M. Wells Steakhouse
43-15 Crescent Street (at 43rd Avenue; map), New York, NY 10002; 718-786-9060; magasinwells.com
Setting: The industrial gothic dining room used to be an auto body shop
Must-Haves: Solomon gundy, beef butter, wedge salad, pommes aligot
Service: Exactingly professional but low-key with a heartfelt, infectious exuberance
Compare To: American Cut, BLT Steak
Recommendation: Recommended with reservations. A good, often delicious restaurant trapped in a just-okay steakhouse, but great fun all the same.
You walk down a deserted street where the sidewalk comes and goes. In the more industrial sectors of Long Island City they don't plant many streetlights, and M. Wells Steakhouse, a restaurant in an auto garage in a sea of auto garages, doesn't lay out a welcome sign.
Stumble through the fog enough and you'll eventually find the side-entrance door. Inside is an open dining room and kitchen done in steel and red brick and black-trimmed wallpaper, a body shop gone industrial gothic that happens to be one of the most expensive restaurants in Queens. Why here? Today's Long Island City is defined by its new, gleaming condos as much as its commercial grunge, yet it's long lacked a fine dining restaurant to call its own. Now it has one that seats 70.
The M. Wells crew, led by husband and wife team Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis, started in LIC with a gleeful, delicious-yet-erratic diner that burned hot and wild before fizzling out due to disagreements with a landlord. Undeterred, they followed up with a destination-worthy cafe inside MoMA's PS1, a sequel you could call scaled-back only insofar as it doesn't serve a burger for four, just blood pudding for one.
Now they've set up a forward-thinking steakhouse that pays winking homage to the chop houses of old New York. The twist is that its greatest, most noteworthy features have nothing to do with the steak, which is competently cooked if ordinary. No, M. Wells Steakhouse honors its bloodlines by reviving and subverting all the side shows that its forebears left to rot.
So of course there's a Wedge Salad ($12), straight-up iceberg soused in a cool, barely sweet buttermilk dressing with bacon in crisp-chewy batons. But in this version, sad slices of cottony winter tomato are replaced by shards of tomato paste concentrated into brightly flavored crackers, space food designed by Alice Waters. There's a French Onion Soup ($14) so full of caramelized onions it leaves little room for broth, but hiding underneath that blanket of broiled cheese is a marrow bone, because clearly French onion soup isn't rich enough as-is. If it's a step down from the heart-stoppingly good onion soup served at M. Wells Dinette, it's a small one.
As with any M. Wells restaurant, much of the menu makes no fucking sense. "You probably have questions," our affable waiter began. "I am here to answer all of them." So we unloaded: Shrimp on shrimp? Beef butter? What the what is uni super royale? How is there a $12 lobster tail and a $50 caviar sandwich? And why does the burger have a bone in it?
He answered them all, kindly, without pretense, and for a brief moment I had a a crystal-clear insight into the cuckoo-clock genius that is chef Dufour's culinary intellect. Then warm, perfect pretzel rolls and nose-clearing mustard hit the table and I accepted that some food is meant to be delighted in first, contemplated later, once the afterglow has passed.
The jumps don't always work. Gougeres ($8) stuffed with excellent, not-too-salty taramasalata are a brilliant idea that could have used more brilliant cheese puffs. A fairly straightforward take on Coquilles Saint Jacques (here named Saint Fereol; $16) just proves the old ban on seafood and cheese right. And for all its ribbed tromp l'oeil, that Bone-in Burger's ($17) brisket and aged trim grind is undone by over-compacting, overcooking, and a flood of shallot jam and tartar sauce. Dufour's great talent isn't hairsplitting technique per se—it's transforming elemental foods into larger than life flavors. That's occasionally a problem for a menu more haute than his previous endeavors.
But boy, when the food is on, it's on. You can stretch the Pommes Aligot ($12) a foot into the air, so loaded are the spuds with butter and tangy cheese curds. No one else but Dufour would serve Solomon Gundy ($14) this way: a savory potato pancake cooked in a waffle iron, littered with pickled smelts that nestle into the waffle's notches like pats of butter, and topped triumphantly by a quenelle of crème fraîche and a fistful of roe. It's a dish borrowed from an alternate reality where diners are run exclusively by surrealists (o hai), and it's awesome.
None of this comes cheap, but M. Wells Steakhouse is not a casual restaurant. Weirdness aside, you come here to be pampered and doted on, and one of the restaurant's greatest assets is the low-key-but-totally-professional work ethic of servers who set the room aglow with their exuberance. In Long Island City—and most of Queens for that matter—there are few to no places to get the fine dining treatment alongside good food. Considering Brooklyn is still short on fancy-pants restaurants that seat more than a few dozen at once, Queens getting one is no small thing.
Though there's a glaring problem: the steak itself, which is good in an inoffensive way but alarmingly reigned-in for a Dufour restaurant or a New York steakhouse. Premium steaks have never been better, and these days an ordinary, good-enough steak just isn't good enough. Most of the steaks, including our T-Bone ($55), come from DeBragga's dry-aging facilities, but ours bore little dry-aged flavor. While the wood-fired grill left our steak with a great crust and meat correctly cooked to temperature, it tasted like food with training wheels compared to the rest of our meal.
So maybe it's best to bypass the big steaks in favor of a side called Beef Butter, a wee piece of especially fatty Kobe strip loin. It costs $25 and tastes like a cow sent through a car crusher and condensed to the size of a Metrocard. Bursting with the funky, mineral flavor of premium beef fat, it can and should be your steak for the evening. Trust me, you won't go hungry.
If you save room for dessert, know that the towering cakes ($11) caged in the dessert cart are for the most part toothachingly sweet. Better than them all, including a Sacher Torte ($11) that'd be great were it not for all the weeping in its crumb and ganache frosting, is the enormous Paris-Brest ($19) for two with crisp, caramelized edges and enough hazelnut-flavored cream to keep you smiling your whole trip home.
There's still so much I want to explore on the menu, from trout dispatched to order to that shrimp-on-shrimp to hey, what the hell, that $50 caviar sandwich. Because M. Wells Steakhouse, more clearly than any M. Wells before it, is a place to shout "to hell with it" and go for the splurge. That kind of glee is hard-won.