Saturday, May 22, 2010

Children of Eden: Believing in second chances

Photo Credit: Kate Northern (

Ascending the staircase into Good Sheperd United Methodist on Crescent Street, my palms begin to sweat.

Oh God, I left my Bible at home.  I just took the Lord's name in vain... jeezus... oh wait, I did it again!  Are these shoes okay for church?  How long will the service last?  Can the minister see on my forehead every sin I committed (or at least thought about committing) since last Sunday?

As I check in at the make-shift box office (a table with a clipboard in the lobby), a quick glance to the left reveals an empty sanctuary, and thankfully the crowd meanders in the opposite direction.  My nerves quiet, and I remember that I'm not here for church.  Well, at least not in the Biblical sense...

I'm actually here for the Astoria Performing Arts Center's production of Children of Eden, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked), and book by John Caird (Les Miserables).  And while a beautiful old church may provide the perfect setting for a musical based loosely on the Genesis stories of Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, and Noah's Ark, APAC's production is anything but preachy.

Using the framework of those Old Testament tales (The Council of Trent is probably rolling in their graves) the writers quite liberally exhibit artistic license on several deviations from the original scriptures.  But the message of Children of Eden isn't translation, theology, or even salvation.  It's a sometimes anguishing, yet empowering tale of redemption, love, sacrifice, family, and ultimately... free will.

Following tradition with the unique double casting of the American productions of Children of Eden (initially produced in London with a much larger cast), most of the actors double in roles, beautifully signifying the cycle of history repeating itself, and cleverly instrumenting a continuity and fluidity between the first and second act.

This Equity-studded cast is vocally on par with most productions you will find in Manhattan.  A refreshing twist to this off off Broadway staging, however, is the lack of microphones, allowing the audience to simultaneously enjoy Schwartz's aching harmonies as well as the individual voice of whichever actor is arms length away at any given point.  There was something very organic and comforting in being able to hear each individual vocalist within the greater context (somewhat fitting given the musical's themes).  A six-member orchestra elevated above the audience miraculously executes the stunning score, in impressive coordination with the actors (considering their lofty and invisible perch).

James Zanelli (Father) skillfully portrayed God, almost more of a humanly father merely longing to protect his children, even after multiple betrayals and disobediences.  Even though he wasn't necessarily the grandfatherly patriarch I envision for this role, his gorgeous baritone voice soared from tender and velvet to a booming wall of sound literally drowning out the entire cast at times.

Particularly impressive was Joseph Spieldenner in the roles of Adam and Noah.  With uniquely striking, almost Disney hero physical features, he went from quintessential goofy jock and all American boy who likes to play with bugs (Adam in Act 1), to the second act's wise and introspective Noah, faced with the dilemma of protecting his family in light of being apparently forsaken by God.

The exotically pretty Emmy Raven-Lampman also turned out a stellar transition from inquisitive and mischievous, wide-eyed Eve to family pillar and Mama Noah in Act 2.  She flawlessly delivered what is perhaps the most poignant moment of the show, the finale of Act 1.  Just before being called home to her heavenly Father, and standing solo center stage, she exquisitely held the audience in the gentle palm of her hand while lamenting, "you will know heartache, prayers that don't work, and times of bitter circumstances... but I still believe in second chances."

Just like the animals on the ark, the remainder of the cast came in a refreshing array of every shape and color, each with ample vocal chops.  My only semi-disappointment was Alan Shaw's interpretation of Cain and Japheth.  Though he exuded an evident commitment and passion perhaps greater than most others on the stage, his impressive ability to summon streams (Noah-worthy floods, really) of actual tears occasionally became somewhat distracting (he nearly cried the entire show) for a role that, although lost and misguided, could have been played a little less fragile.

Shaw's extremely physical acting sometimes distracted from what I think is probably a gorgeous voice (he had a few memorably tender moments, especially in his lovely chemistry with Yonah, sweetly played by Stacie Bond).  It was particularly unfortunate for a role that's been blessed with some of the show's most beautiful vocals (such as my personal favorite, "Lost in the Wilderness," which teetered on the verge of an almost lack of control at its soaring climax).

