M. Wells Dinette
At MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101 (at 46th Avenue; map); 718-425-6917 (museum phone); momaps1.org/about/mwells
Service: Friendly and charming
Setting: Bright, airy space designed in homage to a school cafeteria
Must-Haves: French onion soup, Blood pudding, Bi bim wells
Hours: 12 to 6 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Monday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Cost: As little as $10/person before beverages for a solo meal, $25-30/person for a larger group
Grade: Cautious A-
In 2010, M. Wells Diner emerged in Long Island City, and before long it became something of a white-hot legend. The mom and pop-ish endeavor from Au Pied de Cochon vet Hugue Dufour and Queens native Sarah Obraitis commanded two-hour waits for eaters from Queens, Manhattan—even Brooklynites came hungry.
Critics heralded the arrival of a new gastronomic genius to New York's food world: "some of the most innovative cooking in the city," the Village Voice called it. Another: "It would be terrible to miss eating the food there for anything less than a catastrophe." That would be from the New York Times review, which awarded the place two stars in spite of a cloud of smoke one night that almost sent diners into the street.
Restaurants in New York receive this kind of mass adulation from time to time, but the draw to M. Wells was unique, to say the least. The food, a mix of diner staples, French Canadian odes to offal-strewn excess, and comically oversized share plates that included a burger for four, made for joyful eating. And it was earnestly inventive: a calculated excess that aimed straight for the pleasure centers, but also for something more. A French Canadian take on Korean bibimbap, bolstered with foie gras, was more than a gimmick at M. Wells; it was a delightful dish. Veal brains were served not just for shock value, but because they could be as delicious as any other part of the animal.
We visited M. Wells soon after it opened to scope out its breakfast, and again nine months later to review its dinner service. Both takes were favorable, though they hinted at something about the place that my own experience, and conversations with other trusted eaters about theirs, suggested. At its best, M. Wells was a riotous pleasure, but that wasn't always a guarantee.
The diner seemed almost circumscribed by its inconsistency: dishes great on one visit could be very off on another; service was usually generous and charming, but occasionally rushed, cold, and unprofessional. You rolled the dice a bit with M. Wells, and hoped you won, because when you did it was amazing, and when you didn't, you waited hours for a meal that left you confused and turned off.
And then fourteen months after it opened, M. Wells Diner closed. A rent dispute couldn't be resolved, the place disbanded, and M. Wells the legend went quiet.
It's now re-emerged in a new form, M. Wells Dinette, the new cafe of MoMA's PS1 also in Long Island City. The retro diner trappings have been replaced by a bright, airy space housed within a postmodern museum (the aesthetic theme is school cafeteria redux, which is thankfully not overdone). The menu is smaller, both in number of dishes and in terms of their size—not small by any means, but no megaburgers either. And it appears more focused and pared down. The mix of re-done French classics, Americana, and WTF dishes are all there, but they're a little less aggressively odd. And where you could get foie gras on practically anything at M. Wells Diner, the menu on our visit didn't have it at all (though the menu changes frequently, and rest assured there is foie gras elsewhere).
We know Dufour and his team can cook. But will this pared down menu and more focused approach make for a more consistently pleasurable dining experience? After our recent visit, we'll—cautiously—say that it can.
Take, for instance, the Headcheese ($8), a straightforward plate of thinly sliced charcuterie with sauce gribiche and tufts of frisée. Sometimes Dufour decides to make a simple plate of food and just do it right. And he does so here, to our great pleasure, with meat that summons just enough porky funk to cut through the egg- and herb-enriched dressing. There's chewy pork fat and creamy egg fat, and yet it's not a leaden dish.
And another classic, this one turned up to 11: French Onion Soup ($9), simultaneously so rich but balanced that it's an inspiration to lesser soups everywhere. Large chunks of ham are nestled within the onions, and the broth is more savory than most. Best of all: the melted cheese goes all the way down; we didn't realize just how much there was until it started to firm up and turn stringy—which, thanks to the cast iron pot the soup is served in, took about an hour. This is Dufour's cooking at its best: comically, delightfully bold, but all in service of flavors and experiences that other restaurants wish they could provide.
