In New York, where pork belly abounds and adventurous eaters gulp down still-squiggling octopus tentacles, being a vegetarian means some of the city’s most intriguing and tempting cuisines are, at best, difficult to navigate. But rather than accepting our fate as second-class culinary citizens, we bring you Intrepid Vegetarian, a series of restaurant reviews in which our writers dare to go veg in meaty places.
Just before the doors opened on a Saturday morning a few months back, we found ourselves at the end of a line just long enough to fill every table in M. Wells’s snug dining room. Luckily, there were freshly fried, cinnamon sugar–coated doughnuts (still warm, minimally oily and with perfectly crispy shells guarding fluffy interiors) and cups of coffee with unlimited refills to sustain us during the hour-long wait.
Finally seated in a cozy booth, we quickly ferreted out the vegetarian dishes on chef Hugue Dufour’s Quebecois-American menu and negotiated adjustments with our waiter. Could the egg soufflé be made without the bonito (dried fish shavings)? It could not—the dish would be irreparably harmed by the omission. What about an egg-sausage sandwich minus the sausage? That change was granted.
We settled on the sandwich, the egg tomato pot and the tortilla española, which we paired with the hand-cut fries, a green salad and an order of the maple syrup ploye (buckwheat crepes).
If the egg sandwich could be described in one word, it would be: thick. It consisted of not one, but two hefty omelette slabs (perhaps the extra omelette was intended to compensate for our foregone sausage?), an equally thick tomato slice, a few slivers of pickled jalapeño, a generous lather of mayonnaise and a melted slice of bright orange cheddar cheese. All of this was precariously wedged between two halves of a steroidal English muffin that was both unusually dense and (you guessed it) seriously thick. Unfortunately, the intense egginess of the double-decker omelette overpowered the sandwich’s other flavors, leaving a bland impression.
The egg tomato pot combined an egg baked into a tangy tomato stew with a generous dollop of pesto topped with a sprinkling of mild white cheese. The pesto and cheese added zing and zest to the unremarkable tomato sauce. Once broken, the oozing egg yolk gave the whole mixture a pleasing richness. We eagerly sopped it all up with the excellent, simultaneously crispy and soft baguette that accompanied the dish.
The plain appearance of the tortilla española was misleading. It arrived stolidly hunkered down in the center of its plate, flanked by two triangles of crusty artisanal bread. But the first bite revealed fluffy egg blended with onion and perfectly cooked bits of soft, flavorful potato. The tortilla had an unexpectedly smoky flavor that might have deterred us had it been mentioned on the menu. But that smoky edge perfectly complemented the mild flavor of the other ingredients.
The hand-cut fries were thin, crispy and generously salted—but just a bit too oily. The greens, tossed with dill, mint, basil and parsley, were very fresh and just bitter enough to offset the creaminess of the buttermilk dressing.
Unexpectedly thick and dense, the crepes had a moist, almost glutinous texture. The sparing use of maple syrup allowed the crepes’ subtle sweetness, which recalled the savory-sweet mashed fillings found in Chinese pastries, to shine through.
Despite M. Wells’s reputation for meaty fare, our vegetarian brunch was easily assembled and very enjoyable. (Sorry, vegans and pure vegetarians, aside from the fries, M. Wells offers next to nothing in the way of non-lacto-ovo vegetarian brunch options.) If Dufour ever expands the diner’s vegetarian options beyond eggs, we’ll eagerly return to sample the results.
M. Wells Diner, 21-17 49th Ave., Long Island City, Queens, 718-425-6917, www.mwellsdiner.com