“That’s really sad…” My girlfriend gestured out the bus window this past weekend at the abandoned diner that housed the original M. Wells. I, too, felt a sharp pang of nostalgia for the groundbreaking gastronomic gem that catapulted to the top of every must eat/must go/must see food list in New York City before closing when their landlord wouldn’t renew the lease.
Four days later, we were seated with friends at M. Wells Steakhouse, the newest brainchild of co-owners Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis, who had helmed the original location as well as their clamorous, playful and perennially packed M.Wells Dinette located inside MoMA PS1.
Tucked in the husk of an auto body shop at the edge of an industrial corridor of Long Island City, M. Wells’ unmarked location and lush interior are a complete surprise. As the neighborhood quickly transforms around it, M. Wells will remain revelatory: its exterior will eventually be one of the few reminders of Long Island City’s industrial past.
I knew from jump that I wanted to order the Truine Au Bleu. It has been well documented the trout live in a trough on site and are caught, killed, prepped and cooked in real time. What I did not know was after some jokes back and forth with our server, I’d be invited into the kitchen to watch it all happen.
The staff generously let me back in the open kitchen where I gestured randomly at the trout I wanted (who knows if that’s the one I got). The chef expertly scooped up a fish, mercifully thonked its lights out with a log, and prepped it for cooking in about 30 seconds flat.
My trout was then slapped on a plate in the same no frills manner in which it was plucked from the water and prepped to eat, and inconspicuously adorned with a few fingerling potatoes, a wedge of cabbage, and generous dollops of fresh tartar sauce.
The five minutes fresh trout was impossibly tender and the flesh was easily plucked away from the thin bones with a fork (though you’ll still have to fish a few out of your mouth while you are eating). In yet another surprise, the whole dish had the simple, hearty feeling of a homemade meal: not at all ostentatious, just really, really good.
With all of its surprises, M. Wells Steakhouse indulges in one touching piece of nostalgia. Like the Dinette, it incorporates diner counter stools into its design, a nod to the location that started it all. Otherwise, within its walls, “the world only spins forward” – or swims maybe – and the crew at M.Wells have created yet another space where amazing things are possible on any given day.
There are those places we eat because as humans we crave consistency, stability. And then there are places, that feel a lot like life, sometimes glorious, sometimes disappointing, sometimes surprising, sometimes inconsistent, sometimes brilliant, sometimes only partly conceived (like a steakhouse where prevailing critical wisdom is to go, and order anything but the steak). But to create restaurants that are also possibilities within which anything at all could happen, might just be the true genius of M. Wells.