M. Wells, a Diner in Long Island City, Queens: Report From the New Culinary Frontier
A tasty Quebecois mutation of eggs Benedict featuring fresh peas and salt cod.
There's really nothing visually arresting about the down-at-the-heels diner at the corner of 21st and 49th Avenue in Long Island City, which sits at the head of the Sunnyside Yards -- formerly the world's largest rail yard, now mainly derelict.
M. Wells: big gastronomic doings in a nondescript diner.
But inside is M. Wells, the new faux diner birthed in part by a veteran of the famed Au Pied de Cochon restaurant, for nearly a decade the hottest and most pork-intensive ticket in Montreal dining.
As with the exterior, the interior of the diner has been little changed, reflecting the affection of the proprietors for the vernacular architecture of the '60s. The only discernible changes are that one row of booths has been ripped out in favor of a couple of communal wooden tables, and a decorative line of bone-white antique soup tureens is displayed, suggesting that the rustic, French-inflected country cooking of Quebec is partly what's being translated into the diner medium. It's an enthralling concept.
Belying the commonplace nature of the premises, some of the most innovative cooking in the city is going on there.
The place is currently pursuing a new kind of soft opening. In the initial days, ingress was limited to 7 a.m. till noon, but now the hours have been extended to 3 p.m. The menu, too, is undergoing a gradual expansion. "We've been adding items one at a time to the menu," our waitress told me and my colleague Peter Meehan, running her index finger along the list of 17 entrées and desserts. "There are some new lunch things on there now," she continued.
Pungent and chewy beef tartar: irresistible, even in the morning.
Even though it was only 11 a.m. on a morning that threatened rain, we ordered the beef tartar ($8), a prodigious submarine-shaped pink blob, with the meat chopped coarser than is often the case, with an agreeable mustard dressing loosely holding the mass together. It was served with a couple of baguette toasts and a pile of greens, which, quite brilliantly, included spearmint leaves. We readily plowed throw the mass despite the hour, leaving only a few random crumbs.
The egg and sausage sandwich ($7) -- a diner staple -- was also uniquely delicious, deploying a homemade English muffin ("These things are really hard to make," Peter pointed out), some gooey white smoked cheese, homemade sage sausage, and a few random shreds of pickled jalapeño. The egg had been scrambled, but left decidedly moist. The muffin could have been toasted a bit more, but otherwise the sandwich was perfect.
How we managed to eat a third item I'll never know. It was a crazy take on eggs Benedict ($9) incorporating a science-chef egg that wiggled somewhat obscenely, a light, textbook-perfect hollandaise that made every other version in town look curdled and heavy, and a plank of desalinated salt cod, all of it positioned on a Swiss rosti. Oh, and there were some stray shredded chives in there somewhere, too, and freshly shelled and barely cooked green peas that, as our waitress further noted, were an antidote to the richness of the rest of the dish.
We washed that richness down with multiple of cups of diner coffee. It was very good coffee, but still diner coffee nonetheless. 21-17 49th Avenue, 718-425-6917
The egg-and-sausage sandwich transformed.
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