Photo Credit: Kate Northern (

Even before the initial curtain, I was extremely impressed with set designer Michael P. Kramer's genius manipulation of a church recreational room and gymnasium.  The stage virtually bisects the room, with multiple platforms at one end (the Ark), a waterfall and doorway at the opposite end, and a circular platform in the center, all bridged by catwalk.  Audience seats are scattered in pockets around the stage, the farthest seat being only five rows back.  Holes in the flooring allow wooden rods to double as staffs, cages, trees, and curtain posts (props by Nicole Gaignat) for the absolutely brilliant and playful shadow puppetry (by Hunter Kaczorowski).

Lighting by Dan Jobbins was masterfully executed.  I somehow forgot I was on a gym floor, gazing at immaculately spotted actors and puppets... no small task, considering the layout of the stage and constant motion of the acting in the round.

I realized just how impressive the innovative sets and props had drawn me in during "A Piece of Eight," the Act 2 number where Yonah is banished from the table and ultimately, the ark.  The actors are literally on the their knees around the circular center stage with table settings before them, but the audience is so intimately drawn into the action that I genuinely felt as though I was sitting at dinner with Noah's family.

Costuming (also by Hunter Kaczorowski) was almost convincingly Biblical, with a nice symbolic utilization of colors.  The Greek chorus of storytellers, even more omniscient and innocent than the earthly rendering of Father, wore white.  Adam and Even began scantily clad in white and green at the inception of Eden, and gradually became more conservatively draped in browns and tans as they acquired knowledge and experience.  The only real distraction were the mismatched assortment of contemporary sandals worn by the cast, a sadly glaring blemish for otherwise seamless visuals.

All in all, it is a truly exceptional production, expertly directed by Tom Wojtunik and vibrantly choreographed by Christine O'Grady.  One of my favorite composers of musical theater, Stephen Schwartz refreshingly combines classic elements such as gorgeous lietmotifs that melodically foreshadow and connect the plot, along with a more contemporary and electric gospel and pop score.  Children of Eden is a simple, yet powerful show to be enjoyed by both veterans and novices to the theater.  The production by APAC, particularly the direction and vocals, was worthy of the Great White Way, and left me walking away quite proud to say that I live in Astoria.

Thanks to an extension, there are still a few shows available, with a final bow on May 29.  At only $18, it would almost be a crime to miss.  If you live in Astoria and love theater, I couldn't recommend a better three hours.  If you live elsewhere and want a refreshingly intimate departure from the sometimes over polished glamour displays in the city, hop on the N or W and get yourself to Queens.

(Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Queens: A Taste of the World

A little pitter patter of rain couldn't dampen the spirits (or the appetites) of the nearly 1,000 guests who descended upon Citi Field this past Wednesday, May 18th.  After checking my umbrella (never before have I seen such a hilarious Mary Poppins array of rain canopies), I joined a few WLA friends to sample my fill of the more than 30 restaurants & eateries offering tastes of their signature dishes.  Not only an impressive spread of international culinary creations, the event was also a battle for top taste honors awarded in 6 different categories.

Hosted by the Queens Economic Development Corporation (, the Tasting Team in charge of adjudicating included Food Network's Dave Lieberman, Anahad O'Connor (New York Times), Joe DiStefano (Edible Queens), author Suzanna Parker (Eating Like Queens), and and Beverage Media editor Alia Akkam.

Iconic Restaurant honors were awarded to Queens establishments in business for over 50 years.  This year's recipients were London Lennie's & Mama's of Corona (incidentally, probably my two personal favorite tastings of the evening).

The sampling at London Lennie's (Rego Park) included enormous fresh oysters & plump clams on the half shell, shrimp, and succulent crab claws.  I commented to a friend that I would have been quite content planted at this booth for the duration of the evening.

From Flushing, Mama's of Corona (also known as Leo's Latticini) deserved top honors for their particularly delicious sandwich of a heavenly-soft sesame hoagie with Italian meats, fresh mozzarella, and sweet red peppers.

Best appetizer was awarded to De Mole (Woodside) for their sea scallop ceviche.

