Eating Culture: New Restaurants for the Arts

In the past couple weeks, two popular chefs have opened their newest eateries with a little more culture then ever before. Culture being literal as the venue for celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s American Table is in Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, and the team behind the beloved M. Wells Diner has launched M. Wells Dinette, their new eatery inside MoMA PS1 in Queens.

“To me, Lincoln Center symbolizes New York City’s passion for culture and performance,” said Samuelsson. “As a lover of the arts, I am honored to showcase the diversity of the American dining scene at this iconic institution.”

Samuelsson’s new cafe is situated along the large glass windows in the concert hall’s foyer, and is helmed by executive chef Charlene Johnson-Hadley, who worked her way up from being line cook at Red Rooster in Harlem. The fare at American Table includes smoked Caesar salad, turkey meatball sandwiches, country ham biscuits, and, naturally, apple pie.

Over at PS1, chefs and owners Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis have converted an old classroom into their restaurant and offer a daily changing menu with items like escargot, rabbit terrine, and bibimbap with tuna and scallops. For those of you who were looking to try M. Wells’ infamous horsemeat tartar, according to Steve Cuozzo of The New York Post they will not be dishing it out any time soon after a PETA protest. M. Wells Dinette is open the same hours as the museum, but despite the classroom look, don’t expect it to be thronged with children as other museum cafeterias are.

With these new restaurants, almost all the hip cultural centers in New York now have the added draw of destination dining to them, mainly thanks to restaurateur Danny Meyer. His Union Hospitality Group runs The Modern at MoMA, followed by Untitled at The Whitney, and they have upped the food ante at Yankee Stadium by filling it with Shake Shack burgers, shakes, and fries. Now all we need is a true meshing of the two and have more food art.

Photo by Philip Greenberg

Le Fooding: The Brooklyn Version

The famous French eating festival has finally arrived in Brooklyn, which, some might say, has the most European restaurant scene in New York. Created by Alexandre Cammas in Paris, Le Fooding has spread a concept of modern, edgier, and culture-focused eating in France, New York, and Milano for the last twelve yeras. Now, after three turns in NYC, Le Fooding has concentrated its efforts in Brooklyn.

And you, dear readers, can buy tickets for the event early by clicking this link.

This year they have four main events: Le Clicquot Brooklyn tour, cinematic brunches, Le Fooding lunches at the flea markets, and the Le Fooding Campfire Session. For the Clicquot Brooklyn Tour, they will feature four $75 dinners, complete with a half bottle of Veuve Clicquot, that pair Brooklyn chefs with their foreign “twins.” Meaning at the September 19 dinner, Brian Leth, the Vinegar Hill House chef, will cook with Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook, the guys from the popular Los Angeles restaurant Animal. On the 20th, you get a lovely pairing of Frankies 457 Spuntino’s owners Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli with southern darling Sean Brock, who runs the farm-to-table joint Husk in Charleston, North Carolina. For the third dinner, they have Neal Harden and Alain Senderens preparing a vegan meal with the Paris-based chef Daniel Rose. Finally, the last meal of the series features a nomadic feast where Le Fooding organizers have opened up a kitchen in Dustin Yellin’s new building, The Intercourse, to host great chefs who currently don’t have their own restaurant. This means you can sample fare by British chaps Isaac McHale and James Lowe of the Young Turks, Ignacio Mattos, formally of Isa, and Hugue Dufour, formally of M. Wells.

The cinematic brunches will be held September 22 and 23 at Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg, and they plan on screening Brooklyn classics like Saturday Night Fever and The Warriors to pair with dishes that represent the borough. Also on the 22nd and 23rd, the Fort Greene and Williamsburg flea markets will open up a food stand featuring vintage eats by various Le Fooding chefs. Finally, for the last night, they will have the Campfire Session, an energetic event at the Brooklyn Waterfront with live music and, of course, more food. 

This event will sell out, so get your tickets early!

