The boss is in town, looking to dine and wants to know where we should go. I almost panic. Where do you take Francois Simon, the most-feared food critic in France? I call friends and comb over the list of places I’ve been until I remember the place I really want to try: M. Wells in Queens.
Something of a media darling, M. Wells is/was also a gastronomic UFO housed in a diner: they do what they wanted to, which is pretty admirable in my book. It received incredible raves and, since I’ve been there, one blazing, bizarre review whose subject matter I’m not touching with a ten-foot pole.
Since then, the restaurant has apparently been forced out of its Long Island City location by its landlord and, at this point, there are only rumors about it resurfacing.
When we arrive, François promises to share some of his caesar salad with smoked herring, but it disappears before I point my fork in his direction.
I try bacalao magasin, a veritable bath of olive oil that poaches, heats or finishes carrots, shrimp, beans, peas and salt cod in a great terracotta bowl.
For our "Big Dish'' – menu choices here are divided into "big'' and "small'' – we try the "BibiM Wells,'' a seafood riff on the Korean dish, which is something of a bunt that could have been a home run with more thought given to the play of texture that make the original so good.
The night we’re there, I wish we were with a much larger group to try the big dishes, where much of the creativity appears to lie – BBQ short ribs, lamb saddle with za’atar, tahini and pomegranate molasses, chicken wonton pot-au-feu – but get a sense of the bigger game the chefs seem to be after with an escargot and bone marrow pasta dish with shallots and a red wine ‘purée’ – the mollusk cousin to octopus and bone marrow pasta. M. Wells’ snails are served right in the bone, two forms of slippery goodness bathing in the wine sauce, covered with crunchy, garlicky breadcrumbs.
What is (“What was”?) most interesting at M. Wells is the idea factory the place became. Francois and I get talking about it - in Paris, you’d wonder about the chef’s motives, what they want to accomplish and, often, what their next step will be. Here, creation seems to be the whole point – there is no next step.
Brouhaha aside (please) it’ll be interesting to see what happens next.
Food and travel writer and photographer Joe Ray is the 2009 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year and author of the blog Eating The Motherland. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @joe_diner
Photo by Joe Ray for The Boston Globe