A Film Worth Buzzing AboutApril 17, 2011
Riffing on New York’s Culinary SceneApril 26, 2011
On the website for the Long Island City–based diner M. Wells, the home page bears the phrase “All’s Well at M. Wells.” As it turns out, the proverb upon which the restaurant’s clever motto is based is also an apt summary of my experience at lunch yesterday. Given that M. Wells has gotten a ton of positive press (and it is Holy Week, so a lot of people are off from work, and able to trek out to Queens for lunch), it’s not all that surprising that the place was packed. Even though the friend I was meeting got there at 11:45am, we ended up waiting an hour for our table. And it was not a calm hour. When I say that the seating-list management was chaotic, I’m being charitable. But the fact remains that once we sat down, all was well because our experience there ended well. Really well.
First off, full disclosure. M. Wells is run by the husband-and-wife team of chef Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis. Sarah and I go way back—we worked together at the environmental group Rainforest Alliance over a decade ago, long before I’d ever conceived of becoming a food writer. In addition to being a hard worker, Sarah is also a really likable person, so naturally I want her restaurant to succeed, but that’s not why I am recommending it. (Although I write about food, I am not a restaurant critic. If I pen something about an eatery, it’s usually in the context of a chef profile, an article on regional cuisine, or a travel guide for which I’ve recommended the places I liked most. If I’d hated my meal at M. Wells, I wouldn’t slam the joint; I just wouldn’t bother blogging about it at all.)
When I tell you that what we ate was wonderful, I mean that it was not only delicious (which is a completely useless adjective), but that the food also left me full of wonder at how well they pulled off each dish, especially given how slammed they were. The business cards describe it as a Quebeco-American diner, and the place is housed in an old dining car, but don’t let the architecture and decor fool you; when it comes to the food, M. Wells is a diner in the same way that Keith Richards is just some dude who plays guitar.
The Caesar salad—with an inspired dressing featuring smoked herring instead of anchovies—was quite possibly the tastiest Caesar I’ve ever had. It was also the lightest dish we ordered. (This is not a place for the diet conscious, but who wants to eat out with those people, anyway?) If the aged meatloaf sandwich served on French toast is available, you are required by the gods of gastronomy to order it. I am not kidding. Seriously, Thor—or whichever deity is in charge of lightning—will surely strike you down if you pass it up. The moist aged meat was perfectly balanced by the tart cranberry ketchup and the sweet pickles, and the pine nuts in the ’loaf were a nice touch, to say nothing of the French toast itself.
The bacon hash—a crisp hash brown and rich nuggets of bacon, topped with a poached egg and creamy hollandaise sauce—normally comes with Brussels sprouts, but in yesterday’s iteration, the cruciferous veggie was replaced with fiddlehead ferns, a lovely seasonal substitute that resembles the spiral of a snail’s shell.
The snails that came with the bone marrow were the real deal—tender, garlicky escargots, well matched by the fatty, unctuous marrow (and I mean unctuous in the best possible way), and topped with crisp breadcrumbs. My only critique of this dish is that the toasts served alongside it were too crisp for cramming into the hollowed-out bone and mopping up the oozy fat residue. (Not that we didn’t try.)
Most of the chefs I know hate it when diners take pictures of their food with crappy cell-phone cameras and then post the images on their blogs. I can understand their protectiveness, but I also hope they realize that most people who bother to take these pictures in the first place are folks who love what they’re seeing and eating. Any deficiencies in the photos on this page are strictly the fault of this author and her iPhone.
For dessert (yes, after all that food, we still had dessert…stop rolling your eyes…didn’t your Mama warn you they’d freeze that way?), we had the chocolate mousse, which I can only describe as the well-heeled love child of a moist, chewy brownie and a creamy pudding. I would tell you more, but it’s possible I blacked out at this point.
Because it was the middle of the day, and I had to go home and edit my novel (and by the way, I actually did do just that, though what I really wanted was to take a long nap), my friend and I opted for root beer and ginger soda instead of alcohol. This was a mistake. The beverages were fine, but the intensely rich food would’ve been even better if we’d paired it with the acidity of a dry wine.
Not to worry, though—there’s always next time. And let me assure you, there will be a next time.