January 13, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

M. Wells Steakhouse: The Lion Roars

M. Wells onion soup, already thrillingly overwrought, adds marrow bone island.
M. Wells onion soup, already thrillingly overwrought, adds marrow bone island.

          Let me count the ways I love it: Live trout swimming in a tank. Old-fashioned cakes on a trolley. Funky nouveau riche décor. Our agreeable freshman waiter. I love a lot about M. Wells Steakhouse. I just don’t like the steak.

We knew it was a converted body shop. We just didn’t expect it to look like a body shop.

          That won’t keep me from returning. Long Island City is closer than I knew, just over Mayor Koch’s bridge. Even using the GPS, we drove past it twice. I had to run into a residential tower to ask a doorman for directions. Sure, we knew the meatery was set up in an old auto body shop. We just didn’t imagine it would look like an old auto body shop…or there would be no sign.

Definitely not a classic guy hangout, Wells Steakhouse draws house fans, hungry women.

          The fenced-in patio is barren now, so it’s not until you’re inside that you know for sure you’re there. Calvin behind the velvet curtain windbreak compliments your bright red coat and stows it. Then you settle in at a bare, black table rimmed in iron– watch out or that rough edge could rip your sleeve or your arm.

Celebrate the funk: Brocade, skylights, crystal chandeliers, red panels and garage doors.

          The open kitchen with counter seats overlooking the action is not unexpected. But the brocade on the ceiling that swoops up the skylights is pleasantly eccentric. The space coud be a lighting showroom given the motley of fixtures, starring a grand crystal chandelier. Red walls are cheerful; mostly $10 cocktails are even cheerier. And sure enough, one wall preserves the old garage doors.

Cake master Bethany Costello dishes up dessert from the rolling trolley.

          I never got to M. Wells Diner, or the M. Wells Dinette inside MoMA PS1. I read with regret of the total immersion in fat I had missed (narrowly escaped). Now my seriously foodie pals were panting to get in to the new steakhouse concept of the Canadian contrarian Hugue Dufour and his wife and partner, Sarah Obraitis, a one-time heritage meat merchant. He had promised (threatened?) to serve lion and rattlesnake and bathtubs of butter.

Not even candied walnuts are too much on this ebullient bacon-strewn wedge.

          My friends and I are sitting just minutes from the bridge exit, but I feel as if I’m in a foreign land. “BBQ Mussels on a stick,” the menu offers. “Geoduck A La Peacock.” “Solomon Gundy.” What is that? Potato blini batter emerges from the waffle iron to hold smelt filets with trout roe and a plop of crème fraîche -- the chef’s riff on a Jamaican classic.

Grilled romaine with smoked herring and a Parmesan toupée is not my dream Caesar.

          We retreat to the more or less familiar. A voluptuous, singed iceberg wedge salad with candied walnuts and tangled bacon bits gets billows of blue cheese frosting. I’m not sure the average senior citizen could survive it. But we’re three, happily sharing the assault.

          The Caesar’s thatch of chopped green and white grilled romaine is laced with fine croutons but lacks anchovy tang because there is no anchovy. That’s smoked herring lurking there under a ridiculous shower of Parmesan frizzies. As one writer observes, it makes the salad look like it’s wearing a cheese toupee.

Dill-strewn carrots, stuffed delicata squash and pommes boulangere are worthy sides.

          Meanwhile I’ve discovered the luscious lava of overwrought onion soup with an island of marrow bone pierced with its own little spoon. Trying not to burn my tongue, I’m crying out with joy. I’m so delirious I decide not to complain about drinking my pinot noir from a water glass.

The bone-in burger may make you giggle or gag, but the patty is rich and delicious.

          My companions and I feel compelled to explore the bone-in burger. That’s what it is…a hunk of chopped meat with a bone stuck in. You might be amused or you could be annoyed. But the patty -- a blend of brisket, aged grass-fed top round, all Certified Angus beef, with caramelized onions and thyme wrapped in caul fat – is smeared with red wine shallot purée and a dab of tartar sauce.  Rare, if not on the verge of blue -- it just happens to be delicious.

Splendid meat with braised veggies and couscous is a lamb tangine for the Moroccan 1%.

          Foie gras-stuffed gnocchi sounds like something that might have been on your bucket list if the combo had occurred to you. Sadly, this mix of sensuous notions doesn’t work. The foie gras is elusive; the sticky dough overwhelms. But the fries are good and a side of dill carrot is fine.

That first visit's T-bone is picture perfect and meaty, but lacks flavor.

          We send the $55 T-bone back for the kitchen to slice. It returns glowing like a teenage beauty blushing for the paparazzi but, alas, minus flavor. On another visit, the $50 grass-fed cowboy steak is even nastier. It’s tasteless and tough, too. (Maybe we should have tasted the $100 bone-in Chateaubriand, if posts I’ve read are to be trusted.)

Here's a fat trout seconds from life in the kitchen's two-ton concrete trough.

          I’d already eaten dinner on my first visit when I wandered past the kitchen and spied the two-ton concrete trough for live trout and a fish just out of the water waiting to give its all. I can’t remember the last time I had trout au bleu. I must try it. I’ve also heard the $70 whole roasted chicken for two is excellent.

I'm a pushover for uni almost any way but perhaps not swimming in butter.

          I’m back with another tag team of foodies. Now the place is a cinch to find. There’s even a parking spot almost in front. But first -- a Brooklyn gin martini. And then we’ll share the sea urchin. I want to blot it from an excess of butter. But my friend thinks it’s a rare treat.  She’s dabbing at the greasy puddle with her bread, planning to try uni with panna cotta at home.

I expected old-fashioned Saint Jacques baked in the shell but not this feisty Sheperd's pie.

           Coquilles Saint Ferreol baked in a large scallop shell with mashed potatoes on top is more like a Shepherd’s pie than the classic Saint-Jacques--very filling, more than we three can finish. And I’d save the wonderful, rich and buttery $16 lobster roll for an entrée when you’re overdoing starters and sides and contemplating dessert. 

Poached brilliantly in salty court bouillon, trout au bleu is an unabashed triumph.

           The lamb chop tagine – a double chop cut from remarkable meat with vegetables and couscous – is fine too. But the trout, cooked au bleu, quickly in a salty court bouillon bath, is the miracle. It’s banked with poached cabbage and fingerling potatoes, wearing a boa of brown butter tartare sauce with bits of cornichons and capers. Pommes boulangères get the Wells treatment too: garlic butter, bacon, thyme and “lots of heavy cream.”

Stuffed delicata squash and oniony pommes boulangère with thyme and "lots of cream."

           We are not robot voyagers who would cross the East River and go home without dessert. All evening we interrupt the feasting to watch Pastry Chef Bethany Costello summoned from the kitchen to slice cakes. On my first outing, the quarter cake – a reference to the equal ratio of flour, eggs, butter and sugar in what we call pound cake – is exquisite, better than the Sachertorte. And it’s just $6. An $11 slice of cinnamon cake is our favorite next time around.

Pastry chef Bethany Costello has a way with homey baking, like this cinnamon cake.

           I’ll be back again for that trout, the delicata squash, and the quarter cake. Hopefully I won’t see or hear the fish’s swift farewell. But I guess trout carnage is less traumatic than facing a caged lion before savoring jungle blood pudding.

43-15 Crescent Street between 43rd Avenue and 44th Road. 718 786 9060. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday 5:30 pm to 11:30 pm. Sunday till 10:30 pm. Closed Tuesday.

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