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Class is In Session at M. Wells Dinette

December 31, 2012

Many months and quite a few false starts later, M. Wells Dinette finally opened its doors inside the MOMA PS 1 this fall, only a few blocks away from its past incarnation.  I, like many others, had been enthralled by the bold and adventurous cooking of Hugue Dufour and eagerly awaited the revival of the Long Island City darling.

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The setting for the new restaurant is certainly different with its classroom style seating, reminiscent of elementary school, and large chalkboard scribbled with the everchanging menu.  While the hard backed plastic chairs aren’t necessarily the most comfortable, there was something fun about finding drawing pads and crayons inside the bellies of the desks.  A little something to keep us busy while the kitchen at the head of the class churned out dish after dish.

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Even though the setting is so vastly different than the old diner car that housed M. Wells before, the food has not strayed far from its origins. Still drumming to the beat of its own drums, even though the restaurant is open during brunch hours on Saturdays (no Sunday hours yet), dishes are still mostly of the lunch variety, with only a few egg options and crispy flaky croissants and diner style mugs of coffee.

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The egg and tomato pot is one of my favorites and one of the few egg dishes offered.  Even though it is listed under the small plate section, this bowl of baked eggs in a flavorful stewed tomato sauce accompanied by a crusty baguette is more than filling enough for one.  The fragrant basil, at times pesto, and the freshly grated parmesan impart a familiar hominess to the stew, making you want to mop every last bite up with the bread.

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The escargot and bone marrow and the smoked herring caesar salad are old classics from Hugue’s former venture and made their way to the new menu for good reasons.  The escargot and bone marrow can be a bit indulgent at 10am in the morning but one bite and you will wonder why these two earthy delicacies aren’t paired together more often.  The smoked herring caesar is a play on the classic salad that we all know and love.  Here at M. Wells Dinette, instead of anchovies, they use smoked herring and shower the lightly dressed plate of romaine and tender broccoli with a flurry of parmesan cheese that creates a lightness missing in most caesars.

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Even though a few of the items are kept constant on the menu, many are rotated in and out based on the season.  A visit in the late fall allowed us to taste the M. Wells Dinette take on blood pudding or black sausage.  Whatever it is called, the version here is served on a bed of buttery sweet cabbage and accompanied by a sweet apple puree.  The moist blood pudding is lightly seared and left mostly to shine on its own.  One bite and you had the flavors of the season dancing in your mouth.

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The winter season brings new changes to the menu and with it, a hearty salad of goose leg confit with frissee and fennel.  The meat falls away from the bone easily and combines so well into the confetti of robust frissee and fennel.  The choice of lettuces stands up well to the fattiness and richness of the goose leg, wilting only a little under the heat.  A handful of juniper berries keep you on your feet with a sharp bite every now and then.

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And of course, M. Wells Dinette continue to offer a great selection of desserts.  With the exception of a somewhat dismissible slice of chocolate chess pie, they keep me happy with their banana cream pie and so I hear a great decadent black forest cake.  You see, the original version of the banana cream pie they had served at the prior location had me dreaming of its lightness and perfect banana flavors all the way from August 2011 until now.  The current pie has been updated not only to a personal portion but also a crunchy bruleed top.  The inside is still that perfect creamy banana essence, accompanied by the perfectly light cream.  Now I wonder how long it will take before they bring back their maple pie, my second favorite dessert from the old M. Wells.

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With a new setting and a somewhat new menu to satisfy their almost cultish following, M. Wells Dinette seems to be settling in quite well as crowds find themselves flocking here for the one day that it is open on the weekends.  The menu might not be quite as big as it was before, and sure it doesn’t include the controversial horse tartare that drew much attention prior to the official opening, the food here is still one of the most unique that can be found in New York and I happily trek over to the other side of the East River once in a while to take a seat in the classroom, ready for class.

M. Wells Dinette | MoMA PS1  22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101 | http://momaps1.org/about/mwells/

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