A time-worn chrome diner in gritty Hunters Point has launched a veritable stampede of reverse bridge and tunnel traffic. Never before have we seen so much media attention lavished on a Queens eatery.
What is it that draws the culinary cognoscenti to what looks like a ’50s era greasy spoon? Gourmet comfort food. If a spoon is greasy at M. Wells Diner, its source is more likely to be foie gras or crème fraiche than traditional diner fare lubricants.
M. Wells was opened last summer by Hugue Dufour and his wife, Sarah Obraitis. Both its ambiance and menu are playful. The diner has been refurbished to its mid-century modern glory with touches like a sunburst chandelier that would do the Jetsons proud. Using his native Quebecois French cuisine as a point of departure, Dufour reinvents dishes by taking classics and substituting key ingredients to make them his own. His riff on Buffalo wings, for example, is “wings & feet.” He fries up chicken wings and feet, and then squirts on fluffy blue cheese from a whipped-cream canister.
The dinner menu is divided into “big dishes” and “small dishes,” in that order. At first glance, the big dishes seem wildly pricey, but they are intended to be shared. We found them very adequate for four diners.
Dishes are served in no particular order. Our server was amiable and knowledgeable, but the pacing of the meal was haphazard. The first dish to arrive was BibiM Wells, a cold version of the Korean standby bibimbap. Lush foie gras, succulent razor clams, shrimp, one perfect oyster (which we dutifully split four ways) and assorted veggies was drizzled with homemade ketchup and rested upon a bed of cold sushi rice. We scrambled everything together Korean-style and loved it.
Escargot and bone marrow was next to arrive. The tender gastropods were nestled in a bone cradle filled with marrow pureed with shallots and red wine, making it a delightful substitute for garlic butter. Butter chicken, served on a homemade English muffin, had the feel of English comfort food — not as challenging to the senses as the Indian variety, but still with plenty of flavor.
Sauce grenobloise is usually associated with fish or seafood. Here the twist is to serve it over veal brains. The brains, crunchy on the outside and creamy within, melded wonderfully with the capers and crunchy mini-croutons in the lemony sauce. Caesar salad was made new again by replacing anchovies in the dressing with smoked herring.
Salmon coulibiac, which we expected to be the piece de resistance of our meal, did not measure up to our expectations. The concept was beguiling, but the execution was wanting.
A classic coulibiac usually involves salmon or some other fish and fish mousse wrapped in pastry and baked. In this case, the pastry was filled with salmon and dill pesto, an interesting alternative. The coulibiac was served over smoked crème fraiche and garnished with batter-fried pickle slices, all great concepts.
It looked gorgeous, but sad to say, the pastry was underdone and slimy inside where it met the filling. It held so much promise that we hope they keep it on the menu and perfect their technique.
The homemade desserts, on the other hand, are worth every calorie. We tried a lovely slice of maple pie, which resembled chess pie with a pronounced maple flavor, but it paled in comparison to the pastry of our dreams — the Paris Brest. In a traditional Paris Brest, pâte à chou (cream puff pastry) is piped in a ring, baked and filled with crème patisserie. This is all true here, except the pastry cream was hazelnut-flavored and spectacular. This dessert deserves the OMG rating.
The Bottom Line
Leave your brother-in-law who just had a triple bypass at home when you visit M. Wells. The menu is enough to give a cardiologist a heart attack. This is a place to temporarily put aside health concerns and enjoy some culinary debauchery. It may harden your arteries, but it will gladden your heart.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
21-17 49th Ave.
Long Island City
Price Range: Big Dishes to share $35-$150, small dishes $6-$35
Cuisine: Quirky gourmet comfort food with a French accent.
Setting: Restored ’50s diner.
Service: Friendly, knowledgeable
Hours: Brunch 10 a.m.—4 p.m. Tues.—Sun., Dinner 6 p.m.—11 p.m. Tues.—Thurs., Closed Mon.
Reservations: Recommended for dinner
Alcohol: Wine & Beer
Credit Cards: Yes
Noise Level: The recorded music, played loud, tends to be annoying to older folks
Handicap Accessible: No. Stairs leading to entrance.
©2011 Community News Group
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