Every so often I have an experience that just leaves an unsavory taste in my throat. As a foodie i’m supposed to have an acumen that allows me to filter and find the places that are not just wearing the emperors clothes and lacking the emperor; M. Wells Steakhouse was an experience that left me embarrassed and rather light in the pocket book.
Everything I’d read about the M Wells was positive, a mecca for meat lovers in a hidden former auto body shop in Long Island City ( A place I had never been, nonetheless) Queens, lauded Canadian Chefs in an eye catching space. I was pumped as this was to be my final reservation on a whirlwind NYC dining trip.
Things started off well, as my companions were impressed at my navigational abilities in finding the virtually hidden space (no sign whatsoever) – we walked in the glowing and warmly lit open space with an almost cathedral like feeling. The walls have elegant wall paper and the ceilings have intricate details.
Our waiter sauntered over after a few moments too long of waiting without greeting, a large heavyset man of some age and experience he began to croon the specials in an old manner reminiscent of the steak houses of yore. My excitement began to build as he overtook the the personal space of the table with his fluid hand motions, swooping his arms through the air describing luxurious cuts of offal and head cheese. I scribbled incessantly in my notebook to keep up.
We decided, as we were probably going to be tieing quite a few drinks on this evening that we should stick with the cocktails (true to form, we ended up in a gay club in the Meatpacking district dancing to Beyonce at 3 am), though I had read the wine program was exemplary. It wasn’t hard to spot the sommelier in a smartly cut suit dashing back and forth across the room. Tragically he never stopped by, but I got a chance to hear him in action at the lovely table of two next to us.
After some deliberation he brought back a bottle of ; I’m guessing this was Malvasia di Candida, and obscure bottle from the Canary Islands grown on mostly volcanic soil. I thought this was a daring pairing for a Canadian styled steak house. He decanted the wine away from the table and brought it back in a decanter, placing it on a pedestal just to my left. I was struck by the fact that neither he, nor any server brought any stemware to the table. Ten, twenty, and thirty minutes went by as the ladies finished their nearly empty cocktails before they flagged a waiter inform that they were ready to drink the bottle. The sommelier didn’t seem all that occupied standing off to the side chatting with a server, never once did he return to the table to check on anything – it certainly seemed he was spending more time on his vertical hold hairstyle than his wine service.
We were sat uncomfortably close to the chill of the door for such an early (6:30ish) reservation; the tables were spaced as if the restaurant gets extremely busy. We couldn’t help but to keep noticing the table caddy cornered to us, an older couple most likely Long Island royalty, the type that most certainly walked in the door looking for a someone to slip a $20 to for a good seat.
One of the women in the party was putting down martini’s like it was the eve of prohibition. I myself started with really delightful beer called by Tröegs Brewing Company called “Mad Elf Ale“. It was actually really delicious with tremendous malt, honey, and finish.
Hot pretzel bread came to the table to start with a log of butter that had a decent level of softness – few things are worse than ice cold butter when the weather outside is frigid – this butter did not disappoint. Our first salvo of dishes were ordered, Caesar Salad, Foie Gras, Scallops Coquille St. Jacques, described to us as a delicious pot pie of seafood and cream.
Looking back I enjoyed these dishes far more when I was eating them due to extreme hunger. Our group devoured the Caesar Salad, which literally came with a almost comical mountain of microplaned cheese, this dish ironically was the highlight of the night. It was thick with anchovy flavor and coated with a hail of black pepper.
The Coquille St. Jacques wasn’t really that impressive, just oozing with muddled flavors none of which really stood out, the mornay sauce overwhelming and pasty, and the scallops not really visible nor discernable from the creamy goo. The plating reminded me of my youth, something pulled out of a box and heated up at 375 then put on a plate – uninspired.
The foie wasn’t so much a disappointment as it was a heartbreaker; coming from the barbaric mentality of the California no Foie Zone I was ordering foie every chance I got all over NYC. What came to the table was a cold hard disk of foie, obscured by sloppy citrus segments not completely peeled. The overwhelming acid blighted the plate, leaving an orange juice to almost coagulate the still cold unspreadable foie. I almost wanted to shed a tear for that duck.
Upon our waiters recommendation we ordered a veal head cheese with mushrooms. I expect head cheese to have some surface tension, yet a creamy almost liver like consistency with little to no chewing. What arrived was lovely looking but junior varsity; large gelatinous chunks of fat comingled with a slightly bland protein component – a simply unpleasant mouthfeel even for someone such as myself who delights in sucking on pastrami fat.
The poutine at first was delightful, simple with adequate salt and prodigious use of gravy. Then we noticed that at the core of the bowl was an unmelted lump of cheese curds, slightly cold at their center. While we ate every bit of this dish, it wasn’t all that pleasing.
At this point the waiter came back to clear our plates and take a few more drink orders, placing his arm on table in a manner that served to banish any fine dining element that might have existed up until this point. As he started a sentence abruptly a soft rain of phlegm struck my temple and left cheek; I flinched and was visibly started. This actually occurring twice during the meal was not at all surprising given his overwhelmingly close proximity to our table.
My most grievous error of this meal was ordering a main course, as my group was obviously satiated I was seduced by the idea of various types of game and pheasant in a pot pie style plating. What arrived at the table should have never, ever left the kitchen.
Gamey, gritty, full of bones, burnt, dry, and unappetizing. We couldn’t even finish half of this. When the waiter looked at us as we asked for the check, he knew that we weren’t satisfied; as he urged us to take the meal to-go with casual jokes, almost as if our taking the mess to-go would vindicate the grievous errors of the kitchen. The mealy texture, blasted by excess heat and pour technique placed a dour mood upon our group that could only be solved by excess drinking elsewhere. I wish I would’ve had the gall to send this back.
I glanced back at the gleaming kitchen with it’s line cooks looking askance, the brand new equipment, strangely wearing beanies in front of blazing open flames and ovens; I wondered, did they knew how deeply they had disrespected these ingredients placed before us. This meal cost over $300.
I was reminded of a passage from The Soul of A Chef, by Michael Ruhlman, “But how easy it is to forget about a piece of meat in the oven, throw it in the garbage, and fire a new one. He [Thomas Keller] would not overcook this rabbit. He cared about it too much at this point. These were going to be the best rabbits ever. He was going to do everything possible, short of getting in that oven to cook with them, to make sure they were perfect.”