M. Wells Diner
21-17 49th Avenue, Long Island City NY 11101 (at 21st Street; map); 718-425-6917; mwellsdiner.com
Service: Friendly and pretension-free
Setting: A charming, classic diner car
Must-Haves: Venison jerky salad, Caesar salad, soup and grilled cheese, pork Porterhouse
Dinner Service: Tuesday-Thursday Cost: $50/person before beverages, if you bring a large group
Last summer, when we reviewed the breakfast at M. Wells, the fine diner opened by husband and wife partners Hugue Dufour (Au Pied de Cochon) and Sarah Obraitis (Heritage Meats), the food was markedly inconsistent. But at the same time, we recognized that there was considerable ambition and talent both in the kitchen and in the front of the house.
Dufour has a restless culinary imagination and is unquestioningly a notable young talent. The question was, could he harness and focus his talent for his dinner menu? When we returned to experience their dinner service, we were hoping for excitement, for greatness—and that's just what we found. It's so exciting to come across an original thinker.
Dufour loves elemental foodstuffs like big hunks of meat, eggs, offal, sausage, bacon, foie gras, and fat in all its glorious forms. He manages to prepare and combine them in ways that are strikingly original, powerful, and delicious. His food is not for the faint of heart—or brains, for that matter.
Take his oversized tureen of tomato soup ($28 under the Big Dish category, but it fed 8), which is so meaty and thick it's almost a smooth ragu. It was a great soup on its own, but when we dipped the accompanying grilled cheese sandwiches stuffed with foie gras into it, it was as intensely pleasurable a bite of food as I've had this year.
Diners have soups and salads, and M. Wells's salads (all listed as small dishes) were further proof of Dufour's huge talent: they are simple but inspired and more than occasionally brilliant. Caesar Salad ($7) was taken to unexpected heights with house-smoked herring dressing replacing the traditional anchovies. Want an even niftier salad? How about the Jerky ($12), which features shaved brussels sprouts and venison jerky. Even the obligatory green salad ($6) is anything but ordinary, with its sprightly and smooth buttermilk dressing and greens that were fresher than they had any right to be in March.
The Small Dish Menu also showcases that Dufour can do with ingredients conventional and not. Butter chicken ($16) came drenched in spicy yogurt on a house-made English muffin. It was messy, but deeply flavorful. Use the English muffin shards to soak up the excess sauce. Dufour does fine by that chicken, but he does even more miraculous things with other ingredients. Veal brains ($15) in a Grenobloise sauce were so intense, so, well, brainy, that you will definitely not say they taste like chicken.
Some of the "Small Dishes" aren't quite that; the Porterhouse of Pork ($17) is in fact a slab of tender, designer, humanely raised pig that could have used a better sear and a little more color—but the excellent fries and the homemade horseradish-y Luger's sauce that accompanied the pork more than made up for the insufficient sear.
What can one make of the BibiM Wells ($30), Dufour's take on the Korean bibimbap, that features razor clams, scallops, oysters, and for a surcharge, foie gras (let us not forget Dufour's tenure at Au Pied A Cochon)? Sounds weird, I know, but damn if it didn't come together beautifully as a plate of food, the Korean flavorings melding seamelssly with the foie and the seafood.
Let us not forget the M. Wells's hubcap-sized hamburger ($42): it's made with 60% beef clod (shoulder) and 40% lamb shoulder, and comes topped with a tower of onion rings spooled with a steak knife. We made good use of that knife when we cut the burger into eight pieces. The meat juices soaked the bun (in a good way) and were so tasty the flavor of the sharp Canadian cheddar on the burger wasn't obscured in the slightest. If you wanted a richer burger (totally unnecessary) I'm sure the kitchen would oblige a request for some foie gras on top. It's the kind of place that would.
Desserts are a mixture of homey, whimsical, and classic. Take the Party Mix Cheesecake ($8). It's a classic cream cheese cake with a graham cracker crust. Simple, straightforward, right? Not quite, not when it's topped by the favorite store-bought cookie of every cook in the joint. Maple pie ($6) is an obvious bow to the couple's roots, plenty buttery and sweet and maple-y, but missing some crunch. Paris-Brest was a well-made, over-sized version of the classic French pastry.
Carey Jones wrote this about M. Wells, now nearly a year ago:
To be sure, M. Wells has already achieved some aspect of their mission: elevated diner food in what is still, essentially, a diner setting. But we suspect that M. Wells has higher ambitions. Our servers' occasional admissions that some dishes weren't available, and others weren't as good as they should be, demonstrate a kitchen that recognizes its weaknesses. But it also shows a kitchen that's not yet ready for the spotlight.
Carey's review was spot-on, downright prescient, in regarding M. Wells's early service; the food we had then was always interesting, if occasionally flawed, and inconsistently executed. But we realized then—and are thrilled to see now—that Dufour had enough chops and heart and soul and a restless culinary imagination; he just needed some time to figure some stuff out.
And now that he has, eaters everywhere owe it to themselves to head to M. Wells to eat food that is equal parts interesting, thrilling, and earthy. The place, too, is a draw: a diner with a view (if you get the right table), a surprisingly ambitious restaurant cloaked in an appealingly emphatic informality. Dufour's food is not as technique-driven as David Chang's or Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone's, but at its best, it's just as exciting.