Though Floresta (Sunnyside) won Best Entree for their skirt steak and arugula salad, I actually fell in love with their Argentine pork sausage with chimichurri sauce.

Best overall presentation was awarded to Cascon Baking Company for their CitiField cake.

Other top honors went to Dazie's tiramisu (Best Dessert), Fresh Ginger by Bruce Cost (Best non-alcoholic drink), and Domaine de Canton by Canton (Best drink with alcohol).

With an extremely diverse array of offerings, this year's Taste was considered a huge success.  Though I would certainly recommend attending next year's event, my one piece of advice is to arrive on time, or even early.  Though the event was scheduled from 6 - 9:00 p.m. several of the restaurants were already out of one or more of their plates as early as 6:45 p.m.  It was a little frustrating to be recommended a "delicious crab cake" only to find supplies depleted a third of the way into the event.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Piccola Venezia: A study in how to treat your neighbor

Piccola Venezia (42-01 28th Ave., Astoria)

The corner lamp post eerily flickered to blackness as I turned onto 28th Avenue, leaving only the jaundiced glow from the lights on the restaurant to illuminate the sidewalk.  I'd once heard that when a street light goes out, it's an omen of a strong surge of negative energy or even worse, the passing of an evil spirit.  My roommate, Matty, insists it's simply a built-in function to preserve the bulb, which is why the beacons will randomly turn back on minutes later, without the aid of a maintenance worker.  Regardless, only a block from my own apartment, I'd never before been scared to walk down this street that now seemed quite ominous.

Perhaps it was because tonight I was dining solo, something I rarely do.  Not because I can't find contentment in solitude.  Sometimes I actually revel in it, especially at the movies.  But to be completely honest, I love the experience of sharing a large selection of items from a menu, something in which my friends readily indulge.  Dining alone, it would be gluttonous to order multiple appetizers, entrees, and desserts.  And I find it difficult to adequately assess the extent of a chef's culinary dexterity after merely sampling one or two dishes.

But tonight, I was doing precisely that.  In a rare misalignment of the planets, all of my friends were either at work, theater, or out of town.  Sitting at home reading memoirs of food critics, I had built up a substantial appetite, and decided that for a change of pace, I'd accompany myself to dinner at a nearby restaurant.

The restaurant is Piccola Venezia.  Open since 1973, it is not only an Astoria establishment, but considered by many a New York institution.  Former food critic for the New York Times, Frank Bruni, scribed its praises on numerous occasions, hailing it as one of his favorite old world Italian restaurants in all of the five boroughs.

Considering it was literally a stone's throw from my apartment, there had really been no excuse to have not yet tried it in the total of almost four years I have lived in Astoria.  Both the building facade and peculiar lack of windows at eye level had denied me any preconceived notion of what lay beyond the front doors.  Assuming it to be a more formal establishment, I placed a reservation online for a party of one, hopped in the shower, threw on a pair of dress slacks and a button-up shirt, spritzed a puff of cologne, and strolled to explore this Italian cornerstone that had, for some reason, never previously intrigued me.

I believe now, more than ever, that for some inexplicable reason I harbor an innate sensitivity toward the overall caliber of a restaurant prior to even dining.  Dogs can sense fear.  The leaves on some trees instinctively upturn when a storm is approaching.  A few of my friends are almost psychic excellent judges of character after only a first impression.  As for me, I can (many times) freakishly predict, with frightening accuracy, the merit of a restaurant without even stepping foot inside.  I don't usually subscribe to superstition, but maybe there had been a subconscious reason I had never previously tried this kitchen of one of my favorite cuisines in the world, virtually in my own backyard.  I'll travel two hours by train to ferry to bus to sample pizza in Staten Island, but not one city block to indulge in famous homemade pasta?

As I approached Piccola Venezia, a parking valet stared blankly at the building, and three Italian men in suits whispered over inaudible matters of seemingly grave importance.  When I entered, the maitre d' stared blindly past me, as if waiting for the remainder of my party to follow through the doorway.  I approached the podium.

"Good evening.  I am the Hawks reservation of one."

"Ohhhh...." He smirked at me as if I had a tertiary nipple on my forehead.  "Right this way, then..."

