Long Island City, or as the locals say “LIC”, is the western-most residential and commercial neighborhood of New York City’s borough of Queens. As the name suggests, Long Island City was formerly an independent city after several villages merged to form it in 1870. Twenty years later it surrendered its independence and merged with the borough of Queens.
With rents ever on the rise in Manhattan, LIC has seen an uptick in interest in recent years from those looking for a reasonable place to live and work within hitting distance to Manhattan. As a result the area is undergoing rapid change, which is a good thing because now more than ever, there is amazing food to be had and great museums to visit just a short hop from Manhattan, over the East River.
LIC was home to the infamous Major Patrick Gleason, an Irish immigrant who fought in the Civil War, failed at several business ventures around New York and then moved to San Francisco where he made a small fortune in the distillery business. Moving back to New York, he established himself in LIC. He was known for his volatile temper and having a stronghold over local politics, being elected three times to office.
One of his legacies was a school he built for local children, the largest high school on Long Island at the time. It educated students for many years, and still stands today as the home of MoMA’s PS1. Major Gleason would be proud to see his legacy still standing.
So, here is where we start our food and art tour for the day.
MoMA’s PS1 is a major hub for contemporary art lovers, and the largest institution of its kind in the United States. When MoMA took over the space it was already structured in a way quite suitable to the display of art. So fortunately, much of the old school remains intact, and walking around the galleries today it is easy to imagine the halls and classrooms packed with energetic kids.
After you have strolled the galleries, there is one particular classroom you should check out. It’s a classroom turned dining room, on the ground floor, and the home of M. Wells Dinette, a cafeteria-style eatery run by husband and wife team, Hugue Dufour and Sarah Orbraitis.
Hugue got his start at the famed “Au Pied de Cochon” in Montreal, the restaurant which many say brought nose-to-tail cooking back to the Americas. On moving to New York from Montreal, Hugue and Sarah first tried their luck taking over a small diner next to the Vernon Boulevard Subway stop in Queens. That was not meant to be, but soon the opportunity arrived to take over PS1’s cafe space, and M. Wells Dinette was born.
It’s a good fit with PS1. You feel Hugue and Sarah’s creativity in their unique take on food and place the moment you enter. An open kitchen overlooks the dining room. And in homage to the young, energetic and mostly French Canadian team, overlooking the kitchen is a giant portrait of famed Quebec Politician Rene Levesque, founder of Quebec’s political independence from the rest of Canada.
The food is a natural extension of the PS1 galleries. Unique and inspiring works, in various edible mediums. It’s a tangible and fulfilling experience with art. The menu is at its core French, but the French connection is mainly philosophical. The dishes are thoroughly current and modern, prepared with a love of ingredients and assembled in fresh new ways.
On the day of my visit there was a bit of a nip in the air and it was gratifying to see that the day’s menu had “comfort” written all over it. Two dishes stood out: foie gras with oatmeal, and diced veal hearts. Yum! There is a great wine list which, naturally, is predominantly French. You will have to ask what the best pairing is for foie gras and oatmeal.
Next stop is a real treat and it’s just a few blocks away. The Isamu Noguchi museum is a quiet, intimate and reflective museum that rarely gets overcrowded. Noguchi designed the museum himself as an open air sculpture garden ensconced within a building that houses ten galleries.
A bit further down the road is the Socrates Sculpture Park. This is a recently built outdoor sculpture garden with regularly changing exhibitions. One feature of this park is the spectacular Manhattan skyline which is something you just can’t see in Manhattan. You have to go to Queens for that.
Depending on when you began your LIC tour, it might be about time to start thinking about your next meal. Continuing on with Sarah and Hugue’s other LIC venue, our next stop is M. Wells Steakhouse.
For the steakhouse, Sarah and Hugue chose a former car mechanic shop as the location. This provided a great industrial backdrop characteristic of LIC, on which could be added elements of old world charm and glamour, which you would expect in an establishment specializing in steak house fare.
When people ask me where they should head for the best New York steak, hands down this is the place to go. There are some other better known steak houses in New York but you will not find a better dining experience than at M. Wells Steakhouse.
To back up my claim, last September Hugue received his first Michelin star!
As at M. Wells Dinette, the menu is characteristically French, layered with Hugue’s newly found American roots. My favorite dish for taste and presentation was the French onion soup with bone and marrow right in the middle. It is served with a delightfully small silver fork sized especially to facilitate the marrow part of your meal.
The dish has a magical, slightly fluorescent green tinge to it. An effect which Hugue achieves by topping the dish with a mixture of finely ground parsley mixed with breadcrumbs. It is divine.
There are brilliant deserts on offer as well, so make sure you leave room. The dessert presentation is on a 1950s style cake trolley. The selection is quite something to behold.
After a day full of amazing food and art it is back to Manhattan on the 7 train. What a great day of amazing creative treats for mind and body.
< More fascinating vacation destinations await. Let’s go.