Wylie. You mention the name in culinary circles and you get responses from "the shrimp noodle guy," to "demigod," to "what the hell is he thinking?" And the funny thing is I have not even given a last name. Wylie and I have become friends over the years, working as culinary sounding boards and a voice of reason now and again. In fact, Wylie was the reason I purchased and now will not let out of my sight a gram scale. Disclosure aside, I do not always get why, how, and what Wylie and really Sam, the pastry chef and integral part to the cuisine at wd-50, are doing. Though at the end of a meal or even a phone conversation I am full of questions, ideas, sparks and critiques.
These are our experiences.
The day before Valentines
In our time east I have spent three evenings at wd-50. The first was the day before Valentines Day. What they do not tell you is that while Valentines day is busy, the day before is equally so though restaurants do not always prepare for the onslaught of last minute reservations, walk ins and fellas needing to make good because they forgot Valentines day and needed to do something quick to unf*%k there relationships.
I did not know this and I can only speculate the restaurant did not as well. Mind you, the day we were dining at wd-50 was the day after the storm. The streets were slushy and we had spent all day in the city checking out restaurants and chocolate shops. It happened to be the theme of the day. We arrived early, about ten minutes to six and asked if we could take a seat at the bar. Our feet were soaking, it was getting chilly and all I wanted was a cocktail. The cocktails have a range, where each one relates to distinct personalities. We were coldly informed that we could not come in, sit at the bar, have a cocktail or even remain in the building until six when the restaurant opened. I asked again if we could just wait out of the cold and again was informed that the staff needed to have a meeting and that we should leave. And so we did. I was a bit perplexed because this scene did not match Wylie. A restaurant is in many ways an extension of its creators.
At seven we returned for our reservation. We had a Guinness at bar around the corner and griped about being thrown out in the cold. I guess we could and perhaps should have said we were friends of Wylie's but at the time in the moment it did not seem right. Unfortunately our evening progressed along the lines of our greeting. No, it was not a total disaster. But the restaurant, more precisely our experience was wrong. And I was frustrated.
It is very difficult to tell a friend when something is wrong or off in a restaurant. It is even more difficult when multiple things happen. Fate sometimes has a way of giving situations a push. I happened to run into Wylie as I was going to the bathroom and he asked how everything was going. I paused and mentioned the flat bread tasted off. His response was a bit expletive so I will not quote, though he explained he had been fighting with his sesame seed purveyor. Furthermore, he commented on the comedy of errors which were happening in the kitchen and this happened to ice the cake. I returned from the bathroom and explained my downstairs meeting to Aki and our friends. We all have had nights like that in restaurants and cringe at them happening again. In the meantime, our flat bread was taken away and was replaced with white sesame flat bread, the black sesame seeds were the flawed taste culprit, as well Dewey--Wylie's father and the floor manager--came over to thank us for pointing out the flaw and allowing them to correct the problem. And our meal progressed and concluded. I was disappointed, not because of the greeting and the culinary hiccups along the way but because it did not speak of what Wylie strives to create in terms of food, ambiance and experience.
March 2, My Stage
I arrived at the restaurant around noon. As I mentioned culinary banter is good and if you can do it face to face all the better. The restaurant was quiet, I had shown up an hour before Wylie said I should. I still get edgy and wanted to explore the ins and outs of the kitchen and experience the first hand workings of wd-50. I was greeted and shown where to change. When I came back upstairs I was given the task of cutting Asian pear triangles for a hangar steak tartare dish. No one really knew me. I was just another stage eager to work for free so that I could take away ideas and concepts that have taken months to create. And really I was. I am always looking for ideas, ways to make food better, cleaner, more efficient. I was there also to work through ideas. Sure I did menial tasks, but in doing so I was free to look around, ask questions and think. By the way, if no one did menial tasks there were be no food. The work has to get done. And Wylie's staff is equally open about ideas and sharing information. Sure I was a stage but if I asked how, why, what, when, where and who I was given detailed open responses. That was striking. The kitchen truly is a learning center.
