M. WELLS -- Canadian Culinary Craziness in Queens
The Canadian culinary migration to New York City is finally upon us. In the past, we have raved about the brilliant, tiny Montreal Jewish Delicatessen, MILE END, and their Smoked Meat on Rye. Those of us who can bear the wait to get in the door are so fortunate to be introduced to the food of a cultural enclave about 350 miles due north of us here in Brooklyn, that is not unlike our own, but different enough to make it interesting. Now, Hugue Dufour, a Quebec native who has a whole lot to say with food, and his wife, Sarah Obraitis, from Queens, are creating a ruckus on the edge of Long Island City in an old train car diner, at the mouth of the Midtown Tunnel, just over the Pulaski Bridge from Greenpoint, at M. WELLS. Tunnel traffic aside, this ‘Quebecois-American’ diner sits on one of the most desolate pedestrian intersections in the city, yet within its narrow walls of weathered chrome, a vibrant and exciting universe is created by this madman from the North and his lovely wife from the neighborhood.
(photo of M.Wells via jeroxie.com)
The dinner menu at M. Wells reads like none other in town. “Big Dishes” offer hearty, gargantuan compositions that change regularly. “Small Dishes” are generally more manageable. Every dish packs a surprise of some sort, whether it’s Lobster Butter on Corn-on-the-Cob (or “Corn Party” as it states on the menu), or Coffee ‘Sabayon’ (foam made with egg yolks) on the freshly shucked Beausoleil Oysters. The Burger weighs over 2 lbs, and is served on giant brioche roll, which is to be cut in quarters and shared amongst friends. This seemingly excessive and absurd offering actually reflects the whole vibe of the place. Dufour is making this stuff up and challenging the adventurous diners to join in the fun and order bold, daring food that we couldn’t possibly imagine without seeing and tasting it for ourselves. Chances are that whatever it is, it probably won’t be on the menu next week, for better or for worse, which may actually be the whole point. M. Wells beckons us to return, even if we don’t always love the food we order. It’s quirky and charming and boisterous and odd, and it takes risks, which inevitably leads to small failures as well as great successes, and everything in between.
(Beausoleil Oysters with Coffee ‘Sabayon’ photo via nycfoodie.com)
With experience, we hope that we may be able to navigate M. Wells more easily on future visits. It should become easier to pick out the hits and dodge the misses, and maybe we’ll have a better sense of what to expect when we read the menu next time. This would be nice, but it seems unlikely. Other than knowing that the huge burger and a small plate of Escargots and Bone Marrow will be available, there is no telling what M. Wells will be serving on a given evening. Even after reading the menu, we may think we have some idea what to expect, but we are usually wrong. It is likely that Dufour’s take on the Korean rice casserole, BiBimBap (‘BeBiM.Wells’) will be on the menu, but the ingredients vary depending on what shellfish, foie gras or offal he has at his disposal. Dishes range in price from single to triple digits, and feature local, seasonal ingredients and Dufour’s inimitable sense of whimsy. Some are small enough for an appetizer for one, and others could feed four people easily, yet little of this is usually obvious or evident from reading the menu. Alternatively, if you call ahead and make a reservation for four, you can request the three-course Peking Duck Dinner for $150.
The food certainly benefits from some Asian inspiration and it is presented on an almost satirical American scale, however the overall culinary tone is unquestionably “French Canadian.” Without even really knowing what that means in terms of food, there is something about M. Wells that evokes the image of the ubiquitous Quebecois snack, Poutine (French Fries smothered in brown gravy and cheese curds), not because they serve the dish (which, ironically, they do not), but because of its literal translation in English, which is “Hot Mess.” This manic diner could certainly be called a ‘hot mess,’ in the best possible sense. Hugue Dufour, who is unmistakeably Quebecois, brings so much of his personality to the restaurant and to the food. His flavors are bold, his presentation is HUGE (not unlike his name), and he is forward and generous, not only with his cooking, but with his wine, which he has been known to pour freely, and his forward wit…he told our raucous neighbors as he delivered their first course, “I have to feed you because your table is very loud!” Dufour’s frenetic energy is balanced perfectly by the calm, confident presence of his wife, Sarah, who somehow maintains order between the onslaught of hungry hopeful patrons and the chaos of the kitchen, which runs wild on the other side of the diner counter. Something about this bizarre formula, or lack thereof, must be working because everyone is talking about these guys these days, and foodies from far and wide seem willing to wait for hours to experience Dufour’s Quebecois culinary carnival.
