NYC: Menu Design And WD~50

The restaurant-rattling news that chef Wylie Dufresne was changing the entire menu at his downtown New York City restaurant, WD~50, may have caused heart palpitations to some of his devotees, who have worshipped his brilliantly constructed (and deconstructed) dishes that have pushed to the outer reaches of the molecular gastronomic frontier. But it was also a cause for celebration. After nine years, Dufresne felt it was time for a change. Time to reload. It's like Keanu Reeves going to that weapons closet in The Matrix. The thought on everyone's mind: What's Dufresne going to cook up next?

Of course, what's most important is the food. But, as part of Food Republic's series on menu design, we had a chat with Dufresne about his feelings about the meaning of a restaurant's menu, in general, before the big change.

One of the more popular trends in restaurant menus has been farm-to-table sourcing, in which patrons can read about where each and every ingredient comes from. Alice Waters' Chez Panisse started this movement decades back. There's an expectation there that informed people want to know more about where their food comes from.

A similar trend is what we'll call the serious menu, which speaks seriously about the food to people who are serious about their food. For example, Thomas Keller's French Laundry menu can sometimes read like the index to a French Deconstructionist's dissertation (like the Jidori Hen Egg "En Cocotte," featuring Sacramento Delta Green Asparagus, Morel Mushrooms, Wild Ramps and Sorrel Veloute).

Sounds good, but there's another way to tell the story. A simple way. "Our approach is fairly straightforward, without a lot of fanfare," Dufresne says. "I'm not a fan of the long descriptions. There's a lot going on here with the food and the design of the restaurant. I don't want the menu to be another element."

It makes sense that Dufresne's molecular gastronomic genius is best presented in simple prose, without trying to pull back the curtain. This is a guy famous for the most confounding concoctions, so his simple menu is a way to ironically downplay the experience. And the chef believes that going to a restaurant should be a "discovery process" so he doesn't want to remind people that he's serving Farmer John's chicken and Farmer Bob's potatoes. "There's nothing wrong with that," Durfresne says. "I just don't see much point. Once you commit to a level of restaurant, you have the right to assume we are sourcing our food responsibly. We are getting them [like eggs from Knoll Crest Farm] from the same places."

At WD~50, Dufresne maintained basically the same menu layout and verbiage for nine years. There were eight appetizers and nine entrees. No dish took more than a line of space. "We give the three to five major components of each dish to show flavor combinations and potential allergens, but we don't give away technique."

One of the goals of a menu is to encourage balance. You don't want everyone at the table ordering the pork ribs — that's not good for the guys working the line in the kitchen and it's less interesting for the diners, according to Dufresne, who, like all chefs, lays out the menu with the intention of helping guide his patrons.

Reading through the appetizers, you may not even have noticed the prosaically titled "Eggs benedict," tucked into the third spot. "That's my 'Stairway to Heaven,'" he says. "So I'm burying it."

His best selling entrée, not surprisingly, was the one that came first: the Mediterranean bass, a name for bronzini, or sea bass, that Dufresne thought had a better ring to it. That dish was in the pole position, so everyone noticed it. In fact, Dufresne considered bumping the smoked char up, because it didn't sell as much.

Not everything goes according to plan. Dufresne thought that people would "go ga ga" for the Manhattan clam chowder and tile fish, so he practically hid it, like the eggs benedict, but it underperformed.

Up until now, Dufresne resisted changing the menu. "Writing these dishes is like writing a song," he says. "You can't do it new the next day."

But even the best songs can get a little tired. And so, Dufresne threw the baby out with the bath water and, last week, he debuted an entirely overhauled menu. But he promises his basic menu principles haven't changed. "I want the menu to be simple and clean," Dufresne says. "And the food itself to be the story."

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