1. M. Wells
21-17 49th Ave., Long Island City; 718-425-6917
You’ve heard by now about this phantasmagoric joint across the river, where the hamburger feeds four and the French Canadian chef, Hugue Dufour, scatters foie gras around like pixie dust. You might have even already written off the meaty, large-format enterprise as all shtick and gimmicks. But that would mean you have yet to visit Queens’s most exceptional restaurant or experience firsthand the pure food joy and rare bonhomie that animate the cozy rehabbed diner. Like the setting—is it a truck stop? A culinary mecca? A performance-art project?—Dufour’s menu defies easy categorization. If moving to America, with its voracious assimilation of cuisines and cultures, proved liberating, then winding up in the most diverse borough of its most diverse city was culinary kismet. Where else could Korean bibimbab enriched with duck liver coexist with Indian-inspired butter chicken? This is cooking with gusto, and eating too: Ungainly sandwiches arrive stabbed with a somewhat menacing steak knife, the new Queens toothpick. Dufour’s inventiveness expresses itself in cunning little things, like the smoked-herring Caesar-salad dressing, and in showstopping big ones, like the family-style $150 reservations-required Peking-duck feast that unfolds over three dramatic courses, not the least of which is fried rice that’s mingled on occasion with wakame and ramps, and tastes as if each individual grain has been massaged with duck schmaltz.
2. Fu Run
40-09 Prince St., Flushing; 718-321-1363
This is Chinese cooking from the northeast hinterlands of Dongbei, formerly known as Manchuria, and if you were reared on sesame noodles and kung-pao chicken, it might as well be from another planet. The spectacular “Muslim lamb chop” is like nothing you’ve ever seen—a braised, battered, and deep-fried slab of chewy, fatty, muttony ribs encrusted with a spice rack’s worth of cumin seeds, dried chiles, and black and white sesame seeds: the everything bagel of meats. The cabbage-y “mixed vegetable with green bean sheet jelly” bathed in chile oil is coleslaw reimagined by a pyromaniac. There’s sauerkraut in the pork dumplings and what seems like spaetzle in the “homemade-style blotch soup.” (Or are they blotches?) As the meal progresses, the number of culinary influences only increases: Russian, Korean … is that what they eat in Inner Mongolia? And just when you think you’ve seen it all, out comes the combination sweet potato-taro-and-apple plate—a leaning tower of cubed fruit and tuber spackled together by molten caramel. You extract the cubes, dip them into a bowl of water to cool and crystallize, then you swear the closest relation to this absurdly delicious Seussian concoction has got to be the French croquembouche.
3. Little Pepper
18-24 College Point Blvd., College Point; 718-939-7788
It’s hard to describe the Sichuan flavor sensation known as ma la. You might say that it’s like going to the dentist’s and having your mouth shot full of novocaine and then rinsing with Tabasco. On second thought, no, it’s nothing like that. That would be terrible. Whatever it is, it’s delicious and it’s addictive. To Chinese-food aficionados, it’s what truffles are to truffle hogs. And nowhere else do the numbing, Sichuan-peppercorn-induced ma and the la, or hot-chile heat, frolic in such exquisite harmony as they do at Little Pepper, recently relocated from a gritty Flushing basement to a spick-and-span College Point storefront. For the full-on ma-la experience, order anything on the menu designated with a red-chile icon. But it’s not all about the four-alarm spicing here; there’s serious, careful cooking on display. Steamed chicken with “special chili sauce” is as preternaturally tender as if Wylie Dufresne were in the basement on sous-vide duty. Spicy cold noodles are as springy as a brand-new Posturepedic. And the Sichuan pickled cowpeas with minced pork achieve that perfect texture, between soft and crunchy, that one hopes for—nay, demands—in a cowpea. The plating is lovely, too—except for the “lamb with hot and spicy sauce with cumin,” which is oddly served on a bed of aluminum foil.
100-05 Metropolitan Ave., Forest Hills; 718-880-2055.
A good stuffed grape leaf is hard to find. Not at Wafa’s, though, where the deftly wrapped little packages taste as conspicuously fresh as the rest of the Middle Eastern menu, and where chef-owner Wafa Chami patrols her cozy dining room like a Levantine Elaine Kaufman, greeting devoted regulars and engendering new ones. Chami is a somewhat reluctant restaurateur, having been cajoled by her children and friends into opening a spot serving the home cooking she learned from her mother in Lebanon. (It’s a talented family: Her brother Mouhamad Shami keeps Wall Streeters flush in falafel at Alfanoose downtown.) Chami soon outgrew the takeout joint she opened on a Forest Hills side street and recently expanded into this 40-seat storefront. It’s an upgrade worthy of her silken hummus, her smoky babaganoush, and her moist chicken shawarma, rolled up in thin pita with pink pickled turnips and an Altoid-defying dose of garlic sauce. There is no wine or beer—yet—but there is a liquor store next door. Not to mention crisp, flaky baklava and rice pudding kissed with orange-blossom water.