M. Wells Diner (21-17 49th Ave., Long Island City)
Brunch Daily 10AM-4PM (Closed Mondays)
"Wowwww, what is that?!?" asks one man sitting next to us at the communal table. As the server drizzles a small pitcher of heavy cream over the steaming bowl of gooey golden deliciousness bubbling in front of me, every diner around us momentarily freezes to watch the ceremony. "It's the pudding chaumeur, basically cake batter poached in maple syrup" I reply, rather proud of my dessert selection. "And according to the server, there's only one left today, so you should probably..."
"Excuse me... server!!!" hollers another guy at the end of the table, cutting me off, "I want the last of that pudding thing this guy is eating, okay?" The faces of the couple beside me instantly fall, beaten to the punch, as if the prospect of their entire meal has now been ruined. I feel a little guilty, like winning the $25 lottery tickets to see Wicked on Broadway, when some disappointed couple from Iowa doesn't win during their one time visiting New York City, and I live just fifteen minutes away and have already seen it multiple times.
Lacking on recent kind Samaritan acts, I lean back toward the sunken couple. "Grab a clean fork or spoon and take a bite of ours before we ravenously devour it... I mean it, go ahead." "No, we couldn't possibly..." her mouth says, while she and he both reach toward their forks. I smile as my teeth sink into the sticky, crunchy toffee coating of caramelized syrup that cracks like a brulee and gives way to maple and cream soaked yellow cake dollops, simultaneously piping hot and refreshingly cool from the cream. Within about sixty seconds, four of us have nearly licked the bowl clean.
"Oh thank you... thank you so much... that was heavenly." The couple grins like two children who just finished a whole jar of chocolate chip cookies that were intended to be saved for later. They haven't even ordered appetizers yet. "If you want to try anything of ours at all, please help yourself." "That's alright," I smile gratefully, "but thank you. This is my third time here this week. I'm sure I will have it again."
(Entirely on accident [honest!], I snapped one young patron who brought his own milk.)
Owned by the dynamic team of married couple Hugue Dufour (of Montreal's famous Au Pied de Cochon) and Queens native Sarah Obraitis, the perpetually evolving menu features many traditional Quebecois classics (tourtiere and poutine specials--sans the curds), as well as some American favorites with a few smart twists. Dubbed a Quebecois-American diner, the menu was slightly different each of the three times I have visited, though several M. Wells favorites remain with slight variations on fillings or garnishes.
Even on the coldest days, expect a sometimes substantial wait for this highly buzzed hotspot. I waited one Sunday afternoon over an hour and a half, though the payoff was worth every minute. Obraitis recommends coming right when they open, or around 3PM for the best chance at quick seating. Short for Magasin Wells (juxtaposing the French word for "store" and Obraitis's middle name), do not be misguided by the fact M. Wells looks every bit like a 50-year-old diner. This culinary destination restaurant is serving up some of the most interesting and fantastic dishes in all of New York City, yet at accessible prices expected of a diner--with the occasional exception of daily specials like sturgeon with caviar for $45, still reasonable, if not diner fare. Then again, even the most simplistic dish titles are merely deceptively pedestrian monikers for exceptionally executed and fanciful recipes. While Dufour mans the griddle, Obraitis rather sweetly orchestrates the dining room and seats each guest, acting as liaison between the customer and the kitchen, occasionally touching base with a gentle hand on the shoulder to make sure everything is enjoyable.
(Tables are adorned with ceramic doll head planters by Plants on the Brain)
Eclectic decorations foreshadow the free spirit and sophisticated whimsy of the dishes. Half of the dining car is lined with booths opposite bison leather-cushioned counter stools facing the open grill. The other side of the diner holds showcases of a rotating selection of daily freshly baked goodies alongside a couple of wooden communal tables, ideal for large groups or diners willing to spark conversation with their neighbors. It's also where the staff retreats after service each evening for a family-style dinner.
Inspired by the McDonald's breakfast sandwich, Dufour has quite possibly perfected the egg-sausage muffin. Built on a flawless, warm, chewy English muffin made fresh on the premises, this sunrise flavor carnival is stacked with a thick Berkshire sausage patty that sings of nutmeg and sage, a substantial egg pillow first microwaved for fluffiness and then finished on the griddle, tangy pickled jalapenos, dripping ribbons of melted cheddar, sweet and juicy heirloom tomato, and a generous slathering of homemade mayonnaise.
Simply named "Hot Dog... $6" on the menu, this little puppy is a jazzed up New York classic, like a Coney dog on steroids. Tucked in a gorgeously toasted New England style hot dog roll, this juicy frank is generously piled with a sweet chili of firm, plump beans and tiny salty charred bits of crisp bacon, all crowned with a tangy mustard grain slaw, knocking any other version way out of the ballpark.
