Just before Wylie Dufresne’s legendary wd~50 shuttered last fall, Sam Mason—the restaurant’s one-time star pastry chef—visited for a final meal with the old crew. “It’s as if people were talking about me like I was dead while I was right there,” he recalls. “It was fun because I got to see so many old faces and cry and laugh with them, but it was a somber dinner. It doesn’t hit you until you see the sign coming down that it’s really closing. I’ve missed wd~50 every day since I left.”
That Mason feels blue over wd~50’s fate is no surprise. After all, he was on board from the very beginning, and it was there on the Lower East Side that the Jean-Louis Palladin disciple made his name with desserts as avant-garde and thought-provoking (banana-braised pineapple with mustard ice cream!) as Dufresne’s savory counterparts. But after three years, Mason grew restless and jumped ship to open his own venture, the cocktail-forward Tailor—an ahead-of-its time restaurant that might have fared better among today’s mixology-obsessed diners. His heady experimentation fueled a menu comprised of “salty” and “sweet” categories, which encompassed dishes like coriander fried sweetbreads and cornbread ice cream.
Even when the short-lived Tailor era ended, Mason’s creativity never waned; it just spawned a string of curious enterprises, from the gourmet shop Empire Mayonnaise, to a pair of relaxed Brooklyn bars, Lady Jay’s and Oak & Iron. It is OddFellows Ice Cream Co., however, that has garnered the most attention for its unorthodox flavors like Miso Cherry, Manchego Pineapple & Thyme, and Scallion.
I’ve missed wd~50 every day since I left.
“I like putting in things that shouldn’t normally be in ice cream,” Mason says. “It’s not even hot yet and already people are wearing shorts and lining up for ice cream.”
Despite his knack for offbeat flavor pairings, the Jacksonville, FL native says his obsession with desserts began with their aesthetic allure. “In the mid-1990s desserts were just more artistic. They were all architectural and shit and everything stood up 19-inches high,” he recalls. “Luckily, they came back down to the plate.” He’s also quick to confess he embraced the sweet path for another “lazy” reason: “The pastry kitchen was cooler; it just didn’t seem so sweaty. I don’t know if I would have done so well as a sauté cook.”
Such slothful motivation turned out to be a good thing, as Mason’s concoctions attract droves of ice-cream fanatics in both Williamsburg and the East Village.
From Palladin’s own wee-hours vat of risotto, to a whole-roasted bird dramatically presented in Paris, here are 10 of the dishes that fuel his wild imagination.
Ants on a Log
We were kind of a backyard family and lived in a crappy town with a hill that went down to the lake. My parents were sort of bohemian and super young when they had me; they were basically in their late 20s with a 10-year-old. We didn’t have a lot of elaborate meals, but we had oysters on the grill and ants on a log. I’m surprised how many people have no reference point for ants on a log. It must be a class thing. There’s just something about shoving peanut butter into a celery stalk that reminds me of those summers. Now I make a celery sorbet with raisins and peanut butter that I thought was a spontaneous concept, but probably isn’t. (Photo: paleorecipes.com)
Lamb Loin with Aged Goat Cheese at wd~50
Those first few years at wd~50, all the dishes we came up with—and how loyal we were to them—was mind-blowing. I was particularly enamored with the lamb and shredded aged goat cheese. The lamb was so perfectly cooked, both delicate and gamy, and the goat cheese was tangy and borderline aggressive. It made my knees buckle. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
Fried Mayonnaise at wd~50
We were trying to change the shape of food at wd~50, so we had this super-genius idea to make mayonnaise that could be heated and cut into deep-fried cubes. When it was right, it was like this little burst of tangy, creamy mayonnaise in your mouth. I probably ate 30 of those a night, which is why I had such high cholesterol and blood pressure. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
Bacon-and-Egg French Toast at wd~50
It was this awesome cube of brioche just soaked in rum, vanilla, milk, and cream, and it had some egg deep-fried in brown butter and served with brown-butter ice cream, raisin purée, hot-maple gelée, and crumbled-up bacon. I think it started because we were big fans of brunch. Wylie is an egg fanatic. We didn’t offer brunch service, so the meal always reared its head conceptually at dinner in things like our fake egg dish with a mango “yolk.” (Photo: degustingdiary.wordpress.com)
Jean-Louis Palladin’s White-Truffle Risotto
When I was Jean-Louis’ pastry chef [at Palladin] in Napa, my girlfriend was his girlfriend’s best friend. On any given Friday night he’d announce we were taking off and we’d change, jump into a Mercedes, and all drive to the Chateau Marmont in L.A. But there were also nights after service when he would make dinner for the girls and us at 1am. Watching that man make a pot of risotto was the most amazing thing. His face was so close to the hot chicken stock, and as he stirred and babysat it for 45 minutes, his Coke-bottle glasses would steam up. Then he would shave white truffles over it and we would just sit there and drink a bottle of port. (Photo: great chefs.com)
Snail Porridge at the Fat Duck
Wylie and I worked in the test kitchen of the Fat Duck for a while and got close with Heston Blumenthal. During that time we got to experience all that was the Fat Duck menu. Now the dishes don’t change very often, but how they are produced does. Seeing them evolve is super interesting to me. There was always an element of surprise to his cooking, like the nitro-scrambled egg-and-bacon ice cream with pain perdu, which maybe influenced my French toast more than I thought. Or, there would be two jellies side by side and the waiter would say one was beet and one was orange. You thought you knew them based on the color, but then you tasted them and realized one was actually yellow beet and the other blood orange. He was always doing that. One dish that made a particular impression on me was his snail porridge, because it’s just not something you ever see growing up in south Georgia and north Florida. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Chorizo-Cured Kampachi at Tailor
The miso-butterscotch pork belly is the first dish I came up with for Tailor, and it’s still one of my favorite things ever. I wish I could eat it often. Then there were the maple-poached snails with bacon, parsley foam, and toast. I must have had a pound of butter in me every day. What a disgusting human I was. But it was the chorizo-cured kampachi with sweet-potato cream and potato granola that was the least cost-effective item on the menu. I was out of my mind. (Photo: forums.egullet.com)
Alain Ducasse’s Whole-Roasted Bird
I went to Paris to work with Pierre Hermé at Ladurée and Jean-Louis made a phone call for me to have dinner at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant with an older woman who was one of his friends. Ducasse served us his white-truffle menu, which I think was $1,200 a person. It didn’t suck. One of the dishes was a whole game bird—some sort of capon, which was roasted in orange leaves and carved tableside. I’m sure they smothered it first with white truffles for no reason. It was my first time in France and I remember the theater of it all. Where I came from waiters didn’t do everything and here they were plating food with white gloves. Having such great control over the final product was mesmerizing. (Photo: culy.nl)
Prawns at Joyful House
Jean-Louis and I would go to Joyful House, this Chinese restaurant in Las Vegas, and eat Peking duck. But he would also order this tray of swollen prawns I think they saved just for him because of the broken Chinese accent he could use—and me, because I was usually in tow with him. They were these huge, pregnant prawns full of roe, simply sautéed with salt and pepper, and they were amazing. (Photo: joyfulhouselv.com)
Pasta at Lupa
I had this pasta at Lupa that was basically two ingredients: olive oil and cracked black pepper. Really, Mario Batali could make something taste like that with so little, I thought? That’s when I was like, I gotta keep my eye on this guy. I never get to fancy places like Del Posto anymore, but Lupa is on my short list. It’s where you can go have a late brunch on a Saturday. A shaved Brussels sprouts salad and big glass of rosé? That’s happiness. (Photo: Grand Life Hotels)