I also had time to work on some cavatelli. Last year we made miso noodles a la chitarra. We served them with roasted foie gras and had many other thoughts for there uses. And I thought of miso gargenelli and other pastas as well. I over looked cavatelli. That is when I kicked myself when Wylie mentioned he had the thought of making miso cavatelli. Brilliant. I truly enjoy cavatelli-traditionally a ricotta based rolled noodle. I had made many thousands of cavatelli at the Park Avenue Cafe and even more at Keyah Grande where we used fromage blanc and goat cheese instead of the ricotta. So Wylie and I worked out a base recipe for miso cavatelli. To be honest, this is the first time I had scaled all the ingredients for a pasta dough and in the end was quite happy that I did. The cavatelli base was a good start and would take a few alterations but the base was solid. That is how we have white miso cavatelli emerging on our Spring menu. I look forward to seeing what directions Wylie takes with the cavatelli. And my day and night progressed in this manner, mixing minute details with menial tasks in an open forum. That is how the kitchen works and is able to break ground on many interesting ideas. This is also where I divulged the story of our meal. Wylie noted that our meal must have been pretty horrible if we had not written about it on our website. As I was rolling out pasta dough I explained our evening in detail. Wylie was verbally, visually and mentally upset, disappointed and frustrated. He said "that is not what we do here. I feel horrible and need to fix these errors." (I use quotes here though his exact words may have been slightly different.)
My second service concluded with me cleaning skate wings with the fish cook at 12 am getting them ready for the skate cake--a method in which the skate wing is layered in order to cut uniform slices of skate for consistent cooking and presentation. On this day I was able to be involved in someone else's world of making sure the small things were done well. I left the restaurant with a smile and a desire to come back for dinner with Aki.
April 14 Dinner
We were supposed to go to dinner at wd-50 earlier in the week but life changed our plans. In fact, we had to change our plans three times and were finally able to steal away for a quiet dinner just Aki and myself. We arrived at the restaurant soaking wet, the sky's opened as we were walking from the subway station. A bit of an ominous beginning to an evening though fate and superstition had the night off. We were welcomed at the restaurant and our coats were whisked away to hopefully dry. As we sat down I looked at Aki and said I need a cocktail. The menus were presented and I saw what I needed. A rum based drink with habanero infused cider and smoked maple syrup. Aki had a cocktail "The Royal Blush" with cherry puree, vodka and sparkling wine. I then took a moment to pop into the open kitchen to say hello. Wylie and I chatted briefly and then he asked what we were going to do for dinner? I asked if he would mind just cooking, and a smile crossed his face. We then discussed wine and we both concluded that white would go best with his food, at least for the beginning of the menu.
I returned to my seat to enjoy my habanero cocktail and the meal began. We started with a piece of tuna with powdered coconut, green mango puree and bell peppers. Tasty. I will write the whole menu in a separate presentation. We saw, tasted and experienced an array of dishes, only a few of which were on any written menu. The meal progressed and we were laughing and truly enjoying ourselves. We were there it seemed to enjoy our time and completely erase the experience of our prior meal. And we did just that. The only hiccup of the evening was that two thirds through the meal our service slowed. The kitchen faced an onslaught of orders and because of this the previous routine of getting a new dish every ten minutes slowed to twenty minute gaps. Is this a huge issue? Depends who you are and what is going on. We were in Wylie's hands and happily relaxed with our wine. But I mention this for several reasons. Wylie still works a station every night in the kitchen. That means he is both cooking and overseeing the entire dining rooms food from the the thick of the kitchen. That means when you eat at wd-50 Wylie is cooking your food. That means that when the kitchen is knee deep in orders trying to make the food perfect the chef is not only overseeing but cooking it as well. Aki and I have been in small restaurants where we cook everything. That is because we have been in remote locations in intimate settings, not New York City cooking for 90 to 120 people each evening. I had time as our meal evolved to wonder if the food and entire experience at wd-50 would be elevated to a new level if Wylie gave up the reigns of a station and created one of his own where he could finalize everything, no questions asked.
What I came away from my three experiences is that Wylie is manically passionate about what he does and puts on the plate. No it does not always work, service can slow the pace of a meal but overall he is to be watched and learned from. He is doing it his way and must be acknowledged for not letting the world at large knock him off course.