The tortilla española is an exceptional rendition of this classic spanish omelette ($6), literally a cloud of buttery and fluffy egg laced with slivers of sauteed onion and potato, also available with sweet Maine shrimp ($9), both blended into the omelette, as well as garnished with two whole sweet sea jewels, decadently brimming with salty roe.
Not a day has gone by that I haven't described in extensive detail to someone in my life what was one of the most extravagant and luxuriously delicious dishes I have ever enjoyed in my life: the seafood cobbler. A casserole pan is lined with exquisitely tender brussels sprouts, then cobblestoned with flaky chunks of pollock, all drenched in a thick, velvety pool of bechamel, stacked with two homemade biscuits, and then sealed with a blanket of gruyere cheese, and baked to golden brown. Forkfuls of butter-drenched sprouts, flaky biscuits, ocean-kissed whitefish, and endless melted rivers of nutty Swiss cheese stringing from the dish... well, food just doesn't get better than this.
The fish 'n chips is yet another exceptional rendition, this time of an English classic, served at M. Wells in the traditional newsprint cone, with hand cut fries under the fried fish planks, as well as a generous boat of extra on the side. While we enjoyed a version using crispy-battered pollock with skin on, sealing in extra flavor, M. Wells has also recently served them in a popular Australian style using shark meat. The breading is wonderfully thick yet crispy, and refreshingly greaseless.
Though the chipped fries are substituted here will actual full-length french fries, I have no complaints. These fried spuds are exceptional, remarkably long and thin, with a crispy coating and tender inside. Be sure to ask for a bottle of malt vinegar to best enjoy some of the tastiest fried fish around.
Now with their liquor license, M. Wells offers a limited selection of beers and carefully edited wines, along with fresh lemonade, Boylan's sodas, and a killer bloody caesar laced with just a whisper of clam juice and a peppery rim.
The salads on the menu are practically a steal, ranging $6 to $9 and more than enough to share. The blue cheese salad is generously studded with wonderfully light, albeit mutant-sized crumbles of blue cheese, candied walnuts, and tart julienned green apples.
One my favorite dishes out of everything I have sampled was this refreshing, bright, salad kaleidoscope of shredded green cabbage, plump dried cranberries, crunchy rustic croutons, parmesan shavings, and remarkably tender and and smoky venison jerky, with a light sprinkling of cracked black pepper.
For a somewhat refined yet lumberjack-satisfying breakfast, you can't go wrong with their rotating hashed potato selection; this particular visit it was jeweled with red peppers, toothsome slab bacon, and a perfectly poached egg.
Though you may not find classic Quebec poutine on the menu (Dufour claims the curds here just aren't worthy), who wouldn't drool over this absolutely mouthwatering heap, simply called "hot chicken". Flaky biscuits are loaded with boneless, juicy skin-on poultry, a teepee of handcut fries, polka dotted with plump green peas, and then decadently glazed with hearty brown gravy. Stacked like a blazing bonfire of comfort food at its very best, this is a simply must-try dish for any M. Wells first-timer.
Proof that the best things come in small packages, the Coquille St. Jacques earned a place in my top five of the most mind-blowing delicious explosions of carefully harmonized flavors I have tasted in recent years. White wine and butter poached succulent scallops and plump mussels sit in a pool of their own reduction alongside herbed breadcrumbs in a scallop shell cradle, topped with mild gruyere and skirted with a delicate piping of creamy potato mash. Though only a trio of these tiny gorgeous gems arrive per serving, it demanded unprecedented willpower to make them last, and even more to offer a precious bite to my friend.
I would have to dine at M. Wells every day to sample the full array of what I can only imagine is an entirely delicious menu. Parsnip soup with foie gras tempted me, as well as a cubano with roasted pork and mortadella. Bone marrow and escargot is only $9, and they were sadly out of the pickled pork tongue each time I last visited. Desserts are equally varied and beckon you from behind glass cases, like this wonderfully dense and dunkable cake donut I shared.
I have been told the banana cream pie is out-of-this-world, although I cannot even remotely fathom anything winning my
obsession affection the way the pudding chaumeur has. Even if you don't have room, at least brownbag a Graceland for $3.50. This Elvis-inspired confection is an exceptionally moist banana cupcake topped with peanut butter buttercream frosting, and puts anything those other cupcake shops are peddling to shame.
Oversized chocolate chip cookies are $2, and warm killer brownies the size of a jumbo slice of sourdough are $4, also available Mex-cellent style with spices and orange zest.
While the menu is gradually expanding, service currently remains every day of the week except Monday from 10AM to 4PM. Dinner service, though initially scheduled to open last month, has been temporarily postponed, though it will gradually commence just a few evenings of the week.
Regardless of where you live, treat yourself to the brief ride on the 7-train to one of the most unique and innovative restaurants anywhere in the city. Leave yourself ample time to wait, but if you're game, those waiting are likely to be regulars or return visitors eager to share their anecdotes and personal favorite dishes. Besides, who doesn't love the nostalgia of eating in a half-century-old diner?