As Famed Queens Restaurant M. Wells Closes, Its General Manager Looks Back

You may have heard that M. Wells, that Quebecios diner in Long Island City that your foodie friends won’t stop talking about because it serves stuff like bone marrow and duck testicles, is closing. In less than two weeks, they will shut the doors of the current location, and eventually relocate to somewhere else in the neighborhood. A Sunday after the news of their closing accidentally broke (more on that below), they fed three-hundred in a space that only seats fifty-five. That’s six full turns of a space not much larger than a subway car, and you better believe they all left happy. They’ve even had to add a Friday and Saturday dinner service to keep up with demand. (In the past year, their weekday crowds have been thick enough for them to afford being closed for weekend nights.)

The reason behind M. Wells’ temporary farewell is an all-too-classic New York quagmire: landlord issues. The narrow, fifties-ish space, which has been host to failed delis, greasy spoons, and even a Chinese restaurant, will now be rented (if the landlord has his way) for a prohibitively inflated sum compared to what M. Wells has paid over the last year. When the news broke on August 2nd, many were shocked, among them the general manager, Deven DeMarco who accidentally hit “Post” instead of “Save” on his blog. “It was still in draft form,” DeMarco said. “I was so embarrassed.” Within hours, he was taking a call from the Wall Street Journal. The staff, luckily, had already been informed.

In M. Wells’ yearlong run, they’ve received mostly rave reviews, but only days after the announcement of their close, a damning, bitter review from Alan Richman was published on GQ‘s website. Richman found the food almost without fault; his attacks were instead on the service and owners, which others cite as a source of M. Wells’ charm. Most surprisingly, allegations that Richman giving a ‘hardy pat on the ass” to one of the waitresses has ignited a new wave of controversy and interest in the restaurant’s final week.

The close is a shame for a multitude of reasons, and Deven DeMarco can tell you pretty much all of them. DeMarco first visited M. Wells in their first month of business, and after three bites of a hangover-curing sandwich, he asked owners Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis if they were hiring. DeMarco, a veteran of the foodservice industry and a leader of grub crawls through New York City, quickly retooled his resume over another M. Wells brunch, and within a few days he became their general manager, a job that he has loved every inch of.

Telling the regulars that M. Wells will shut its doors has been the most difficult part of the job so far, but when asked what the high point has been, his eyes light up; he can name more than a few. A few days ago, four strangers came in to dine alone, and all that was open was a booth, so he offered it to them. They accepted, and DeMarco sent some sake their way as a thank you, but by the middle of the meal, they were sharing dishes, cracking jokes, and seeming as if they’d known each other for years. Another favorite is the regular, an older man who sticks his head in the door and barks questions, “What’s the soup? What are you out of?” before making his decision to have lunch or move on. Characters like that are another part of what’s made M. Wells so special, DeMarco says.

But perhaps what he’ll miss most of all is the staff as it is right now. “Everyone is here for more than just a paycheck,” he says, adding that as trite as it may sound, they “are like a family.” On a recent Tuesday afternoon, as late lunch was served to a packed house, it was obvious that DeMarco is right about the tight-knit quality of the staff. They worked gracefully together in a very open and cramped kitchen to turn out plate after plate of glistening poached eggs over hash, escargot in bone marrow, and intimidating sandwiches stabbed with steak knives. Waiters strode nearly non-stop up along the narrow path between counter diners and booths, seeming almost choreographed.

The Friday and Saturday night suppers will be a single seating Prix Fixe centered around a different theme each night. Past themes have been “A Trip to Fulton Street Fish Market” and “Cheese” and an upcoming one will be “Tin Tin,” whatever that means. The dinners will be two hundred dollars a head, including all food, service, tax and drinks. According to DeMarco’s report, anyone wishing to attend one of these feasts will need to “wear their eating pants.” Could M. Wells go out any other way?