The dining room was relatively empty, but he paraded me like Hester Prynne through the middle of all of the diners to the farthest corner of the room, where he placed a menu and wine list on a table next to the only curtain.  As there were no windows on any other wall, when he retreated from the table, I peeked behind the velvet drape, which turned out to be merely decoration for hiding the apparently unsightly emergency exit.

A burgundy gondola with the restaurant name had been glazed on all of the china.  The servers wore maroon jackets with a crest embroidered on the lapel.  This place was screamingly old school.  Never having been to Italy, I have no point of reference for whether or not true Italian servers looked like senior citizens donned in prep school uniforms, but I had dined in enough American versions to know that this was the epitome of Italian American dining in the old tradition.

Between the garish chandeliers, wood paneled walls, and gaudy floral arrangements, I felt like an outcast at an Italian Moose Lodge.  The other diners stared at me like an intruder, and so I buried my face in the menu, pretending that I hadn't already practically memorized it on the website.  After a bluffed perusal, I pivoted in my banquet hall chair to read the engraved metal nameplates scattered across the periphery of the room.  Were these placards for favored patrons, or headstones for the unfortunate countless many who had dared dine alone before me, and were now buried within the walls?

As the server's assistant placed a complimentary plate of antipasti before me, he winced an attempted smile, and actually shrugged at me, as if to say, "I know it's obviously a plate arranged for two people, but you're the first solo diner we've seen in nearly forty years of business."

I bit into the bruschetta.  I bit harder.  I bit again.  Finally, the stale bread gave way, and crumbled everywhere, little tomato teardrops falling all over the starched tablecloth.

While I was picking up the morsels and adjusting my plate to hide the olive oil stains on the otherwise pristinely white tabletop, the owner had made his way to the dunce's corner.  Ezio Vlacich is a gingerly, sweet, elderly man, and I recognized him from the research I had done prior to my visit.  In an online CBS video clip, he was the quintessential Italian patriarch of dignity and tradition.

As he approached my table, the wrinkles smoothed as his smile faded, and my stomach churned as if my elementary school principal had caught wind I had cheated on a spelling test.  The man who had previously been laughing with the other tables, patting the backs of patrons and kissing cheeks now lost all of his tenderness and approached me in apparent disdain.

"Are you going to order something?" he scoffed.

"I'm ready whenever my server is, Mr. Vlacich..."  That had certainly caught him off guard.  His face slightly softened, and he simply turned away.

Part of me wanted desperately to stand up and yell, "Nope... I have absolutely no intentions whatsoever of ordering.  I just planned on sitting here sharpening my teeth all evening on endless complimentary helpings of this godawful stale excuse for bruschetta pomodoro, before slithering back to my sleeping mat under the Hell's Gate Bridge, if that's alright by you???"

But the other half of me, the half that honestly had no issues dining alone, was sort of getting a kick out of the whole experience, as this was unfolding to provide some excellent copy for the forthcoming review on my blog.

It was also the half of me that had willingly suspended disbelief, forgiving that the owner had claimed authentic Italian cuisine, when in fact I had already learned that he was actually from Istria, a peninsula just off the coast of Italy in the Adriatic Sea, in reality only sharing true borders with Croatia and Slovenia.  Piccola Venezia, Italian for "Little Venice", has even less relation to Italy than West New York in Jersey has to New York City.

When the server finally approached, I mentioned that I had seen online that a tasting of two or three pastas was available.  He sneered at me, and said, "I'm sorry, but that's only for two guests or more."  Judging by the emptiness of the room, I couldn't imagine that accommodating my request would have dramatically offset their portioning or waste at the end of the evening, but I smiled graciously, placed an appetizer order, and asked for just another moment to decide my entree.

Upon his return, I gestured to the section of the menu that suggested half orders for smaller portions.  I chose half orders of two different pastas, which added up the exact price of the "tasting" of two pastas.  When I finally finagled the appropriate combination of words, he didn't even seem to acknowledge I'd found a loophole. Needless to say, Piccola Venezia earns zero stars from me for service.

