Walking into wd-50 early Monday evening, you couldn’t help but notice the distinct stillness.
It felt almost like entering a temple — the air was plump with reverence, laced with frissons of anticipation.
The dinner about to happen wasn’t just any dinner, after all — Michel Bras, one of France’s most highly regarded chefs, was manning the kitchen for just one night. And New Yorkers had been working themselves up into a lather over trying to get in.
Having had the good fortune of seeing the announcement of this dinner the moment Eater.com posted it (and also being in possession of fast fingers and a cellphone nearby), there we were, quietly filing into the dining room — hungry.
The meal that lay before us was a nine-course vegetarian tasting menu. Bras, a three-star Michelin chef, has made his name on dishes with inventive treatments and combinations of ingredients — powdered fruit, crushed seeds, sprinklings of whole flowers for added flavor — that are carefully orchestrated to taste anything but pedestrian. (It’s also worth noting that Bras, who also has a restaurant in Hokkaido, is also known for dishes that are presented with a tinge of Japanese artistry.)
Now, in his little restaurant overlooking Laguiole, a picturesque town in
the mountains of Aubrac in southern France, fresh fruit and
vegetables that grow wild in the region are the stars of the dishes. In New York, Bras applied the same strategy to his menu — from the moment he arrived three days before, he’d been scouring the city’s greenmarkets to come up with this meal after seeing what produce he could find, according to our waiter. In fact, Luc Dubanchet, one of the organizers of the meal along with three others featuring other French chefs at David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants this month, told the New York Times that Bras said he is “incapable of doing it any other way.”
And so it was that we arrived with open minds and eager stomachs.
The restaurant was quiet when we arrived, save for the kitchen.
From what we could make out of the flurry of activity, wd-50 owner Wylie Dufresne was in the fray, actively helping Bras and his chefs. We thought we briefly spotted David Chang in a corner–if it was him, he didn’t appear to play as much of an active role.
As for Bras, he was personally plating several of the dishes — and hovering very closely when he wasn’t.
These wouldn’t be the only chefs in the building that night. As the evening progressed, one after another, recognizable faces started filing in: first, Tom Colicchio arrived, prompting Dufresne to emerge from the kitchen to greet him. Then, Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin showed up, also stopping by Colicchio’s table to exchange hellos.
Just when we were trying to figure out whether that was Jean-Georges pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini we spotted, Jean-Georges Vongerichten himself walked in, also stopping for a moment to chitchat with Colicchio.
And just when we were wondering aloud whether this was a bad night to be dining at a big-name New York restaurant since all the head chefs were at wd-50, George Mendes, whose restaurant Aldea received an incredibly favorable review in the New York Times just months after it opened, walked in.
Clearly, this was the place to eat that night.
The first thing to arrive at our table, along with the first of our nine beverage pairings (a 1996 Doyard Brut champagne), was a box of artfully displayed thin papadums.
Our first dish, which our very helpful waiter, Andrew, instructed us to eat with our hands, featured three uncooked lima beans that were meant for dipping into fromage blanc and then coated with a mixture of toasted breadcrumbs and cardamom.
The breadcrumbs were pretty heavy with cardamom but the combination of sour, milky and spicy coupled with the super crunchiness of the beans worked well. I could have eaten three more of these.
Next came a dish that Bras is particularly known for — a gargouillou of young vegetables, grains and herbs. Gargouillou is a traditional potato and ham dish served in Aubrac — the version that Bras does is created solely with vegetables and flowers.
Not that you would have guessed from tasting it — the vegetables were so meaty and flavorful that they almost had the mouthfeel of pork. And the “fennel milk” that was drizzled over the jumble of parsnips, olives, peppers, okra and radishes added a lovely sourness to the dish.
Apparently, Bras first fries up some ham in the pan, removes it and then cooks the vegetables in its juices, which explained the salty, meaty taste.
About midway through, we found something else that explained the meaty taste — one stray sliver of ham. Not that we were complaining.
The 1996 champagne, too, was paired with this course.
