Sunday, August 24, 2008

Your NYC suggestions 2 - Prune, WD-50, falafel cart

You told me where to eat in NYC, and I listened.

Two restaurants encapsulate two major trends of the past decade. Prune is a fine example of a greenmarket restaurant -- serving no-nonsense seasonal food from local markets. WD-50 is a temple of molecular gastronomy -- creative food as a science experiment, yet with post-modern playfulness.


Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune has a small, rough interior feels like stepping back to 1972. It doesn't hide the fact that it is a hippie restaurant in the East Village.

The food reflects the greenmarket trend, which is the outgrowth of older ideas from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I started my lunch with a bowl of borscht, topped with dill and cucumber cream.
Borscht reminds me of my well-worn Moosewood Cookbook. It is quintessential hippie, vegetarian food.

But this borscht was something special. It was served cold, and had the texture of a puree. The essence of beets stood out, but was not monolithic. The cucumber and dill flavors added a green quality that balanced the earthiness of the beets.

I asked the waitress what she would recommend for the second course. "The burger." I started to protest that I had not walked all the way across Manhattan to try this restaurant and just have a burger. But then I thought about how long it had been since I had ordered a burger. I relented.

The burger was pretty darn good. It was served on a toasted English muffin with a light-textured cheese and a delicious herb spread. The highlight of the sandwich was the beef, small in diameter but insanely thick. I ordered it rare, and it was. It was also remarkably juicy.


If Prune is about keeping it real, WD-50 is about keeping it surreal.

Plinio and an anonymous commenter recommended Wylie Dufresne's WD-50. I met up with my brother and ordered a 12-course tasting menu with wine pairings. Like Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, it was the sort of food that I will never fully understand, but I am astounded by its brilliance.

Corn pebbles were balls of dry powder with essence-of-corn flavor. They were sweet. They were spicy. They were odd.
Bonito was served raw with mace, a thin chip of purple potato, and tiny granules consisting of brown butter and finely minced jalapeno. This dish made a lot of sense to me, but I couldn't stop wondering how the kitchen had turned brown butter into dry granules.

Eggs benedict was the real mind blower. Somehow the kitchen had turned egg yolks into a firm, upright, yellow tube. It was topped by a thin slice of dried bacon. Even stranger was a fried cube filled with hollandaise. This dish was as delicious as it was strange.

I can't begin to imagine how the kitchen had turned foie gras a light-as-air paste. The delicate liver was complimented by some sort of crunch balls and dabs of kimchi sauce.

Chicken liver was turned into spaetzel and served with thin slices of radish in a bowl coated with a green sauce labeled as "pine needle" with cocoa nibs.

Perhaps the tastiest dish of the night was a thin slice of beef tongue served with a cherry miso paste, fried quinoa, and palm seeds.

WD-50 is big on tubes. This tube consisted of yogurt and was served with crispy dry shreds of rhubarb plus an olive oil jam (?) and pine nuts.

As the deserts started coming fast and furious, the wine kicked in, and I began to lose concentration. It was hard to tell exactly what the dishes were, even with the menu descriptions. The next dish was called called "Jasmine custard, black tea, banana." It included another tube was served with foam and something like icecream. It was tasty, but beyond my comprehension.
Next, toasted coconut cake was served with carob, smoked cashew, and a brown butter sorbet. As tasty as brown butter is, I am surprised I have not previously seen it turned into a sorbet or ice cream.
Finally, yuzu ice cream was coated with chopped marcona almonds. The bits of cream were served with packets that looked like plastic that needed to be opened. As my brother and I struggled to open the packets, it occurred me, "eat the whole thing." I did and solved the puzzle.

More than anything else, WD-50 plays with the texture of food. Ordinarily runny ingredients such as egg yolk and yogurt are turned into plastic-like tubes. Foie gras is made light and airy. Chocolate is turned into edible paper-like packets.

Everything tasted very good, but the biggest appeal of this food was its playfulness. It was not the best meal I had ever had, but it was certainly one of the most creative.

The Falafel Cart

Sheeats reminded me that I had to try a falafel cart. So I returned to an old favorite cart, All Halal Foods, somewhere in Midtown Manhattan. I told the vendor that I wanted some additional spicy sauce. After frying up the falafel, he spent a while squeezing the red bottle into my sandwich.

The falafel had that ideal texture that is so hard to find in Houston -- a light, airy, crumbly chickpea interior surrounded by a crispy exterior.
The hot sauce, however, may have been a bit too much. Halfway through my sandwich I suffered a serious attack of hiccups. It was a rare New York occurrence -- finding food that is almost too spicy for this Texan.

Next: Eleven Madison Park -- the best meal of my life?


Anonymous said...

You got falafel!!! *happy dance*

I love the comparison of WD-50 with Gravity's Rainbow. Perfect analogy. :)

Sounds like you had a great time! We're glad to have you back in Houston, though!

Anonymous said...

I can beat that. I stumbled on the famous L'As du Falafel in Paris by chance. It was so much better than falafel should be it was almost surreal. I might as well stop ordering falafel in Houston entirely (not that I ever do).

plinio said...

about brown butter. while at america's i served picarones (sweet potato beignets) with brown butter ice cream.

look for brown butter ice cream coming to you real soon ...

anonymouseater said...

sheeats - It's so nice to have at least one person who gets my oddball references.

misha - As Robb Walsh mentioned last week, Houston's style of felafel is different from what we see in most Western cities. Sadly, I just don't like the dense, sinks-like-a-rock style that is so prevalaent in Houston.

Plinio - I'll be watching. I still haven't made it out to the Woodlands. My wife insists that it is too far to drive. Hopefull, I will get to go out there soon.

Anonymous said...

I've been talking to an Israeli friend and this may have something to do with regionality. The falafel I had in Paris was made by Israeli immigrants, while most falafel in Houston is made by immigrants of Arabic descent.

Apparently even in Israel, where falafel is incredibly popular, there are differences between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem varieties (the latter being more moist and creamy).

So, if you want better falafel in Houston all you have to do is lobby Congress for higher immigration quotas for people from Jerusalem. Aren't you some sort of a lawyer?:)

anonymouseater said...

Somehow, I doubt the guys who run the All-Halal truck in New York are Israeli.

But you never know. In Tel Aviv, it seemed as though everyone selling falafel was an Israeli Arab. Sadly, I only ordered falafel once in Israel. It was pretty good.

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