A good friend invited me along to dinner at M. Wells last Tuesday, my second day in New York. Because the diner (yes, diner) is slated to close at the end of the month, my friend thought it would be a good opportunity for me to experience it. And boy, did I ever.
On the same day, M. Wells was panned by GQ’s Alan Richman and praised by Bon Appetit. Like a schmuck, I read both pieces before heading to Queens for our 9:45 reservation. As such, it was hard keeping my expectations in check. Seeing the crowd loitering outside inspired little faith; was Richman’s assessment right? But then: the smells emanating from the modest ’50s-style diner! Oh boy, the smells. The air was savory, smelling of spice, meat and warmth; I was salivating as soon as I stepped out of the subway station. Was Bon Appetit to be believed?
When we finally sat down at 10:45 for dinner, it didn’t matter which article I aligned myself with. Yeah, I had to wait an hour for the reservation, but that was expected. I had no complaints. The diner was cozy and crammed. The menu was intimidating. Were they really serving tartare, escargot and a $150 ribeye? You bet your ass. And I was excited.
We ordered a bottle of a dry and minerally Sancerre and between the five of us, decided to split five small plates and one large one. We started with an amazingly rich tartare, creamy and heavy. The Caesar salad–made with smoked herring instead of anchovies and topped with a heaping helping of salty, bright Parmesan–was transcendental. We opted for the savory bone marrow and escargot plate, along with the sweetbreads. Billed as General Tso’s, it reminded me more of Mexican al pastor, which is not a problem at all; it was table favorite. Our last starter was off-putting when read on the menu: sanguette, which is little more than chicken blood. When served, it was a black, coagulated mass resembling melted rubber garnished with green onions. Not exactly appetizing for the eyes, on the palate, it was not so bad. It had the consistency of a dry cracker but had a smokiness complemented by the brightness of the onions.
Finally came our Big Plate: wagyu beef tongue. The tongue was stunning. It fell apart once sliced into. I was expecting a chewy, rough meat but was greeted with the pleasantly familiar sensation of a Sunday roast. The tongue was rich but not heavy, and juicy to boot. Ultimately, the giant portion of tongue staring us in the face was comforting food, honest and simply made, superior to–but not unlike–the kind of roast one would expect from a roadside diner.
When we finally knocked back a few shots of Canadian maple whiskey at the end of meal, I surveyed the damage and realized I forgotten all about Richman’s criticism. For the better, it seems; my soul felt good, and at M. Wells, that seems to be the point.