I attempted to wipe away my frustrations so far, and open my mind to a clean slate for the cuisine.  There surely had to be at least some reason that this place had remained open for so many years, and garnered such acclaim.

For starters, I chose the Hot Antipasto "Piccola Venezia" as it offered a combination of three different appetizers (again, I wanted to sample as much as I could for a broader assessment of the food, without ordering more than one appetizer and entree).

Swimming in a pool of tepid butter and oil, the shrimp scampi was the least offensive.  Had they not been lukewarm, they may have even been enjoyable.  The mushroom caps and baked clams oreganata were genuinely the most boring I have ever tried.  Literally a crustacean and a fungus filled with a lazy sandcastle of bread crumbs and butter.  Nothing else. No crabmeat.  No cheese.  No spinach.  Not even a trace of dried herbs.  I gulped an entire glass of water just to rehydrate after consuming the depressing mini crumb coffins.

The pasta took an upturn for the better.  It was good. In fact, it was quite good.  The pappardelle was delicately thin, and tossed in a deliciously tangy garlic, basil, tomato sauce with just a whisper of cream.  So far dinner had almost been like a shutout football game with your favorite team on the losing side.  I love Italian food, and I had honestly wanted to love this restaurant.  But until the pasta, Piccola Venezia had scored absolutely zero points, and I'd almost called it quits before even tasting the entrees.

My favorite dish was the "Bucco"lloni (that's actually how it's printed in the menu).  Despite a name nearly as corny as the decor and server uniforms, these tortelloni stuffed with wonderfully tender osso bucco (braised veal shank) and blanketed with a savory brown sauce were exceptional, and I've even craved them a few times since my visit.  The primary difference between tortellini and tortelloni is the size, and these tortelloni were enormous, nearly proportionate to a fist.

For a dessert prepared in a mold, the pana cotta teetered more than a wee bit on the ugly side, but tasted quite to the contrary with the spirited Fragoli sauce (strawberry liqueur) and fresh berries.  I enjoyed it very much as a nearly redemptive ending, as if the food itself were apologizing for the restaurant.

Who knows if it's really what's inside, but they served the espresso in the same Danesi demitasse as all of the upscale Manhattan trattorias.

I do recommend gregariously softening the biscotti in the coffee as the dipping cookies they are intended to be.  Unfortunately, they brought the meal full circle with the same chip-a-tooth crunch as the bruschetta with which the meal had so dramatically commenced.

All in all, I have no intentions of returning.  The food was collectively mediocre, with a few shining exceptions that indicate a glimpse of what this restaurant possibly once achieved in its heyday.  The ambiance was plastic and contrived.  The service, though groomed and attentive, was absolutely unforgivable.  I don't care how many times a team of multiple servers and busboys refill my water or crumb the table when you treat me like a leper.

Having worked for several years in the restaurant industry myself, I have learned to go out of my way to provide comfort and hospitality to solo diners.  Not only is it the right thing to do, but they're also occasionally businessman with American Express Black cards who are easily blown away by the simplest gesture of kindness.

Or that customer might just be a neighbor and potential patron who just so happens to also post restaurant reviews on Why Leave Astoria, a site with a monthly readership of over 40,000 fellow Astorians and New Yorkers.

When I finally gave Piccola Venezia a chance, I only wish it had given me one in return.

Piccola Venezia on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hudson Eatery: Where Comfort Meets Glam

Hudson Eatery (601 W. 57th St.)

It is no lie that I have recently fallen in lust with such lavish dishes as bone marrow panzanella, sea urchin crostini with lardo, veal thymus, and a torchon of monkfish liver.  But truth be told, I'm a Midwestern meat and potatoes boy at heart, and sometimes I just wanna have some ding-dang good ol' fashioned comfort food without having to google the ingredients later.  Furthermore, hand to Bible, I check TMZ and Perez Hilton far more frequently than CNN or the NY Times.  If I claimed any other truth, my friends would quickly call my bluff.

When I found out that I could have mac 'n' cheese and TMZ all in one place, I released a stifled sigh of relief.  The recently opened Hudson Eatery, located in the brand new Helena luxury high rise, offers a contemporary, yet relaxed scene for noshing and unwinding, with the potential to see and be seen.  

