Last weekend I made a totally spur-of-the-moment decision to go to NYC, which is how I found myself crammed into a corner table at Mission Chinese Food listening to a group of foodie hipsters talk about “the really authentic places in Flushing” and amusedly watching them try to eat vinegar peanuts with chopsticks. (Don’t try this at home, kids.)
This was my 2nd trip to Mission, the hole-in-the-wall SF transplant run by bleach-blond culinary madman Danny Bowien, he of the sk8r shorts and genius way with Szechuan peppercorns.
On first visit, I fell hard for the restaurant’s Twin Peaks fetish and mashed-up menu that mixes the best of old-skool Chinatown with a modernist twist.
Visit #2 found me on less of a ma-la high, mostly ‘cause I decided to order some underdogs off the menu. No mapo daofu for me (it’s as f’ing good as the hype) — I went for the smashed cucumbers (deliriously good) and the pork jowls with mint, black beans and stir-fried radishes.
The jowls were … solid. Not earth-shattering, but ok. For one thing, jowls are deeply fatty, and — thanks to some covetous eyeing of my neighbors Chongqing wings — I wanted something crispy and a bit more toothsome.
But sometimes you just have to recalibrate your expectations and go with it. (The Black Lodge — a demented concoction with Fernet Branca and grapefruit — might have helped me along.)
From MCF I headed over to the New Museum to indulge in some pure ‘90s nostalgia. Yes, I’m talking about “Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star,” a curious wormhole into 1993 — a year that’s hard to pigeonhole, but if pressed I’d describe it as a watershed when gender and personal politics in art became deeply intertwined.
The nascent Internet became an increasingly powerful tool to create communities and rally around like-minded ideals, including the creation of art. (One of the last copies of “The Thing,” an early art net-community BBS, is included in the exhibition.)
Highlights: Haunting portraiture by John Currin, Andres Serrano, Nan Goldin — all emerging talents at the time.
Most haunting of all? Felix Gonzales-Torres’ “Untitled (Couple),” a string of lights that bisects the room and casts white-hot reflections across all of the art hung around the periphery. (Gonzales-Torres is one of the many artists in the show whose career was cut short by AIDS.)
In the same room, Kristin Oppenheim’s fragile interpretation of the Beach Boys’ “Sail On Sailor” brought a kind of closure to the show as a whole.
I rushed up to the top of the building to watch the sun set over the Bowery, then zipped downtown to meet my cousin and his fiancée at her bakery on Clinton St. (got the grand tour).
They rushed off to a birthday party in Williamsburg and I rushed a few blocks north to WD~50.
If you haven’t heard of WD~50, it pretty much introduced American diners to the concept of “modernist cuisine,” AKA “sci-fi food for intellectuals,” or (for the less snarky among you) “using science to push the boundaries of what food can be.”
Almost 10 years old, WD~50 has lost some of its “young upstart” luster — but the restaurant’s menu still hits a satisfying balance between novel treatments of the familiar and comforting (“bone marrow,” popcorn soup, s’mores) and wilder flights of fancy (smoked duck with parsnip “ricotta”; cucumber gelée with chartreuse and pineapple sorbet).
I was alone, so I ate my meal at the bar, chatting with the trio of bartenders and jealously eying their lineup of rare and underutilized booze, including an incredible array of amari.
I started my meal with Rye Not, a perfectly balanced concoction of rye, blood orange and orange blossom water. Wines: a floral Sylvaner and a light, jammy Dierberg Pinot Noir. I finished the meal with a glass of Aveze, a rare gentian liqueur from France.
Restaurants with a reputation for intellectualized, complex menus often have somewhat aloof or diffident service. Too often places totally overdo it, hovering at the table or fussing over every last detail, to the meal’s detriment.
Not so at WD~50, which offered some of the most warmly unobtrusive service I’ve encountered in a high-end restaurant. Friendly-but-detail-oriented was the prevailing tone — from the hostess, bartenders and sommelier down to the guy who brought out my soup spoon.
I’m not saying it was a perfect meal. The punnily titled “pho gras” struck me as self-satisfied — the flavors just didn’t come together. For one thing, the broth wasn’t hot or rich enough to properly meld with the cool slab of foie.
And what to do with the lone chicarrone hanging out by itself with a small daub of sriracha? It felt incomplete, and I resented the onus being on me to figure it out.
Thankfully other dishes delivered in unexpected ways:
- The richness of the mushroom jerky served with the Wagyu flatiron
- The salty, chewy fried black olive puffs that enlivened the monkfish with red pepper oatmeal coulis
- The black sesame powder that brought a savory bite to the bright, beautifully presented passion fruit “tart”
- The genius combo of cucumber, chartreuse and pineapple.
I was having such a delightful time that I miscalculated and totally missed my bus, necessitating an overnight stay and a breakfast trip to Má Pêche. (Life is rough.)
On my next trip I hope to check out Wylie’s new venture, Alder, due to open later this spring.