Our resident food guru, Alan Richman, writes a love letter to his favorite food: ice cream.
10. Ice cream is our finest commercial food product, more important than Coca-Cola, which is a brilliant melding of carbonation and globalization. Coke isn’t everywhere—not like ice cream, in homes, supermarkets, bodegas, increasingly obtainable in more and more restaurants, for sale in scoop shops dedicated to little else.
Last week, the best chefs in America gathered at Le Bernardin in New York to take their best shots at the man who’s taken his best shots at them for 25 years. Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, David Chang—all took turns as roastmaster general. But the highlight was the long-awaited showdown between GQ’s longtime restaurant critic and his arch-nemesis, Anthony Bourdain. More on that later. First up, Part 1: The Preheating. Sharpen those knives, everybody.
It isn’t often that a restaurant review makes big news, but that’s what happened with Alan Richman’s account of his experience at M. Wells, the diner in Queens, NY that went from culinary sensation to closed-for-business in a matter of months, like a comet across the food world. Last night, Alan won a James Beard award in the category of restaurant criticism for three columns including this one, The Very Tasty Liberation of Paris, and I [heart] SF. Here’s a short portion of Diner For Schmucks.
Sooner or later, depending on how long it takes to get a reservation, you’ll end up having a bad time at what is supposed to be a good restaurant.
When that happens, you might be startled by how upset you become. It probably won’t be the food that’s to blame. You can always shrug off a tough steak, since the chef didn’t mean to disappoint you. But everyone takes poor service personally. Get a bad table and you’ll wonder if the hostess finds you unworthy. Find yourself with a disrespectful server and you’ll feel worse, because you’re expected to tip.
Now and then, poor service is the result of a restaurant having an unfortunate day. Maybe the chef snapped at your waiter and made him sulk. Maybe the front of the house, as it’s called, is short-staffed because a waiter called in sick.
More than likely, poor service is inherent, caused by a staff with lackluster spirit or a manager with a lax attitude. Here in New York, with our restaurants tumbling into informality, a guest can easily become a casualty of incompetence. We’ve entered the post-service era, where fewer and fewer restaurateurs still stand watch.
Which brings me to M. Wells, a metal-clad diner as shiny as a magpie’s trinket, situated on a corner in Queens as dead-drab as one of the borough’s countless cemeteries. A little more than a year ago, the diner was an abandoned shell, and now it symbolizes the renewal of Long Island City as surely as the MoMA PS1 art museum and the Silvercup film studios. I don’t know what a burger once cost at the derelict diner that became M. Wells, since I never ate there, but I’m betting it was about $2.99. M. Wells sells one for $42, proof that gentrification is thriving in Queens.
Walk in and you might presume that you’ve stumbled on a formulaic re-creation of the diner genre, but you’d be wrong. M. Wells is not a faux-old-fashioned spot with black-and-white shakes and brassy waitresses to put you in your place. It’s not retro-romantic, with votive candles, arugula salads, and flourless chocolate cake.
My experience there was like no other. The motto is “All’s well at M. Wells.” I assure you it is not.
If you live in New York and care a whit about food, you’ve already heard plenty about M Wells, the deliciously quirky Queens diner that has the city abuzz. But GQ’s restaurant critic had an experience there that he’ll never forget—for all the wrong reasons—and we’ve never read a story about restaurant quite like this. The passage below cuts straight to the heart of the dispute, but the whole piece is a tour de force of critical writing, journalistic self-scrutiny and, finally, ethical outrage. Click here for the full piece.
Nothing else of significance happened during that dinner. What stands out is the heat and the long waits. During our meal, Obraitis came by to say that she and her husband had to leave to attend an event and were looking forward to seeing me in a few days. I felt the same, although I didn’t enjoy the food as much as I had at the first two dinners, and the service was dreadful. In order to get a check, I had to wave to our elusive waitress.
Late the next afternoon, an e-mail arrived from Obraitis. This is what it said:
“I am a bit distressed by the feedback I received after your visit last night. Either you had despicable service or you guys were in an awful mood. It seems we couldn’t make you happy, several servers heard you complain and ask for more attention. One of those servers, a female, received a hardy pat on the ass from you. Totally unacceptable in our world. I don’t know what to think or how to proceed. But I must relay my worry.”
I sat numb, experiencing the kind of paralysis a person feels when he picks up the phone and learns of a ghastly accident or a horrific illness. I was being accused of sexually harassing a member of a restaurant staff. After a few minutes, I wrote back, and this is what I said:
“Absolutely, 100 percent untrue. I just went bone-cold when I read that. In all my years going to restaurants, I have never done that and never been accused of doing that. I would not do that. Who in the world told you that? I will be happy to come to your restaurant tonight and confront that person, face-to-face. It’s a lie.
I will comment quickly on the other stuff. First, I thought one of the men in my group was totally out of line with his mouth and his comments. I just couldn’t get him to shut up. Second, we had two servers. A young kid, practically a boy, who brought the bar snacks and then forgot about us for 45 minutes, and a taller woman (blonde, wearing yellow?) who took over. Yes, I said something to her about nobody taking our order for 45 minutes, but that was the extent of my comments about service.
But it simply isn’t important compared to that accusation. I assure you it never happened, not by me.”
That indictment from Obraitis was wickedly reckless—unless, of course, she had witnessed me doing such a thing, which she had not. She did not ask for my account of what occurred after she and her husband left the restaurant. Under other circumstances, I might have dwelled on the illogicality of the first part of her message. Here was a restaurant proprietor blaming guests for being in a bad mood because they were treated hideously. But at the moment, it didn’t get my attention. The accusation was way too momentous.
Alan Richman ate his way through San Francisco and picked his ten favorite dishes. This gorgeous devil—the smoked beef brisket from Mission Chinese Food—was number one. Sez Alan: “So soft, I was sure it was braised. Not so. Just an old-fashioned way of cooking, twelve hours of low heat. Beats most Texas brisket.” Click here to read the rest, or to just stare / drool at absurdly beautiful pictures of food.
Our gastro guru found his favorite new joint of 2010 just up the street from last year’s.
New York, NY
Jonathan Benno’s food is rigorously Italian but comes in a multitude of styles: Lasagna and eggplant parmigiana are idealized but still lusciously gooey. A few main courses suggest the meticulousness of Per Se, although friends insist I’m wrong, claiming Benno’s style here is warmer. His pastas, particularly the uni-and-crab rigati (short tubes, curved and ridged), taste more Italian than I’d expect from a non-Italian. (He isn’t one, even though his name ends in a vowel.) In an era when Italian food in America is about overwhelming gusto and over-the-top portions, Benno’s food is remarkably thoughtful.