Located on 57th just off the corner of 11th avenue, it's centrally positioned enough to be accessible, and just enough off the beaten path to offer ample space to breathe.  We walked there from Columbus Circle in about ten minutes.  And it's already hosted several celebrity events and Emmy parties, with a few more "rumored" in the upcoming weeks.  Though I may love celebrity gossip, my blog is no TMZ (but I could possibly be coaxed with gifts for insider info).

With an over-the-top flashy interior design of copper palate, wooden medallions, and exposed dressing-room-esque marquis light bulbs by Antonio Dioronzo (of Greenhouse and Juliet fame), it's about as flashy as stepping into Michael Jackson's sock drawer.  But once you settle into one of the horseshoe banquettes or bucket seat tables, your eyes adjust, and an unexpected comfort sets in.

Despite the glittery facade and the buzzy guest list, Hudson Eatery is all about comfort, and they do it well.  Take for instance the sweet and sour Gummy Bear Martini.  A refreshingly large, 5oz. berry cocktail (larger than a standard martini) for only $10.  From 4:00 - 7:00 they feature draught beers for $4 and mixed drinks and wine for $6.  Rarely in Midtown do you get Manhattan ambiance and quality sans a Manhattan price tag.

Brought to you by the owners of Central Lounge, an Astoria hotspot for the past 10 years, Hudson Eatery is intended as a place to rise with breakfast starting at 7 a.m., or to gather for daytime lunching, transitioning into a late night club, complete with celebrity DJs.  But the fact of the matter is that the menu here is the real star.

It's not the stuff of which James Beard Awards are made.  It's not particularly gourmet.  It's just plain and simple good and tasty.  The perfect place to lunch, or jump start an evening in Midtown...

Warm BBQ chips served with gorgonzola fondue were the perfect starter as we waited for our group to arrive ($6)

Applewood smoked bacon and buttery toasted bread crumbs always make mac 'n cheese taste better ($7.50).  I appreciated the direct take on comfort food... nothing crazy or particularly exotic... just well-executed classics.

It might sound simple, but these homemade jumbo mozzy sticks served with Sunday gravy were some of the best cheese fingers I've enjoyed... and I'm kinda sorta craving them right now ($8.50)

When one of my dearest friends, David, bit into the meatballs ($8) he rolled his eyes back, and then leaned over to whisper, "remember this taste, Brad... I've never had anything so similar to my grandma's... wow..."

Deliciously crisp and tender calamari with chipotle aioli ($10)

Prince Edward Island mussels provencal with tomato, garlic, white wine, and butter ($11)

My favorite dish of the whole evening was the Tuscan grilled cheese ($8.50).  The toasted bread reminded us of a zeppole, almost like a monte cristo with ham, fresh mozzarella, tomato, basil, and lemon caper butter drizzled over the entire sandwich.

Their signature burger is probably the ultimate lounge comfort food, a toasted brioche roll loaded with beef, smoked gouda, crispy onions, applewood smoked bacon, and aioli, and served with deliciously crispy golden french fries ($12)  The truffled parmesan fries were gone before I could even snap a photo.

One of the vegetarian offers included the zucchini panini, crunchy ciabatta bread with portobello, roasted peppers, and tomato pesto ($9)

A deliciously tender and colorful chicken scarpariello with italian sausage, caramelized onions, and bell peppers ($15).

Hudson Eatery on Urbanspoon

Afghan Kebab House

Afghan Kebab House (25-89 Steinway, Astoria)

I'm not going to lie.  When I first walked into the Afghan Kebab House, I had absolutely no idea what on earth constituted Afghan cuisine.  After spending entirely too much of my earnings on high-priced meals for the purpose of blogging about some of the up-and-coming stars of the NYC food scene, my wallet was extremely light.  So when I saw the take-out menu posted on the fence bragging a salad, entree, rice, and Afghan bread for $8.95 I decided it was probably a good time to learn about this culinary corner of the Middle East.

Long story short, I have returned on several occasions, and happily even order it for delivery from time to time.  With some obvious similarities to Indian cuisine, their food is good.  No, it's actually great.

