They could have gone anywhere, after the adulation their previous ventures received, but Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis stayed loyal to Queens.
Their original rundown diner may have been just what they were looking for at the time. Their next American enterprise (the pair are French Canadian), Dinette, the café at MoMA PS1, may have been an opportunity that presented itself. But as the darlings of this town’s gastrogeeks, they could have moved their new steakhouse anywhere, including across the river. But we are delighted to say they chose to stay in Long Island City, unless getting away is what they’re building a catamaran in the adjacent lot for.
M. Wells Steakhouse’s just oozes cachet. The first telltale sign is that there is no sign, unless you count the one that says “Collision Inc. Body Shop—Specializing In Foreign & Domestic Cars.” You enter the re-purposed garage through a small courtyard on the side. The industrial chic interior manages to be appealing, even with its many metal rolling garage doors left in place. The ceiling is wallpapered in a showy pattern, enhancing several pre-existing skylights. The gorgeous open kitchen inspires longing in all chef wannabes. The bar area boasts a tankful of trout waiting to be sacrificed for your dining pleasure.
The menu, while possibly not as playful as M. Wells’ earlier endeavors, still exemplifies Dufour’s iconic approach to gastronomy. The dogs of Queens must be howling in protest that he’s making bones such a sought after commodity, because marrow appears not only in his signature escargot and marrow dish, but is also included in an otherwise classic French onion soup, not to mention the bone-in burger. There is a wine list that is both prodigious and pricey, and a sommelier to help you decipher it. The menu is mix and match, and you could as easily put together a satisfying meal from the raw bar, with the apps and sides going traditional. The edgy stuff is balanced with the familiar.
Geoduck, from the raw bar was served “peacock style.” Impossibly thin slices of the bivalve fanned out in a semicircle with a corresponding fan of watermelon radish slices completing the circle. A dollop of green tomato chutney loaded with coriander, added flavor to the bland silkiness of the mollusk and formed the body of the peacock. This dish embodied the Japanese sensibility of eating with your eyes as well as your mouth.
The onion soup was everything French onion soup should be, and more. The more was the marrow bone planted in the center with a miniature spoon for scooping the goodness. The lobster roll was generous, delicious, and well-priced ($16) for what it was.
The Caesar salad was workmanlike, but surprisingly ordinary for this venue. The gnocchi, on the other hand, had a surprise in the middle—foie gras. The gnocchi were roasted rather than poached, giving crispness to the exterior, but there was not enough contrast between the interior and the liver to highlight the luxurious center.
They were out of the cowboy steak, one of the signatures here, so we went with the T-bone instead. The gorgeous slab of meat was tender, carefully charred on the outside, and medium rare within. They earned their steakhouse chops with us with this steak. The bone-in burger, not so much. As one of their most talked about dishes, we didn’t get the hype. The bone is a quirky garnish. Other than being large, the burger was not particularly juicy or flavorful. Given Dufour’s usual cavalier indifference to amounts of animal fat in his creations, I would have expected the juice to run down my chin.
The trout was lovely. By trout standards, this guy was a giant, served intact—not filleted. The delicate buttery flesh bathed in vinegar, and slathered with a rich Béarnaise accompanied by some of the most delicious cabbage we’ve eaten, and fingerling potatoes. A lamb tagine, a traditional Moroccan casserole reinvented, combined half a rack of grilled lamb with a highly seasoned sort of “pulled lamb” over couscous and root vegetables. The dish was not without merit, but not one of the stars of the menu.
The bottom line
Make no mistake about it — unless you’re a member of the 1 percent, this is a splurge. But the meticulously sourced, impeccably fresh ingredients along with the kitchen creativity justify the premium prices. This is a fine dining experience without most of the pomp and pretension of other similarly priced restaurants. If you are passionate about what you eat, this is your kind of place.