Mystery Chef Revealed: Exquisite Corpse at Le Grand Fooding NYC 2011

You know that mystery chef we mentioned — the blind recluse opening a 52-hour popup restaurant in Chelsea next month? Well, he doesn’t exist. Or rather, he does exist, and his name is legion. That’s because he’s a culinary amalgam of 13 for-real superchefs, all contributing their talents and grub to 13 individual seatings for Le Grand Fooding NYC 2011. You would be well advised to buy from our special allotment presale tickets, available as of right now. But who exactly makes up the exquisite corpse of the mythical Nikoalan Nselurfueymardcora?

That would be Andrew Carmellini (Locanda Verde and The Dutch in New York City); Hugue Dufour (M. Wells in New York City); Kobe Desramaults (In de Wulf, of Dranouter, Belgium); Armand Arnal (La Chassagnette of Arles, France); Ana Ros (HiSa Franko of Kobarid, Slovenia); Sat Bains (Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham, UK); Blaine Wetzel (Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Washington State); Fulvio Pierangelini (Hotel de Russie, Rome); Brooks Headley (Del Posto in New York City); Mauro Colagreco (Le Mirazur of Menton, France); Adeline Grattard (Yam’tcha in Paris); Corey Lee (Benu in San Francisco); and Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy).

Quite a lineup, brought to you by sponsor dollars from the lines of Veuve Clicquot, Mastercard, and San Pellegrino. Now you can only buy tickets for the 9/24 and 9/25 seatings via our link, but you only miss out on Carmellini; everyone else is working round the clock on the other days. There’s only a handful of tickets available for each one, so act fast.

Shocker: Queens Diner M. Wells Will Close this Month

Few New York restaurants collected as many accolades in the last year as M. Wells. NY Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton gave the eccentric diner one of his best reviews yet, and New York recently published a piece calling M. Wells Queens’ “most exciting” new restaurant. Dinner reservations had to be made weeks in advance. After a rocky start, chef-owner Hugue Dufour and his wife, Sarah Obaraitis, had finally achieved a fine balance. And now, against all odds, M. Wells has announced it will close at the end of August.

In a letter to The Hungry Tiger, the couple explained their decision:

Dear Friends, Greetings from M. Wells, that offbeat diner in Long Island City. As many of you know it’s been an exciting (and sometimes challenging) opening and we are grateful for all the support and encouragement you’ve extended us since we opened last year. Neighbors and tourists and everyone in between have really warmed up to us. In short, we’ve managed to brighten up a forgotten corner with a dusty diner and build for a lovely home for ourselves.

On the heels of our first anniversary, however, we regret to share with you sad news: M. Wells is preparing to close at the end of August. We are in this precarious position because we took the ambitious and risky decision to open M. Wells without long-term stability on the property. The landlord allowed us to occupy the space for a little over a year. We went for it. The space was charming, we lived across the street and we had faith in Queens. And, of course, we hoped that we would work out an arrangement that solidified a future. Alas, we have not been able to strike an agreement with the landlord.

His proposal included astronomically high rent, a short length of lease and a strict buy-out clause. Nothing on the table offered us a favorable environment in which to continue to do business. After several months of trying to negotiate, we relented and accepted the fact that we weren’t meant to remain his tenants.

While this is devastating to the people who love our food, and more importantly the more than 20 employees who’ve dedicated countless hours of overtime, our spirit will not be crushed.

We look forward to keeping you posted with better news. We again thank you for believing in us and we hope we can count on your support in the future.

One thing is for sure, we will stay in Long Island City and we will have you back for brunch as soon as possible.

And in the end, all will be well with M. Wells.

Sincerely, Hugue & Sarah

So there you have it. A seemingly immovable (albeit, thanks to the makeshift space, slightly precarious) operation, foiled by a dastardly landlord. M. Wells was loved almost as much for its venue as it was for its food, so this is indeed a shame. But according to some, Dufour and Obaraitis will open up again in Long Island City, and most likely in a space that has all the charm and old school hospitality of their little diner that could.