On every visit, the owner has also been our server.  A young and strikingly handsome man, he has always been eager to guide us in our choices, as well as adjust various dishes according to our spice preferences.  True to the Middle Eastern culture of Steinway in Astoria, their food is halal.  And as the owner explains, they make absolutely everything fresh on the premises, with the exception of raising their own chickens.

Chicken quorma

The $8.95 lunch special is offered daily from 12 - 4 p.m. and offers a choice of nine different entrees, ranging from chicken quorma (tender boneless pieces tossed with mixed vegetables in a spiced tomato cream sauce) to chicken and kofta kebabs (minced beef), to even eggplant or okra for the herbivores.

Appetizers range from $3.50 to $5.50 and include authentic Afghan dishes such as the Aushak Goushti (above), boiled scallion dumplings topped with mint yogurt and seasoned ground beef.

One of my personal favorites is the savory bolani kadu for $3.50 (fried turnovers filled with pureed pumpkin and spices).  You can add the samboza, fried dumplings filled with seasoned ground lamb (pictured at the top of the post), or any combination of four appetizers for $12.95.

Though I am not usually easily impressed by grains, the seasoned long grain basmati rice is exceptionally moist and flavorsome, almost like tiny grains of delicious pasta.

For the heartier appetite, I highly recommend the chef's combo kebab, including skewers of chicken, lamb tikka, kofta, and a lamb chop, all accompanied with Qabuli Palau (brown seasoned rice with shaved carrots and raisins).

The Afghan tea (very similar to a chai latte) is a perfect way to calm the nerves and end the meal on a relaxed note.

For $3, you'd be negligent not to treat yourself to a heaping bowl of firni with crushed pistachios (a silky, delicious Afghan rice pudding... almost like a pistachio pana cotta)

The food is fresh and delicious.  The service is casual and friendly.  The price is right.  Absolutely one of the best meals under $10 anywhere.  If you haven't been, it's definitely worth a visit... or five...

Afghan Kebab House on Urbanspoon

Pulino's is so New York

Pulino's Bar & Pizzeria (282 Bowery @ Houston)

Fresh from my divine dinner at Marea, I was hyped to continue with my award-themed dining choices.  One of the most highly buzzed recent openings, and most coveted reservations, is Pulino's Bar & Pizzeria, located diagonally from DBGB Kitchen & Bar on the corner of Houston and Bowery.  With Chef Nate Appleman at the helm (2009 James Beard recipient for Rising Star Chef), teamed up with Keith McNally (the same man who brought us Cafe Luxembourg, Odeon, Lucky Strike, Nell's, Pravda, Balthazar, Pastis, Schiller's, and Minetta Tavern), it's hardly a mystery that this "pizzeria" has rapidly gained such frenzied momentum.

With business hours ranging from 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., they offer 7 different menus (depending on the time of day), including a brunch of breakfast pizza with poached eggs as well as a burger menu available only after midnight.  Of course, we were ambitious and shot for the prime dinner rush to catch this new gem at its shiniest.  Although reservations are typically booked two weeks in advance, a friendly (if not altogether desperate) call to the corporate office scored my blog bunch a table for seven of us at dinner this past Monday.

Our band of eager eaters was seated near the front at a table made entirely of distressed blue police barricades, though none of us took heed to the warnings of "POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS"... this bunch likes to share our food, and forks and knives flew across the table as we enjoyed a delicious array of much more than just pizza.

The dining room feels very much like a movie set, all facade, yet somehow very real, with a tangible current of energy... so much like, well, New York City.  I have read that the whitewashed brick was chosen because during construction, McNally so much loved the way the dust fell down the walls, he wanted to recreate the effect permanently.  The final result?  A cross between a glorious tiled, golden-lit  subway station, a French charcuterie, Italian pizzeria, and a library of hundreds of cordials and cognacs (don't get too excited... many of them are unavailable, including a bottle of Faretti biscotti liqueur one of my comrades keenly spotted).

