Astor Bake Shop (12-23 Astoria Blvd., Astoria)
Many a baker have set up shop in the historically Greek & Italian pockets of Astoria. Few, however, bring with them the impressive credentials of Chef George McKirdy. His experience has taken him from Robert DeNiro's TriBeCa Grill, to Nobu, Butter, and even pastry chef at Café Boulud (just to name a small few of his previous kitchens). He has even cooked for the legendary Julia Child. Astor Bake Shop, however, is his own personal labor of love, and one with which he brings along a team of colleagues and recipes with whom he has baked tirelessly over the past twenty years.
When my dear friend, Hayley, mentioned that she had seen passionate discussions on several Astoria message boards, it took very little twisting of my arm to convince me to give this new kid on the block a try. Having given it a few days for a soft opening, we finally stopped in yesterday afternoon to enjoy this welcome oasis from the steamy summer heat.
Of course we indulged in a sample of the brownies before finding a table. Is there anything so wrong with a little dessert before dinner? As we sank our teeth into soft, buttery, gooey chocolate squares of deliciousness, our eyes rolled back and we simply took in the sugar-filled atmosphere. It's a pristine, spacious, and charming room with exposed brick walls, an open kitchen, marble countertops, and handcrafted tables made from reclaimed farmhouse wood.
In terms of sweets, do not expect a Willy Wonka cornucopia of cases and cases of baked treats. There is one main display case, and a large counter confetti'd with the day's selections. Chef McKirdy's primary focus is on quality of goods, rather than quantity. He doesn't use artificial whipped creams, hydrogenated fats, or shortenings, so you can rest assured everything on the shelf is fresh, and baked with the most quality ingredients available. The bake shop opens daily at 6:30 a.m., and serves lunch until 3:00 p.m. until more staff can be trained. The bakery, however, remains open most days until 7 p.m. Hours will be extended as soon as ample staffing can be provided. By the fall, the hope to serve a simple dinner selection with an offering of beer and wine, as well.
Astor Bake Shop offers a To Go Lunch Special for $9.50 including a sandwich, 16 oz. beverage, and a large cookie. I enjoyed a deliciously refreshing glass of salted lemonade. Almost like a virgin margarita, it was exactly what I needed to quench my thirst on this particularly scorching afternoon.
One of my favorite things about the Bake Shop is that you can enjoy a full lunch before diving into one of the confectioner's treats. At $7.75 the Astor Burger can hold it's own against any of the neighboring competitors. Juicy grilled beef is topped with crisp lettuce, sweet grape tomatoes, cheddar cheese, creamy coleslaw, pickles, and spicy Astor sauce (a garlicky, southwestern, chipotle aioli).
I built my own combination with applewood smoked bacon, white cheddar, and tangy pickled onions for $8. The menu is rounded out with herbed chicken sandwiches, lentil burgers, garden salads, and even breakfast sandwiches (served daily until 10 a.m.)
For $3 we shared a generous basket of handcut herbed french fries accompanied with packets of ketchup. While the baked goods are the obvious star of the show, the burger and fries were exceptional, especially washed down with the salted lemonade.
After such a fulfilling lunch, choosing dessert was quite a daunting task. Custard-filled eclairs blanketed in glistening dark chocolate tug at you from behind chilled glass, not to mention the meringue capped dishes of pineapple tres leches.
Ever since reading about it on the message boards, Hayley had been craving the Maize almond cake, so that was a no-brainer. Almost like a delicious pound cake textured with cornmeal, almond flour, and a kiss of citrus zest to balance the sweet, it was a fine, moist, and exquisite slice of cake.
The inarguable winner of the day, however, was the blueberry butter tart, a sinfully delicious sugar cookie crust filled with gooey butter filling and whole fresh blueberries. If you have ever claimed to love fresh berries or creamy toffee, this is an absolute must-try. It vanished in seconds, and I am certain it is what will bring us back for a return visit quite soon.
We ignored the advice to allow the double chocolate cupcake to sit and warm to room temperature, which would have made it even more delicious, I am certain. The ganache was decadently creamy, and it took serious restraint not to lick the frosting right off the top. The balance of bitter and sweet was perfect, resulting in a cupcake surprisingly light and not sickeningly rich.
Although everything we sampled was divine beyond description, we eventually raised our white flags in surrender. I can guarantee, however, that you will find both of us there many more times in the future. Be sure to call ahead if you are seeking a particular cake or pastry (the red velvet looked exquisite), as they do sell out almost daily. But if you find that your favorite treat is unavailable, don't let that stop you from sampling something different. Chef McKirdy knows his way around a pastry kitchen, and he's every bit as kind and sweet as each of his pastries. It's a real thrill to welcome him to the neighborhood.