The Return of M. Wells: Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis Move Into MOMA's P.S.1
Shin bones filled with snails and hot marrow. Slabs of blood pudding. Cast-iron buckets of beef broth and onion. Here are the dishes that have seen us through the darkest days of winter. The comfort food of another time and place, gut-warming and animal-rich, with a weight that can anesthetize the aching body and lullaby the racing mind. Sure, there are pills to pop for this, but it's more fun to settle in for a long lunch at M. Wells Dinette in Long Island City.
Husband-and-wife team Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis first brought us a taste of their extreme grand-mère cuisine at M. Wells Diner, but the restaurant closed not long after its first anniversary, due to a rent dispute. The team is back now, keeping museum hours at MOMA's P.S.1.
The dining room is a gallery. Plain, white, sunlit. But before P.S.1 dealt in contemporary art, it was a school: A few student portraits hang on the walls. Squirming at the back of the class, you can hear the cafeteria clanks of metal scraping and water rushing in the kitchen, the laughter of people you didn't sit with, and the rhythmic tapping of heeled ankle boots in the hallway as visitors walk around, looking for the actual exhibits. Communal cubby tables are filled with crayons, drawing pads, and dirty paintbrushes, all fun to play with as you sip a glass of wine, especially if there's a gap between your Caesar salad ($8) with herring and your cod brandade ($10) with mashed potatoes.
The menu and wine list appear on the blackboard in simple phrasing. A cold, Korean-inspired rice dish served with big chunks of raw tuna and marinated raw scallop, an oyster on the half shell, and a runny yolk is intensely fishy and fatty, cut with shiso leaves and pickled vegetables. It appears on the menu as Bi Bim Wells ($22). You'll have to talk to your waiter for more information: "Wow, it's super good, really awesome, the best thing we've got," he might say, exaggerating a bit, but how charming to have waiters love the food they serve.
Especially a menu like this! Full of fatty odds and ends, slippery bits and bobs. Noble ingredients, all of them, exalted at Montreal's famous restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon, where Dufour used to work, and by generations of cooks before him, whose food traditions were built on finding sustenance and flavor from every bit of the animal. At M. Wells Dinette, the offal doesn't appear as a dare-you fetish. It stars in rustic, respectable dishes done right, like the warm tongue salad with cornichons in a creamy tarragon dressing, perhaps with some of the membrane left untrimmed. Or that blood pudding ($13), dark and rich as chocolate ganache, on a cushion of bacon and onions.
There are more mainstream delights here as well, like the Stroganoff-style buttery noodles with globes of veal—the whole thing soft, sticky, and good. And a rich French onion soup ($9) that's just a mess of bread and cheese soaked in a deep, salty broth.
Technique can be clumsy, though. The rice of the Bi Bim Wells was once served too raw. A massive Paris-Brest had a nice bake on it, but was filled with a loose, runny cream instead of the stiff, glossy stuff one hopes to find in a sandwich of choux pastry. No amount of icing sugar of candied nuts could hide the slop, and it was a disappointing way to end an otherwise lovely meal.
These details didn't seem to bother the three thin girls in huge glasses and expertly tied scarves, here to plot out careers in the art world over coffee and dessert. In fact, the room was packed with happy locals and tourists. One couple went over their vacation itinerary together on an iPad and shared a slice of lovely, wobbly maple custard in a dark, crisp shell ($9)—the most well-executed of the pastries.
The waitress might have been dressed like Morticia Addams, but she was kind and perceptive. Service at the old M. Wells was criticized, and it's true that at the new spot you can be forgotten for spurts of time as the staff gathers by the kitchen—what are they doing over there? Why won't they look at you? Oh, it's not the end of the world. To get attention, you can always try sitting up straight in your seat and raising your hand.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.
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