This week, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells reviews M. Wells Steakhouse, which he says is in trouble, not financially, but “spiritual[ly].”
“Its soul is unwell,” he says. “Because many other restaurants now offer better beef, the steakhouse serves little purpose except as a stage set for the dwindling number of occasions that require men to bond by spending money and consuming red meat together.”
In an attempt to regain its “swagger,” as Wells calls it, the chefs at the steakhouse have tried a few things: “Their knifework is geometric, their potato recipes are French, their menus prettified with appetizers like diced raw bluefin under droplets of Ligurian olive oil. Each dish may be a delight on its own terms, but the whole approach is wrong. Trying to save the steakhouse by adding sashimi is like trying to improve a martial arts movie by casting Gwyneth Paltrow.”
But Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis seem to know how to fix it, says Wells. “They know that we go to steakhouses to feel more alive. They respond appropriately, even if that sometimes means feeding us enough to kill us… Let other chefs precisely engineer 130-degree steaks with immersion circulators and digital thermometers. Mr. Dufour has gone back to the cave, grilling meats over a crackling wood fire. This makes the steaks smoky, of course, and a little uneven, slightly overdone in spots, the meat seasoned with the scorch of burning fat. It’s an imperfect steak, and those imperfections are just the kind of the premodern thrill that makes a traditional steakhouse great.
Describing a few of the restaurants best dishes, Wells says, “Solomon Gundy, a dish that takes pickled smelts as its starting point, adds half a potato waffle, a huge outcropping of crème fraîche and a landslide of intensely crunchy trout eggs. If winter is getting you down, I’d prescribe one Solomon Gundy, to be taken at the bar with a glass of Champagne… Less photogenic but just as wonderful are the sweetbreads blanquette in an unnervingly delicious expanse of white sauce. The blanquette is also offered as a side dish, but only the appetizer version is served on a plateful of mashed potatoes… Ready for your pork chop tower? Here come a half-dozen thin-cut grilled chops piled up, with a salty pat of anchovy butter between each one, as if it were a stack of pancakes. It’s deranged and wonderful.”
As for the steak, “The best steak I ate at M. Wells Steakhouse came from a neighbor’s tomahawk chop, grilled on a whole rib almost the size of a goalie’s stick,” Wells says. “It could have served six, so we bartered for a taste. The meat gushed with juices and shiny, delicious fat.”
Some of the dishes, however, weren’t as good: “The skin of the trout au bleu, netted from a tank in the kitchen, conked on the skull with firewood, gutted and slipped into a tangy court bouillon, is meant to turn blue, eponymously. Does it, though? Hard to tell, because it was always covered up by fingerling potatoes, cabbage and tartar sauce. The flavor and feel of the trout seemed terrific, but with so many things competing for attention, that was hard to tell, too… A Moroccan tagine with soft hunks of full-flavored lamb was as sweet as Jell-O salad. A torpedolike lobster roll tasted of its bun, and not much else. In the caviar sandwich, the pop and brine of what must have been a fat helping of sturgeon roe from Florida were muffled between two fried planks of Texas-toast-size bread. I kept thinking of what I could have done with that much caviar, or the $50 I’d just spent.”
But with a few fixes, M. Wells Steakhouse will be alright, according to Wells: “It’s a crazy way to run a restaurant. And if Mr. Dufour can fix the trout dish and find a steak that has the tomahawk chop’s intensity for less than $200, I hope it stays that way. A great steakhouse should make you feel a little insane.”
For Wells' full review, click here.