Shortly after our initial cocktails were delivered, the door was swarming with SoHo fashionistas and Village hipsters unable to squeeze into the bustling bar, yet hoping for a walk-in seating.  The host staff practically doubled as (really hot) bouncers, more in charge of crowd control and guest-herding than actual greeting and seating.  With such electricity and decor, it seemed improbable that the food could possibly match in comparison.

The drinks certainly did not.

With the sole exception of the Raspicello Julep (a sort of raspberry mock mojito), the cocktails (entirely too many of which feature the mixologist's apparent obsession with grapefruit) ranged the gamut from teetering on marginal-at-best to severely disappointing, to altogether downright revolting, unanimously eliciting Looney Tunes reactions of shock and horror as they circulated our group before being left to die in a beverage graveyard in the middle of the table.  Please take my advice, and stick to the wine list... affordably priced, and exponentially more pleasing, as we discovered unfortunately far after our palates had already been raped.

After a few hearty swigs of water, and gulp or two of spirited grape juice, we were ready to try the food.  The alcohol had somewhat killed the buzz, ironically, but we hadn't come here for the drinks, after all.

Chef Appleman more than delivered.  In stark contrast to the liquid starters, every single plate was solid. This is the stuff that wins awards, builds lasting memories, and will draw in the crowds long after the initial hype subsides.  The platings aren't pretty.  In some cases, they were actually deliciously ugly and rustic.  But who wants a dainty li'l dish you're afraid to mess up?  At Pulino's absolutely everything we tried was devastatingly delicious and drew gasps and giggles of pleasure all across the board.

Wood-fire roasted asparagus with ramps and rhubarb on a bed of black pepper mascarpone

The Nduja was a Calabrian spreadable salami served with bruschetta toast

My favorite of the bruschette was a cast iron skillet of baked ricotta with oregano, fennel, orange agrumato (extra virgin olive oil pressed with oranges), and black pepper

The fazzoletti was a savory smoked ricotta crepe, blanketed with a ribbon of hearty lamb ragu and pecorino shavings

The ciccioli frolli was a table favorite... crispy pork belly with a perfect contrast of pear mostarda (an Italian condiment of candied pears and mustard syrup)

A cutting board of delicately sliced prosciutto with parmigiano reggiano and granny smith apples

The star of the evening and a must-order item is the semolina gnocchi, a cast iron skillet of lighter-than-air wood-flame-kissed pasta pillows floating on a bed of chicken and tomato sugo.

The polpettine pizza, cut in squares, was covered with sliced beef meatballs, tomato, mozzarella, grana (which contributed a nutty, earthy flavor), and polka-dotting of pickled chiles and basil.  The crust is paper thin and impressively crisp, even in the center.  An absolutely perfect pie.

The gamberi pizza showcased rock shrimp, speck (a juniper flavored, salt-cured ham), tomato, fennel, garlic, and oregano.

The coppa di gelato was a sundae with chocolate wafers, amarena cherries, and toasted pistachios.

The chocolate mousse semifreddo (semi-frozen custard) with crisped rice was the first dessert to disappear at our table.  Outrageously delicious.

The almond crostata with candied grapefruit, cream quenelle, and walnuts was good, but one of the only dishes left unfinished.

My favorite was the hazelnut and brown butter carrot cake, the perfect sweet, moist ending

The affogato was an espresso-gelato float, so simple yet exceptional 

Just one sip of the sgroppino instantly redeemed all of the lackluster cocktails with which we started the evening.  Can you say champagne flute of lemon sorbet, prosecco, vodka, and strawberry puree?  I will absolutely be attempting this one at home in the very near future.

A fun tip for the pranksters out there: both men and women's bathroom doors open into the same unisex washroom, beyond which lie the actual gender-specific restrooms.  While washing my hands, two chatty women entered.  When I gasped and hollered, "are you kidding?!?!" both ladies instantly scurried back out, and apologized, "we are SO sorry... we though this was the..." to which I simply laughed and exited through the women's door.

Thank you SO much to my incredible clan, always willing to try new places, order different things, and never complaining that I photograph your food, too.  Your encouragement and enthusiasm are inspirational gifts to me.  I am such a lucky boy to have you in my life.

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