Mischievous restaurateurs and would-be catamaran captains Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis are up to their old tricks in Long Island City, tweaking the M. Wells Dinette menu with a reprise of their popular spaghetti sandwich and kicking off brunch service at their quirky gem of a steakhouse. After flirting with an Easter brunch last spring, they’ve settled on set Sunday hours of 11 a.m.–3 p.m., and we popped in to check out the inaugural service. But first, a disclaimer. Here’s my opinion on brunch: If you have strong opinions about brunch, you ought to take a long look in the mirror and then destroy that mirror with your face. Or, in a move that’s considerably less dangerous to your outsides (though with $15 sides of seared foie gras, your insides might not fare as well), you might try destroying the daytime weekend meal served at M. Wells Steakhouse (43-15 Crescent Street, Queens; 718-786-9060) instead.
Dufour has always had fun with diners, subjecting his captive audience to bold flavors and gonzo compositions with plating to match; first in a renovated diner (since closed) and now in a renovated auto-body shop, which shimmers with refracted sunlight from thick glass wall panels during the day. The kitchen’s gutsy, indulgent cooking — helmed by Dufour, with assistance from chefs Aidan O’Neill and Jeff Teller — meshes with the restaurant’s steakhouse ideology, just as it did when they were slinging veal brains as blue-plate specials. And while the dinner menu offers a staggering number of choices, brunch is a more tailored affair, with a diverse raw bar and fifteen plates ranging from a $3 cinnamon bun to a $24 bowl of maple-splashed oats topped with foie gras.
There’s beef, as there ought to be, and the $18 skirt steak doesn’t disappoint, arriving as a shareable portion scattered with crisp potatoes, grilled onions, and squeaky cheese curds. Dunked into a pool of the mustard-based house sauce, the rosy slices radiate with black pepper and wood-fired char. I almost expected a more daring cut from this crew, but the starch-and-cheese preparation fits brunch perfectly. Plus, you can always throw a slab of foie gras onto your meat for a grittier, DIY–tournedos Rossini (minus the truffles and madeira).
Children and adult children of impeccable taste will appreciate the Seuss-like “Korean Tortilla Espanola,” an inverted omelet stained purple with Okinawan sweet potato and musky from pockets of kimchi and blood sausage. Served in the pan and garnished with pickled carrots and radishes, it’s a cousin of the dinner menu’s “Captain Korea Breakfast,” a version of which was served at that Easter brunch last year. It’s one inspired egg dish, but it’s not the only one; sanguette, a congealed chicken blood pancake pan-fried with onions, wears a crown of the same brine-soaked vegetables, adding a runny poached egg to the mix.
But Dufour’s dirtiest deeds don’t come dirt cheap (though to be clear: the menu is reasonable as a whole), as the pricier side of the menu can attest. Along with the steak and foie gras oatmeal, here we have main courses like a rabbit and foie gras terrine–stuffed Monte Cristo sandwich, its brioche slices muffled by a thick coating of fried batter. The kitchen reinterprets “Solomon Gundy,” a dinnertime appetizer of potato blini waffles topped with pickled smelt and trout roe, as a “Russian Waffle.” Now the spud structure supports smoked sable, caviar, chopped soft-boiled eggs, crème fraîche, and dill. Loosely ground crab, shrimp, and cod form a seafood “sausage patty” set over hash browns for an oceanic eggs Benedict, which enjoys a punch of flavor from fresh peppercorns and herbs in its hollandaise.
Sadly absent from the dining room: Bethany Costello’s gorgeous dessert cart. The lone cinnamon bun is a fine specimen, but lacks the overkill factor that so much of the menu exhibits (a little icing could go a long way). Console yourself with a cocktail ($12). The challenging veal tongue Gibson has since been replaced by a mirepoix martini made dirty with pickled onion brine. And here that brunch requisite, the bloody mary, gets a smoky kick from mezcal and a possibly abrasive amount of kimchi. Eschewing outlandish accoutrements like bacon-wrapped shrimp or whole cheeseburgers, the wine glass bears a briny topneck clam and a cocktail onion. More subtly refreshing is the “Maple Sideboob,” a sidecar riff with rye, lemon juice, maple syrup, and a liqueur from Cognac called Marie Framboise.
At dinner, steaks occasionally fetch as much as $200, making brunch at M. Wells Steakhouse a steal for diners looking to taste some of Dufour’s mad genius at significantly gentler prices.
Follow Zachary Feldman on Twitter, @Zachats.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 20, 2015