review: glutting… (m. wells)
I mean, surely there’s a point of diminishing returns, right?
I wasn’t about to test the limits. But, I had heard that everything at M. Wells, the “Quebeco-American diner” in Long Island City brought to you by a former chef of Au Pied de Cochon in Montréal, came with foie gras.
The bone marrow, for example, didn’t come with foie gras ($9). But it did come with snails, which I found odd, but delicious. The veal brains grenobloise also didn’t come with foie gras ($16). But it did come with crispy croutons, which I also found odd, but delicious. And there wasn’t foie gras in the soft-shell crab club sandwich either ($17). That was an odd one too, but also delicious, if not a little messy to eat.
But if it’s excess you’re looking for, there’s plenty of it here.
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It was recently reported that M. Wells will be closing its chrome time capsule on the corner of 49th Avenue and 21st Street in Long Island City in Queens later this month (August, 2011). So, I thought this would be a good time to insert my two cents on the restaurant, which I visited in May with a few friends.
There’s really not that much to tell here.
M. Wells aims its cleaver at the current, culinary zeitgeist of nose-to-tail largesse. And it hit its target squarely.
The food is big. The flavor is big. And the prices are big, although, to be fair, if you’re able to consider the food separately from the setting and service, the prices seem slightly less big. You’re certainly not paying for comfort.
The restaurant is currently housed in an old diner. If you’re not perched at the counter, or folded into one of their booths, you’re at a communal table with one or more other parties. It’s cramped. And, if you’re sharing a uneven bench with strangers who have a poor sense of balance, as I was, dinner can be a teeter-totter experience.
Waits can be long: even with a reservation, we were seated a healthy 45-minutes late (I spied GQ’s restaurant critic Alan Richman leaning at the counter, looking none too happy during a long wait).
Service was sloppy and slapdash, though upbeat and energetic. I mean, it is a diner, after all. But warm water out of the tap is never a fun beverage with which to chase down $40 plates.
And yet this sort of off-kilter experience charms many. M. Wells has, in its short, one-year life, collected a cult following (especially for its brunch service). Enthusiastic reviews have piled in from all corners, high and low. The New York Times even cited it as one of 10 restaurants “worth a plane ride,” a jaw-dropping hyperbole based on what I saw. My dinner at M. Wells was good. But it wasn’t THAT good.
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The food? Like everything else about the restaurant, it’s slightly kitschy, slightly whimsical, and slightly scary. But it was delicious.
Although many have described M. Wells as “French-Canadian,” the menu offered creatures of diverse cultural cross-pollination, an international fare done in the spirit of the American diner. There’s butter chicken on English muffin, for example – an Indian sloppy Joe, of sorts. And egg souffle with mushroom broth and bonito: chawanmushi by any other name…
The “BibiM Wells” was a hot mess in a tub, Korean comfort with nontraditional ingredients: gravlax, julienne carrots, scallions, avocado, sesame seeds, and an assortment of bivalves left on the half-shell arrived on a bed of sushi rice doused with Asian hot sauce ($30). Actually, it was more a chirashi than a bibimbop, wasn’t it? To this, we added foie gras (strips of terrine of foie gras) for $10 more.
We were instructed to mix it all up. And we did, after we shucked the bivalves and tossed the shells (why wouldn’t they come shucked already?) – these really didn’t belong; odd interlopers they were. But everything else about this dish was great – a creamy, tangy mix with a surprisingly authentic Asian feel. The strips of foie gras terrine were especially great – fine and smooth.
There was a lot of animal on the menu.
We had lamb kidneys with morels, coated with a viscous sauce more thickened than sweetened by honey ($16). These were excellent, though I found the texture of the sauce strange.
And we shared the Porterhouse of Pork, a fatty postcard from Hawaii, plenty for two or three. The boulders of deboned meat and caramelized wedges of pineapple were glazed with a syrupy cherry sauce and crowned with a slab of sauteed foie gras. The pork was incredibly tender, a wonderful shade of pink on the inside. And the glaze was great – sweet, but not too sweet. Sixty-five dollars seemed high, but the meat was top-shelf (Heritage Foods USA), and the foie gras was thick.
Amidst all of this sloppy, thick flavor was a pert salad of bitter greens and herbs tossed with buttermilk dressing ($6). It was simple, it was light, it might have been my favorite dish of the night.
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Desserts were just as oversized as the rest of the food, an equally diverse group of sweets.
There was Paris-Brest, that famous ring of French choux pastry.
There was a half-dome of buttery cake, drenched in syrup and topped with a wheel of “upside down” pineapple (there was no caramelization whatsoever) and maraschino cherry eyes ($7). It wore a fluffy mantle of whipped cream. It was very sweet. It was utterly forgettable.
And there was a fluffy slice of banana cream pie, whose flakey crust was so wonderful that it could have stood alone as a dessert ($6). The banana cream filling was pretty terrific as well, heavily freckled with vanilla beans. It’s too bad there was twice as much whipped cream as filling. It was also too bad that the layer of sliced bananas between the filling and crust were under-ripe. Banana cream pies should taste yellow, not green. This one tasted green.
The buttery wedge of maple pie ($6) was, perhaps, a bit burnt around the rim by some standards, but I liked it this way. It tasted just like French toast – an eggy custard with a toasty top. Not great. But not bad.
How will M. Wells reincarnate anon, as the owners Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis have foretold? It seems unclear this point. According to the couple, they will stay in Long Island City. And Sam Sifton, current restaurant critic of the New York Times, added in a recent Diner’s Journal post: “Their pledge is that it will be devoted to the same hapless, occasionally reckless energy of their first. Who knows if that is a good business plan. It certainly promises a great deal of fun.”
To see all of the photos from my meal, CLICK HERE.
21-17 49th Avenue and 21st Street
Long Island City, New York 11101
Edited to add: It is purely by coincidence that I published this post the night before this article by Alan Richman in GQ Magazine was released to the public. It does, in part, explain why I saw Richman lingering at the counter even though it was later apparent that his dining companions were in a booth. While I find the article’s title and cover photo to be tacky journalism, I do applaud the last six paragraphs.