Circumstances, such as natural disasters and irascible landlords, can conspire to sink even the buzziest restaurant. And long lines outside don’t always translate to a cushion against trouble.
M. Wells, among the most celebrated debuts of the past few years, brought Quebecois gluttony to New York, turning a remote corner of Queens into a hot food-destination. It lost its sweet lease, though, while still going strong in 2011, serving its last veal brains in brown butter and its final foie gras French toast at the end of that summer. And for more than a year, a comeback seemed uncertain.
A few weeks ago, Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis, the visionary couple behind the place, finally revived it—with a little help from their old neighbor, MoMA PS1. They’ve moved from their madhouse diner digs to more sedate museum environs. Gone are the two-hour waits for a table, the manic kitchen’s short-order quarters. The menu is smaller these days, the hours more civilized, and the food—wait for it—is far more subdued. Which isn’t to say that M. Wells, even in its scaled-back incarnation, isn’t still one of the city’s most exciting places to eat. It’s a museum canteen, certainly, but unlike any other.
The restaurant, open only during PS1’s hours (until 6pm), does brisk but not frenetic business at lunch. The decor pays homage to the space’s public-school roots, with a daily-changing chalkboard menu and cubbyhole desks. But instead of juice boxes and Salisbury steak, there’s grower champagne and fork-tender pork tongue in a warm vinaigrette.
Dufour, an acolyte of Montreal’s famously ribald Au Pied de Cochon, developed his own melting-pot style when he crossed the Canadian border. It’s evolved and matured as he’s settled in—a bit more refined these days, less about gimmicky thrills.
A controversial horse-meat tartare bar, killed by public uproar, has given way to a kitchen counter displaying beautiful oysters and crimson slabs of sushi-grade tuna. That top-notch raw seafood is tossed with steamed rice speckled with sweet and spicy condiments—sesame oil, maple syrup, hot chili paste, yuzu mayo—in Dufour’s boisterous spin on Korean staple bibimbap. Other signature dishes—too great to shelve—have also survived from the old spot, including earthy roasted marrowbones dotted with buttery snails and the brilliant smoked-herring Caesar salad.
There are plenty of new creations, too—elegant and ambitious museum cuisine. Some display striking restraint, like the mini bento box of silken trout gravlax with vinegared rice, on a recent menu, or the brioche crostini slathered with onion butter and gorgeous, thick slices of French bottarga, on another.
But Dufour, still the king of over-the-top, also serves excellent gutsy fare like apple-scented blood pudding on sweet-savory kraut, and heady, maple-smoked chicken, burnished dark as tobacco, with a macabre curled claw at the end of the leg.
Despite the quick-serve museum setting, ebullient host Obraitis might urge you to linger a while. There’s fine wine to finish and good things for dessert. New pastry chef Bethany Costello (of cult doughnut bakery Dough) makes a mean chess pie, filled with warm chocolate custard, and an extravagant ladyfinger-ringed Black Forest charlotte (portioned for four). M. Wells is back, humbled but not cowed. Hopefully this time, it’s here for good.
Eat this: Pork tongue, Bi Bim Wells, gravlax box, smoked-herring Caesar salad, blood pudding, Black Forest charlotte
Drink this: The eclectic blackboard wine list includes moderate by-the-glass options, like Alain Graillot Syrocco, a light, earthy red produced by a Frenchman in Morocco ($9), or Roland Lavantureux petit chablis, a lush, peppery white. There are also serious bottles like Jacques Lassaigne champagne ($94).
Sit here: The seating is communal. There are desks facing the kitchen, or big tables better suited for groups. A few stools at the kitchen counter offer the best view of the cooks hard at work.
Conversation piece: Dufour and Obraitis are at work on expanding the M. Wells brand, developing a steakhouse nearby and, if all goes well, a restaurant on a boat.
By Jay Cheshes