The Peanut Butter Bomba is decadently creamy and subtle peanut butter gelato filled with buttery caramel and coated in a crisp milk-chocolate shell ($6).
Locale (33-02 34th Ave., Astoria)
I think I am in serious, serious trouble... I don't have enough disposable income or elastic waste bands to sample everything I want to from Locale within the timeframe I have been craving it. As a food writer, I naturally dine out more than the typical guy. Although I am exposed to some absolutely fantastic meals (along with the less than stellar experiences, as well) I sort of consider it an unspoken rule that I should perpetually try new venues and new dishes rather than continuously return to my favorites again and again.
After several recommendations, I finally stopped by Locale with my roommate last week to check out their dinner scene. And though I've desperately attempted to refrain, my willpower proved itself far too fragile, and I found myself there again this afternoon with a dear friend. Brunch, I justified, is an altogether different meal with different lighting, and most likely, a different staff... ergo, it doesn't really count as a repeat visit, right??? And just as I suspected and hoped, brunch was absolutely delicious, and now I'm afraid I am seriously hooked.
The decor is crisp and modern, with a refreshing nod to the tradition and culture of the neighborhood. An inviting bar wraps around the left side of the room, adorned with refurbished vintage ceiling panels and white-washed exposed brick. I instantly found myself wondering if I was really in Astoria, rather than somewhere in Brooklyn's exploding restaurant scene, or the highly buzzed lower east side of Manhattan.
During brunch, magnificent black-paned picture windows allow natural sunlight to flood the dining room, with the front windows opened to the outdoor patio, allowing a summer breeze to kiss the air. In the evening, luminaries light the al fresco dining area, and the windows allow the quaint neighborhood street ambiance to illuminate the room, with the rustic addition of a wagon wheel chandelier and a few simple exposed light bulbs. Couples lean into one another across candlelight or snuggle on couches in the split level lounge area, and friends gather together at large tables pushed together, filled with laughter. Locale is simultaneously hip, relevant, and yet somehow extremely inviting. Not to mention the fact I spent half of my meal Shazam-ing the overhead music playlist for later purchase... a calming and fresh blend of often independent, folky, and acoustic deliciousness.
A notably attractive staff graciously executes dinner service, with silverware replaced between courses, water glasses always full, and genuine smiles and an impressively sincere passion for service. I guess it would be hard to work at a restaurant like this, and not share a sense of pride and investment in such a rare neighborhood gem. Within moments of sitting down today, one of the servers from last week approached our table smiling. "I just wanted to say hi, and that I'm glad to see you returned today. It was a lot of fun serving you last week." That's a kind of warmth and hospitality I rarely find anywhere after just a second visit.
Any martini-enthusiast with be extremely remiss not to try this elegant and refreshing version of a New York classic. Rosemary's garden is a glass filled with chilled rosemary-dill infused vodka, blanketed with a float of sauvignon blanc, and adorned with a blue cheese stuffed Queen olive ($10). Other than sangria, I've rarely thought to pair vodka and wine, but this summer garden concoction proved to be a surprisingly delicious and innovative marriage for an exquisite dinner spirit.
Quite possibly my new personal favorite anywhere is the Smooch. Almost like a new twist on a mojito, the bartender blends Absolut Mandarin, fresh strawberries, mint, and a white peach puree ($9). Simple and delicious.
The bruschetta trio featured buttery, crisp, country toast with a traditional pomodoro of marinated vine ripe tomatoes, creamy mozzarella with herbed portobello mushrooms, and Sicilian caponata... a delightfully sweet and sour eggplant salad ($8).
When it comes to crab cakes, I am a self-admitted snob. Since childhood, my parents can attest that I am always on the lookout for the best crab cakes. Nothing is more disappointing than a fried mound of butter, bread crumbs, and seasonings with no evident meat visible. The crab cake at Locale is one of the most exceptional I have tasted anywhere. Buttery, flaky, and tender jumbo lump crab meat is fried to golden crispy perfection, on a cool and refreshing pedestal of cucumber salad, dressed with crunchy and bitter mixed micro greens that cut away any heaviness, resting atop drizzled ribbons of creamy dill aioli and a hint of chili oil. It was a brilliant blend of textures, temperatures, and subtle flavors that beautifully served to make the delicious crabmeat taste all the better. Yes, I am absolutely infatuated with this crab cake ($12).
The salmon entree was grilled to medium rare perfection, with crisscrossed bronzed grill marks that added crunch that gave way to a splendidly tender and moist filet of salmon beneath, all glossed in a sweet and tangy hoisin glaze. The back up singers to this dish were roasted fennel, hearty and steaky oyster mushrooms, and buttery and tender fingerling potatoes, all in a pool of a zesty yet unpretentious roasted red pepper sauce (market price).
Now behold the subject of my drool-inducing dreams about Locale, the reason I just cannot seem to get this place out of my mind, and quite possibly one of the most unique pasta dishes I have tried in quite some time. I would be lying if I denied that I snickered like an immature third grader when I ordered it, but the Faggotini is out-of-this-world delicious. Perfectly al dente beggars purse pasta is stuffed with the most tender and creamy gorgonzola. I sometimes find gorgonzola to be overly robust and sometimes offensive to my palate, but this had a very subtle kick and a light sharpness that was gorgeously balanced with the sweet and slightly tangy red beet sauce with whole walnuts. I am still absolutely blown away by the unique combination of flavors that has been haunting my memory relentlessly since I last tasted it ($16).
For brunch today, my friend enjoyed one of the numerous specials our server shared with us, and it is definitely a dish for which I may have to call ahead to see when it is being served. Juicy, slow-roasted chicken and tender slices of spiced sausage are tossed with a subtly sweet and savory montevino red wine sauce, served with steamed broccoli and golden home fries ($15).
I'm a huge fan of unique benedicts, so it was no-brainer that my brunch selection was the caprese version of this french classic. A generous duo of two toasted English muffin, layered with ruby-ripe garden tomatoes, wedges of fresh mozzarella, a pillow of perfectly poached eggs, and a citrusy pesto hollandaise sauce. What a refreshingly light and Italian take on a brunch favorite. It was the ideal Saturday afternoon plate.
The peanut butter bomba (described at the heading of this post) was a rich and sinful dessert lover's sweet dream, and to-die-for. But one of the somewhat lighter and refreshing desserts that won me over was the heavenly Strawberry Napoleon ($7). Layers of flaky, warm puff pastry alternate with dollops of silky creme anglaise, with slivers of fresh strawberries scattered between. It reminded me of summers in Indiana at the strawberry festivals on the farms, a simple country confection prepared to refreshing perfection. How can you go wrong with fresh tart strawberries and sweet cream?
Whether dining outside with a loved one, gathering for a unique cocktail with friends at the bar, or simply seeking a delicious new local restaurant to impress your group, Locale hits the mark on every level. Sourcing local ingredients (they are in the process of working with the Brooklyn Grange for fresh local produce), you'll have a hard time finding a tastier meal in the area. And for service, atmosphere, and all around value, you won't enjoy anything this much in Manhattan without shelling out twice the dollars. Treat yourself to a visit if you haven't yet been. After two meals, Locale has already become one of my local favorites.
Why Leave Astoria cardholders can enjoy 15% off their bill from 5-7pm.