(Photo of Hugue Dufour via ‘Edible Queens’ ediblecommunities.com)
In today’s NYC culinary scene, M. Wells has definitely become a destination, and it is surely an experience worth having. It also has that ‘je ne sais quois’ that will probably keep us coming back just because its different from anything else and we like the vibe and the sense of adventure. Unlike some shockingly delicious restaurants, like TRAIF, which we raved about in our last post, where we are compelled to return because we have been dreaming about their pork belly since we last tasted it, M. WELLS attracts us to the fun and the fanfare, and the unpredictability of it all. General Tso’s Sweetbreads are a delicious surprise to the palate, and we had never tasted them, nor had we considered their existence before they sat before us on a hot dog roll at M. Wells, but as much as we enjoyed them and their crispy rich spicy sweetness, and as much fun as they were to eat, we won’t be thinking about them day and night and yearning for them in our sleep…which is fortunate because they may or may not be on the menu next time. Like the enormous hamburger, this sandwich also sums up the spirit of M. Wells — it’s a place to come to eat because you might get to try General Tso’s Sweetbreads for the one and only time in your life.
(General Tso’s Sweetbreads Sandwich photo via ‘EdibleQueens’ ediblecommunities.com)
For the main event, we went for the highest priced item on the menu, which was, oddly, the Chicken Wonton Pot-au-Feu for $75. In hindsight, the Saddle of Lamb, at twenty bucks less, would probably have been a better choice, but the Pot-au-Feu came with a healthy helping of madness and high drama. The classic French preparation is usually more like beef stew, its name literally meaning “pot-on-fire.” Instead of using beef, Dufour basically stuffs a whole chicken with rock shrimp and wonton wrappers and boils it in a pot, adds some fresh haricots verts, bok choy, cabbage, corn-on-the-cob and ramps, and serves it whole, bathing in the rich broth, complete with head and feet, stabbed violently in the breast with a steak knife skewered through a poached egg, gruesomely decorated with hot sauce at the point of entry.
(Chicken Wonton Pot-au-Feu. Photo by THE BROOKLYN GLUTTON)
The broth was rich and delicious, but all in all, it was very elaborate and expensive chicken wonton soup. It really is unforgettable though, and the leftovers made the kitchen smell great when reheated. It isn’t the chicken soup that is going to lure us back to M.Wells, however. It will be everything we didn’t have. We still wonder about the Escargot, the Caesar Salad with Smoked Herring Dressing, and that Saddle of Lamb, which was probably extremely delicious, and he’ll probably never make it again…and of course, the Lobster Roll, if we could get there before they run out next time. Perhaps the safest and most civilized route to take next time, and the path that one would most expect from The Glutton, would be to make the reservation for the Peking Duck Dinner. According to a great article about M. Wells in the last week’s “New York Magazine,” (nymag.com), the reason they make Peking Duck is because the diner’s previous occupant was a Chinese Takeout place, and the Peking-duck roaster came with the establishment. Conversely, one of the many differences between the two restaurants is that the former owner never thought to put foie gras in the fried rice.
(M.Wells owners, Hugue Dufour & Sarah Obraitis. Photo via chrisabraham.com)
Speaking of next time…M.Wells is a meal that one should plan for, as going on a whim can be hit or miss. This isn’t a block that gets a whole lot of foot traffic, so you probably won’t happen upon it unless you are heading for it. You can start off simple—brunch is a somewhat less extravagant affair, occurring every day except Monday from 10a-4p, but dinner only happens THREE nights a week…Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 6p-11p. It makes a certain amount of sense, actually. The physical space probably couldn’t survive a weekend of dinner service, and neither could the kitchen or waitstaff. Come to M.Wells when you’ve got some time to kill and you’re feeling adventurous, and bring a friend or three. Come with your appetite and your wallet, and leave your expectations at home. You’ll probably have a great meal, and even if you don’t love everything you order, you’ll probably be back for more.
(photo via mwellsdiner.com)