What a strange trip it’s been for M. Wells. Our story begins in 2010, when chef Hugue Defour and his wife, Sarah Obraitis, took over a diner in Long Island City, turning that forlorn Queens neighborhood into a destination.
Defour came to New York from that insane Montreal restaurant Au Pied do Cochon, where you’ll find a whole pig’s foot stuffed with foie gras; or a hunk of foie gras on a buckwheat pancake ladled with maple syrup. (We’ve been twice, and would happily go again.)
M. Wells was very much in this spirit, with its meatloaf for four, plates of veal brains, and “seafood cobblers the size of throw pillows” (said Sam Sifton, who awarded two stars).
It was never quite a fully-formed restaurant, as dinner was served only three nights a week: the small kitchen apparently couldn’t handle any more. Still, those three nights were enough to turn Long Island City into a world pilgrimage site. Then the landlord got greedy, and after just a year in business, M. Wells was forced out.
The following year, Defour and Obraitis opened M. Wells Dinette, a lunch-only restaurant located inside MoMA PS1, a branch of the Museum of Modern Art located in a former schoolhouse, just a few blocks away from the former diner. Pete Wells gave it two stars.
The Dinette was just a snack to tide us over for the main event, M. Wells Steakhouse, which opened in late 2013 after nearly two years of planning. Naturally, it’s in an improbable location: a former auto body shop that is unrenovated and totally unmarked. By now, this is all schtick: luxury apartments have sprouted up everywhere you look, including right across the street.
Inside, the 80-seat dining room is a smart mash-up of old and new. There’s plenty of exposed brick and garage doors made of corrugated metal, but chandeliers hang from the old industrial ceiling, and servers are smartly dressed in black vests and ties. Unobtrusive nick-nacks remind you of times long past, such as an old-fashioned ice box, used for bar storage.
The restaurant had some early stumbles. Plans to serve horse meat tartare were abandoned after animal rights activists complained. I’m not sure if rattlesnake and lion meat were serious suggestions, but they never materialized. Early reviews were mixed, including just one star from Pete Wells. More recent reports, including a Michelin star in the 2015 guide, suggest that M. Wells Steakhouse finally has its act together.
Much like Au Pied de Cochon and the original M. Wells diner, portion sizes are large, except when they’re enormous, and many of the dishes are totally incomprehensible without explanations, which the servers happily give (they must be used to it). Ever heard of the Solomon Gundy? How about the Dog Bowl? Or Duck in a Pumpkin? Me neither. Most of the dishes, in fact, are not steaks—although beef lovers certainly won’t go home disappointed.
There’s an ample raw bar, priced as low as $2 a piece (for Little Neck Clams) with assortments ranging up to $170. Appetizers and salads are $12–25, main courses $18–160, sides $8–15. The menu does not indicate which mains are for two, but it’s all relative, as almost any dish can be shared, which you might as well unless you have a lumberjack’s appetite. (According to Pete Wells, the Tomahawk, a steak for $160, could serve six.)
From the raw bar (where we were seated), there’s an appetizer called Barnacles & Butter for $15. We didn’t order that, but we were so curious about it that the staff member in front of us gave us two of the little critters (above left), so that we could taste them. Then it was onto the Solomon Gundy ($14; above right), an insanely good dish consisting of a potato waffle, pickled smelts, crème fraîche, and salmon roe.
We haven’t had anything lately as strange as the Curried Skatewing ($8; above), which comes in a jar, and is much better than it looks.
The server advised that after a couple of appetizers, the T-Bone Steak ($60; above) was enough for two people—and he was right. Early reviewers complained of inconsistent results from the wood-burning grill, but the kitchen got this one exactly right, a perfect medium rare with a smoky char.
Side dishes were probably unnecessary, except that I had to try a couple. Fried endives ($12; above left) come blanketed with black truffle shavings. The foie gras “gnocchi” ($15; above right; air quotes mine) are absurd, deep-fried and breaded, oozing with molten duck liver.
The restaurant was full on a Saturday night. The earliest online reservation we could get was at 9:45pm, but we decided to chance it at 8:00, and were seated almost immediately at the bar, where service was excellent. Neither the menu nor the wine list is online, an omission that a restaurant of this caliber ought to rectify. I believe the bottle of Etna Rosso we ordered ($68; pictured above) was a 2004, which the wine staff decanted for us.
The failure of the original M. Wells may have been a blessing in disguise. With the goodwill they built up in just a year of service, Hugue Defour and Sarah Obraitis got the backing to build M. Wells Steakhouse, which is a larger, more comfortable, and more ambitious place than the diner could ever have been. This one should last a while.
M. Wells Steakhouse (43–15 Crescent Street at 43rd Avenue, Long Island City)
Food: A steakhouse with French–Canadian technique
Ambiance: A former auto body shop, in fancy clothes