Many of the friendly, busy-but-attentive staff are veterans of the old M. Wells, and some of the dishes are too. Escargots & Bone Marrow ($12), one of the iconic M. Wells classics, is just as lovely as it used to be. The snails are garlicky and tender, the marrow rich and savory but hardly overwhelming. Spread the mess on toast and you feel almost as elegant as the black-clad artsy types who populate MoMA's galleries.
Another old favorite, the enormous Caesar Salad ($8), made with smoked herring in place of anchovies, is back, and it continues to deliver. Strong fishy flavors are the refreshing things at M. Wells, and this salad does manage to lighten a meal while hitting a sweet spot all its own. You have to dig through a half inch of fluffy Parmesan to reach the lettuce, which seems like too much of course, until you take a bite and realize it's exactly what's needed to keep the herring in check. Best of all, the romaine is crisp and almost buttery sweet.
It was a challenge at the old M. Wells to figure out just how much to order for a meal. Those super-sized "Big Dishes" weren't cheap, and sharing them alongside a more sensible Cubano for one demanded more logistical forethought and tableside knife skills than I wanted for a fun, casual meal. Dinette's menu is far more conventional: there are single-serving dishes and larger ones to share.
Of the former, you can easily come in as a solo eater, spend ten bucks on food, and leave quite happy. The French Onion Soup falls into this category; so does the Salt Cod Brandade ($10), a lighter, decidedly elegant dish that feels right at home in a museum cafe. Be sure to get a bite with all the elements together: sultry roasted tomatoes, neat leaves of parsley, and a forkful of whipped potatoes that sing fishiness, but don't shout it. This is a lunch you could take home to meet the parents.
Or you could say to hell with that and load up on some killer share plates, like a gorgeous Blood Pudding ($13) that's my new autumn champion. The brick of pudding, more intense pâté than bloodbath, is beautifully creamy beneath its charred crust, and comes studded with little nubs of crisped pork meat. Soft, tart-sweet braised cabbage and a surprisingly savory apple butter cut the richness just so.
The Bi Bim Wells is pricier at $22, but hey, it fills a ten by eight casserole, and the mix of soft sushi-esque rice, raw tuna and marinated raw scallop, pickled vegetables, avocado, and sweet Korean hot sauce had me picking with pleasure long after feeling full. Oh, yeah, and there's an oyster to shoot, and a poached egg yolk to stir into it all. It's messy and wild, and likely has Korean chefs and Japanese sushi snobs gnashing their teeth, which makes me love it all the more. Less recommendable is the Beef Cheek Stroganoff ($16). It's lovely cheek indeed, spoon tender and all, but the underseasoned sauce is rich to the point of gluey.
M. Wells doesn't consider dessert an afterthought, even if they don't totally nail it. A massive Paris-Brest ($15) for
two four to six doesn't have as eggy-crisp a pastry or as hazelnut-forward a cream as some others around town, but it's a solid pile of creamy bliss and a fitting end to an M. Wellsian meal. Pumpkin Tres Leches Cake ($10) has a near-savory spiciness, and floats in a crème anglaise because three milks just aren't enough. It's a nice thing, but we would have licked the bowl clean had it been served warm instead.
M. Wells the Diner is still gone. The old retro charm, and the glee that came from experiencing something so new and exciting, isn't present here. But neither, in our observation, are the Sisyphean waits (for now, anyway), or the potential for too much of a good thing undoing itself. This new space is still young, but very much worth paying attention to.
If M. Wells Diner was Dufour and Obraitis' grand experiment in a bold new restaurant, Dinette feels more like a precision strike, taking the best of the M. Wells experience and making it even better. It's an encouraging, exciting sequel, and given what we've heard about plans for another new restaurant, part of a greater story whose best days are still to come.