sardines, jelly tastes of truffles, madeleines taste of olives and chocolate tastes of tobacco. The proponents of this new science-based gastronomy - the likes of Ferran Adria and Juan Mari Arzak of Spain, Pierre Gagnaire and Michel Bras of France and Heston Blumenthal of England - are changing the nature of gastronomy as surely as the cuisine nouvelle revolution of the 1970s did.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of silly-bugger food out there, and the line between worthwhile and worthless is a thin one. The reason for this tutorial in Modern Gastronomy 101 is that I am in downtown New York at Wylie Dufresne's hugely hyped new restaurant WD-50, and I don't know what I think. In a year of red-hot openings (see right, for just three), WD-50 is the most incandescent. American Food & Wine magazine recently selected it as the best restaurant to open anywhere in the world in 2003.
Dufresne shot to fame for his seasonally adjusted, texturally driven but ultimately sensible cooking at the inordinately popular tiny Lower East Side neighbourhood eatery, 71 Clinton Fresh Food. Earlier this year, he moved across the road, literally, to open his own restaurant. Here he is sending out the kind of food that transmits little shock waves across town and beyond.
Take his much talked-about Stellar Bay oysters, flattened into a square, shiny squish and teamed with diced Granny Smith apples and pistachio purée. Silly-bugger food or, given the context of Mod Gast 101, an interesting new development?
I will never know, as the oysters are off the menu tonight. Instead, there is a foie gras and anchovy terrine ($16, £9.50) which comes as a perfectly formed tile of rich, creamy foie gras parfait iced with a silvery line-up of marinated anchovies. Finishing touches are a gravelly sprinkling of cocoa nibs, a swipe of tarragon cream and a glistening quenelle of citrus chutney. Revolting? No, revolutionary. Just as my mind is saying it shouldn't work, my fork goes back for more. It doesn't clash, it doesn't disgust, but tastes rich, decadent and together. Either my palate is playing silly-buggers or Dufresne is on to something.
And so it goes. Scallop couscous ($14, £8) isn't scallops with couscous, but scallops as couscous, the flesh transformed into teeny weeny balls, floated in a velvety purée of butternut squash soured with tamarind. How the hell did he do that?
A clinical high-tech environment might seem the right setting for such food, but this is the Lower East Side, where the pickle guys sell straight from the barrel and music blares from gratings in the sidewalk. So WD-50 is on your warm, woody, funky side of cool, with goofy lightshades, tweedy placemats, bare boards, a visible kitchen and a loud crowd. It's all downright neighbourly, the warm fuzzies reinforced by the presence of Dufresne's dad and restaurant manager Dewey, who rattles around the tables like a chaperone at a kid's party.
Staff are friendly, their casual manner belying knowledge and care. They push me towards a fruity, up-front Alsatian Pinot Noir from Domaine Ostertag ($47, £28) to team with the brined and poached pork belly ($24, £14), its tender fatty/meaty cross-sections laid out in line formation with a single fondant potato, a turnip on a squish of bean purée and a splodge of Chinesey plum-like sauce. No tricks, no gimmicks, just long-flavoured pork belly. Gorgeous.
Dufresne's passion for contrasting textures shows itself in a dish of squab ($28, £16.50), in which fingers of bravely rare, rested, and livery-tasting breast huddle under a lid of crisped pigeon skin. A caramelly sauce of sweet-potato juice and a battalion of bullet-shaped golden beets encrusted in pulverised red beets are lively, fruity accompaniments.
Vegetables pop up where you least expect them, especially at dessert time. A splodge of creamy sweet corn accompanies a trembly, jaggery-like caramel panna cotta ($10, £6). Even the fruit gels that come with coffee are made from sweet red peppers.
While Dufresne is obviously setting out to push the boundaries, his natural wish to feed people acts as a built-in shock absorber, smoothing out the bumps and grinds. We're going to see much more of this style of cooking in the near future, whether we like it or not, so let's just hope it stays in the hands of people like Wylie Dufresne, people who know how to cook and not just how to shock.
WD-50 50 Clinton Street (Lower East Side), New York, tel: 001 212 477 2900. Open for dinner Monday to Saturday. Around £120 for two including wine and service
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
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