At M. Wells Steakhouse in Long Island City, Too Much is Just Enough
Hugue Dufour continues his madcap cooking.
At some point during the nearly 30 minutes spent waiting for a repeat order of Hugue Dufour's gargantuan foie gras-stuffed gnocchi, the diners in my party realized we were reaching our limit. Bulbous and burnished, the mashed potato filling surrounding creamy liver made the dumplings taste similar to a knish, the perfect Tuesday special for a deli in Le Marais. The ticket was never fired; lucky for us, now we'd have room for dessert. Decadence can turn dangerous at M. Wells Steakhouse, the swanky Long Island City restaurant whose brooding throwback style wholly consumes the industrial space it inhabits.
Staring up through the skylight that peaks above an ornately patterned black-and-gold ceiling, you might start to believe that Queens is a far-off land. Dufour and wife Sarah Obraitis have a knack for creating urban oases, first with their ambitious diner (which ultimately succumbed to a rent increase) and then with M. Wells Dinette inside cultural center MOMA PS1. As much fun as dinner at M. Wells Steakhouse can be, few cities could support a restaurant this idiosyncratic. The renovated auto-body shop also houses a catamaran- building operation. Eventually, the duo plans to host meals at sea.
Crafty food-themed tableaux sit recessed within the dividers that separate a line of counter seats from the open kitchen, where flames bellow from the wood-fired oven across from a concrete tank holding live trout. The backlit bar, with high-reaching shelves and a projection screen playing black-and-white movies off to the side, is inviting even if the drinks left our table feeling snubbed. A Queens cocktail with sweet and dry vermouths, gin, and pineapple juice was out of balance and overly sweet, while the Cow's Kiss — a Gibson variation with an unwieldy garnish of pickled veal tongue that was fine on its own but clashed with the alcohol — suffered from a lack of promised spice.
Chef de cuisine Jeff Teller engages with patrons who sit close enough to his domain, expediting and buzzing about every station. As at M. Wells Diner, you can start your meal with Dufour's mildly smoky Caesar salad, which replaces saline anchovies with smoked herring, the hot-boxed fish tempered by the dressing's famous raw egg yolks. Three years ago, it cost $7. Thanks to steakhouse (and actual) inflation, the greens sitting under a mountain of Parmesan now sell for $12.
Front-of-house staff dress formally, but their demeanor is affable and relaxed to match the low-backed chairs and boxy all-black wood and metal tables. Ingredient provenance is thrown out the window, resulting in a menu that raises numerous questions. Your waiter will be happy to guide you through items like Captain Korea Breakfast and uni super royale. But how did I miss the $25 side dish of "beef butter" on my initial visit, in actuality an unctuous slip of Kobe strip loin? Doesn't everyone want a side of steak with their steak? Let's appreciate the sheer gumption it requires to hide what is arguably one of the restaurant's better-quality steaks amid the side dishes under a vague moniker.
These quirks threaten to overshadow the steaks for which the restaurant supposedly exists, but the beef seems to have found more even footing. The various costly cuts are perfumed with smokiness from the wood fire that renders their aftertaste not unlike Montreal's famous smoked meat — you can argue whether that's an admirable quality, but the proprietary mustard-based steak sauce makes sense. It's Schwartz's Deli by way of Peter Luger, and with the way Teller and his cooks are nailing temperatures, it's downright alluring. Whether they're worth the price of admission depends on how big you're willing to go — this is a steakhouse, after all. If a massive platter of chateaubriand at $100 isn't your thing, there's always that beef butter.
Bethany Costello's desserts continue the theme of excess. Her Paris-Brest, a thick ring of choux pastry the size of a film canister, is split in half and filled dramatically with hazelnut praline cream piped a good two inches high. Hazelnut brittle crowns the dish, which arrives at the table with a knife sticking into it like the prized head of a vanquished enemy.
Dufour and Obraitis are running a three-legged race, with one foot in the past, one in the future, and the third stationed firmly in the present. Old-guard steakhouses are testosterone orgies, and several concepts have been launched targeting carnivorous ladies, but M. Wells Steakhouse appeals for attention based solely on Dufour's famously madcap approach to cooking. The modern venture, then, is a melding of old-school swagger and our chef-driven culture. Welcome to the era of the auteur steakhouse.
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