Molecular gastronomy - aerated ice cream, freeze-dried polenta and me
August 10th, 2010
11:00 AM ET
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Molecular gastronomy is a cooking practice that explores the application of scientific principles and techniques to food, often with weird, wild and wonderful results. AC360° Associate Producer Kira Kleaveland pursued her passion for new food experiences at chef Wylie Dufresne's wd~50 restaurant.

Sometimes food can take you on an adventure. The journey can be daunting and strange - an experience that challenges and changes your notions of the foods you've loved all your life.

I had a defining food experience recently. Not because it was the best meal I've ever eaten, or because I was celebrating a major milestone. It was because I had my very first experience in molecular gastronomy. This meeting of science and cuisine has been around for a little while, and I have had a foam or two in my fairly short life, I hadn't delved in deeply - until now.

My brother and sister in law invited me to dine with them at wd~50, recently named one of the 50 best restaurants in the world, and the laboratory of culinary experimentation for Chef Wylie Dufresne - who if you're a fan of Top Chef on Bravo like me, you may recognize as both a judge and "cheftestant." The meal was delicious, but what made it especially memorable was the innovation.

My appetizer, for example, was a play on a lobster roll - but with crab. The traditional hot dog bun had been put through a pasta press to flatten it before wrapping it around the crab so that it sort of resembled a spring roll. It was paired with a celery slaw of sorts, a bright green and very flavorful celery mayonnaise, and adorable, delectable mini salt and vinegar chips made from fingerling potatoes.

The menu at wd~50 consists of dishes listed simply as ingredients: cuttlefish, cashew, root beer, watercress or, say duck breast, apple, cheddar, kimchee-cous cous. This leaves quite a bit to the imagination, or to a thorough quizzing of the waiter. We decided to order without asking too many questions, instead choosing to be surprised when the dishes arrived. And surprised we were.

The root beer in my brother's cuttlefish appetizer was actually a root beer gelee - essentially sugar-cubed-sized blocks of root beer jello. They were fanstastic and I could have eaten an entire bowl of them alone, even minus the cuttlefish.

Next up - a cheddar consommé. My taste buds were rather surprised to encounter cheddar when I dipped my spoon into the clear broth. As I'm not a fan of that cheese, I wouldn't have ordered the dish and I couldn't figure out how the listed flavors would go together, but I decided to embrace the unknown. It might not have been my favorite dish ever, but it was certainly one of the most unusual I've ever eaten.

Sometimes the adventure of eating can be almost more fun than what the food tastes like. Almost.

My sister-in-law's venison chop entree came with freeze-dried sweet potato polenta, which was slightly crispy on the outside but soft in the middle and much more to my liking than standard issue polenta. I wondered whether they used liquid nitrogen, and whether I could get a hands-on lesson after dinner in freeze-drying.

The molecular aspect came out more prominently during dessert. Alex Stupak, the restaurant's pastry chef, used to work at Alinea in Chicago - one of the nation's premiere destinations for experimental cuisine of this sort. Our desserts were visual and gustatory masterpieces.

Unusual components abounded on all three plates: watermelon wire, watermelon molasses, fennel confit, tarragon foam.

The biggest highlight of the whole evening for me was the centerpiece of my dessert - aerated coffee ice cream.

Coffee ice cream has not only been my favorite flavor of ice cream since I knew what ice cream was, but also probably my favorite sweet. I've adored coffee ice cream longer and more fervently than I have ever enjoyed actual coffee. So when I saw coffee ice cream on the menu, I knew there was only one dessert for me. I was rather intrigued by the word "aerated" in front of it, a term I associate with soil and golf courses.

The plate arrived, and I let out a big "oooh, aah!" When I pressed the tongs of my fork into the top of the ice cream, they easily dented it and left a four-tonged impression. When I tasted the ice cream, I tasted perfection - at least perfection as my taste buds know it. It had the perfect rich and yet light flavor coffee ice cream should have and still the texture was a revelation. It melted in my mouth, almost like cotton candy. I loved it so much, I started making plans to learn to aerate asap, considering what I should try first. Maybe parsnip puree? I think it could work. Before you know it I'll be aerating all my food!

And so our evening of adventure came to a perfect, aerated, coffee-flavored conclusion, and my pursuit of further gastronomic adventures, of both the molecular and traditional, continues.

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Filed under: Bite • Cuisines • Molecular Gastronomy • Wylie Dufresne

soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Martha

    Kira, this sounds AMAZING! I would like to go to there! My favorite ice cream is at Frontera Grill in Chicago, Rick Bayless rocked my world with his raspberry-orange ice cream with warm goats milk caramel – that was my ice cream perfection. But this place sounds epic!

    August 10, 2010 at 6:14 pm |
  2. Fascinating

    This is something that's especially interesting to me as it's not something you're necessarily able to replicate.

    Plus, I must admit I'm something of a science fiction geek. It's nice to see food getting closer and closer to the futuristic concept of tiny colored squares that encompasses the entire meal.

    August 10, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
  3. MiraUncut

    Thanks for sharing Kira. I haven't been able to make it to wd 50, alinea or moto yet, SO, in the meantime, I play around with "chemicals" from my modest home kitchen and the alinea cookbook is like my This week i'm working on foams. I've always wanted to visit wd 50, its on my restaurant "bucket list".lol. I always post about my adventures if ur interested

    August 10, 2010 at 11:23 am |
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