Our third course was one of my favorites — a sweet red pepper stuffed with scrambled eggs, eggplant and bits of garlic croutons, served with a mussel vinaigrette, arugula and the littlest mound of black olive powder.
The soft but firm red pepper was both spicy and incredibly sweet — paired with the salty mussel vinaigrette and topped with the added intensely salty flavor of powdered olives, it was truly unusual. I’d never tasted anything quite like it.
The pairing of a very floral and sweet, 1994 German riesling (Riesling Spatlese Auction ‘Saarburger Raucsh’ Zilliken 1994) with this dish was also sheer brilliance.
Just when I thought I’d found my favorite dish, my true favorite of the evening appeared: greenmarket beets done a few ways. There was a whole beet topped with crunchy sticks of striped beets, pureed roasted red beets topped with julienned sour apples, a small roasted pear.
Andrew the waiter explained that the seeds had been left in the pear to give the dish the added almond-like flavor from biting into and consuming the seeds. A very strong-flavored orange powder and drizzles of prune seed and almond oil finished off the dish. Truly outstanding.
When the next dish appeared, I was skeptical. This jumble of cabbage leaves, Chinese broccoli, dinosaur kale in a toasted barley sauce looked like something my mother — a self-confessed klutz in the kitchen — would whip together for a simple family meal.
The combination turned out to taste anything but simple, however — the toasted barley sauce certainly was unusual and gave a sweet sourness to the super crunchy greens.
And the finishing touch of a dab of the super-sweet licorice powder elevated the vegetables the level of candy. Again, this was an incredible combination of flavors I’d never experienced — candied kale…who would have thought it would work?
The pairing of a smooth sake with this course was just perfect.
The next course was so-so — peas several ways, involving yellow peas, sweet peas and sugar snaps paired with milk skin and what looked to be a cracker at first glance but was actually a thin slab of bread crumbs in brown butter.
The peas were a little too soft for my liking — had they been overcooked on purpose? I couldn’t tell.
But the very creamy milk skin and brown butter breadcrumbs, which we decided must have involved at least a pound of butter, more than made up for the lackluster peas.
Again, the wine pairing with this dish was brilliant: a 2006 Willamette Valley rose “Cuvee Contraire’ Belle Pente.
For our final savory course, what looked like a little hockey puck showed up. This turned out to be a bed of parsnip puree slow-cooked in a ham emulsion, topped with a mound of black truffles and capped with a sliver of celery root.
The truffles were delicious but this dish wasn’t the strong finish we had quite expected.
The desserts, however, were anything but disappointing.
First, there was the pumpkin tart, featuring pumpkin cooked in simple syrup and coffee mousse, circled with a sliver of pumpkin and cupped in a meringue. Paired with hazelnut oil ice-cream and sprinkled with a powder that was a reduction of cocoa and caramel, this dish was divine.
It disappeared very rapidly.
So, before we knew it, we were onto the finale of the night — a crispy potato wafer sandwich generously filled with a mixture of brown butter mousse and salted butter caramel.
Let me tell you, every one of the several thousand calories I’m certain were in this was completely worth it. The buttery, salty and sweet filling was a sublime blend of flavors that I now believe all desserts should have.
As soon as we set down our forks, a sense of sadness washed over us.
But as we lingered over our final sips of the Commandaria St. John Keo NV, a sweet wine from Cyprus, and reflected on the meal, we felt we’d learned something that evening.
This dinner, it had done what truly great meals do: it introduced us to flavor combinations we’d not sampled. The taste of basic vegetables and fruits had been elevated in ways we’d not imagined.
I’ll never look at a beet the same way again. And I’ll forever be disappointed if a sweet red pepper appears on my plate and doesn’t come stuffed with scrambled eggs and slathered in mussel vinaigrette.
But if Michel Bras has forever ruined basic vegetables for me, then, so be it.
Bras, Route de L’Aubrac, 12210 Laguiole, Tel: 05 65 51 18 20, http://www.michel-bras.com/index-en.htm
wd-50, 50 Clinton Street, New York, N.Y., Tel: 212.477.2900, http://www.wd-50.com/