Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Watch the award-winning Sunday Morning Mimosa LIVE!

If you have ever walked along 30th Avenue or Steinway on a Sunday afternoon, you may have wondered why masses of people in every size, shape, and age are huddled around the corner of 30th Ave. & 41st St.  Is that Rosemary Clooney crooning Mambo Italiano?  Wait, now it's Britney's Womanizer... or no, is that the GaGa anthem, Bad Romance?

The music, cheering, and uproarious laughter may be what have drawn the crowds, but the reason they stay, and return week after week, is the outrageously fun and deliciously talented comedy team known as Sunday Morning Mimosa.  Originally started as a podcast on iTunes, Travis Barr, Steven Incammicia, and Joe Lisi created an entire cast of characters who narrate hilarious and quirky commentary on their lives as typical Astoria housewives.  While the podcast is still alive and strong, the internet show has now grown into a full blown production with musical numbers and dialogue that rival even the best off-Broadway productions.

Recently awarded the Pride Rally Star for outstanding performance at the Heritage of Pride Rally on the Central Park Summer Stage (where they were called back for multiple encores), Sunday Morning Mimosa has also been named one of the top cultural experiences in the five boroughs.  You may have seen them at the Why Leave Astoria event at the Beer Garden.  They perform a more improvisational sketch comedy brunch that sells out weekly at Mix Cafe + Lounge (call 347-642-4840 for reservations), and even host Italian League Bingo Night on Thursdays from 9pm to 2am at Mix.

(poster by Elias "Joey" Gutierrez)

The original trio of stars have since expanded to include the multitalented Laura Gilreath and Cassie Powell, playing secondary characters whose voices and physical comedy add a wonderful new dimension to the show.  I was recently invited to a rehearsal, where I was able to peek behind the scenes, meet the newest cast member (Cassie joins the team as Pam, Facebook friend and sketchy influence on Gina Marie's daughter, Tina Marie), witness the grueling rehearsal process, and catch a sneak peak at the elaborate full production they have developed for the Daryl Roth Theater in Union Square.

Sunday Morning Mimosa's newest show, The Showgirls Strike Back, will be playing this coming Friday night at the Daryl Roth Theater in Union Square at 10pm (the same building that houses the smash hit Fuerzabruta).  And believe me, Sunday Morning Mimosa hits the stage with just as much brute force, outrageous comedy, and musical agility as any team of acrobats flying over head in the earlier show.

Showgirls Strike Back brings the same lovable and laughable aunts Anita & Gina Marie of whom audiences have grown into loyal fanatics, but this show grows from previous incarnations in ways that reflect not only the maturity of the performers, but the development of well-loved characters over the course of years and years.  With their new production, Mimosa steps from a trio of men who do excellent characters and sing creatively-altered song lyrics to a full cast of true standout stars with a plot line that, while always silly, is poignant and brilliantly conceived.  Who else can patchwork together Marilyn Monroe, Lady GaGa, and Little Shop of Horrors into a show the leaves the audience thinking the songs were written exclusively for this purpose?

And with spectacular new Broadway-caliber costumes tailored by professional designers Elias "Joey" Gutierrez and Rachael Caunt, the Mimosa team continues to stride forward proving that they are a talent force that won't be slowing down any time soon.

* * * * *

Tickets for their 10pm show this coming Friday can be purchased at www.sundaymorningmimosa.com

They will also be performing again at the Daryl Roth on Friday, August 20th.

Tickets are $16.50 plus a one drink minimum

They can still be seen weekly at Mix Cafe + Lounge for Sunday brunch and Thursday bingo

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In-N-Out of Astoria: Petey's Burger

Petey's Burger (30-17 30th Ave)

As the ongoing competition for best burger continues to escalate, especially here in Astoria, many of my friends would argue that no brioche bun, no chipotle aioli, market fresh lettuce, or gourmet cheese could create any combination more delicious than the West Coast sensation, In-N-Out.  People tweet about it, status update when they are in California, and send me text messages whenever devouring what is arguably the most satisfying burger for a great value.  While an extremely cruel April Fool's prank this year led NYU students to believe that In-N-Out would soon be opening its doors in Manhattan, the sad truth is that it was nothing more than a mere prank.

While we east coasters may not be spoiled with the delectable luxury of the delicious In-N-Out burger, one look at just the packaging, and you can tell that someone at Petey's Burger in Astoria has spent some time studying the west coast icon.  I've even heard rumors that those involved with the creation of Petey's have at one time worked extensively with In-N-Out.  If the crimson and bright yellow ketchup and mustard interior design and product packaging aren't a dead giveaway, the burger certainly is.

While part of the joy of In-N-Out burger is that you can only enjoy it by traveling west, I have to confess that I was beyond giddy to discover that I could relish a burger that would be hard to differentiate in a blind taste test... and it's only a ten block walk from my house.  Petey's burger uses no freezers, and all fresh ingredients.  One bite offers a buttery bun squish, crisp lettuce crunch, tangy tomato burst, and juicy beef burger with melted cheddar explosion that will leave you drooling for more.  Petey's burger isn't just good.  It's phenomenal.

Freshly peeled and hand cut french fries are evenly and wonderfully salted, with crispy outer crunch and warm and tender inside spud.

Milkshakes are offered in classic vanilla, strawberry, or chocolate, and are blended with real, smooth, milky ice cream.  Nothing tastes better after a salty crunch of potatoes than a chocolaty gulp of smooth and creamy milkshake.  And combos make this burger joint extremely reasonable.  A cheeseburger, french fries, and soft drink come in under $8.  Milkshakes at $3.99 are the same price as a burger, but well worth the splurge.  And if you're up for trying something different, my personal favorite is the Petey's Melt ($3.99), the cheeseburger served on buttery toasted sourdough bread instead of a bun.

Petey's is open 7 days a week from 11am - 11pm, and delivers to a rather extensive area.  But if you live in Manhattan and simply can't wait until your next trip west, I highly recommend a visit to Astoria to tide you over.

Petey's Burger on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 12, 2010

Pakora, Samosas, and Lassis, Oh My!

Seva Indian Cuisine (30-07 34th St., Astoria)

In Indian, the word seva means selfless service or work offered to God.  It might seem like quite a lofty name for a restaurant, but considering the important role religion plays throughout Indian culture, including cuisine, it also seems somehow appropriate.  Although Indian is one of the most popular foods in the world, I only first encountered it when I moved to New York City 7 years ago.  And just like any food in New York, I've had several hit-or-miss experiences.  Because of it's reliance on the masterful balance of various spices and cooking techniques, when Indian is great, it's a delicious feast fit for the gods.  At its worst, you walk away with a sour taste in your mouth that won't likely soon dissipate.

It also seems to be a cuisine that not many people in my own personal circle crave very often, so when I recently found myself in company that loves it, I knew exactly where I wanted it to try it. And let me just say up front, Seva may not incorporate a lot of the gimmicks often employed in New York City Indian restaurants.  You won't find servers beckoning you in with a complimentary glass of wine.  The ceiling isn't sprinkled with strands of blinking Christmas lights.  But the food at Seva is some of best in the city, a delicate, masterful showcase of nuanced spices, meats, and sauces that sing together harmoniously for a splendid feast fit for the gods.

Shortly after sitting down, we were presented with a very simple, yet delicious version of a classic Indian starter, papadum.  The papadum at Seva is a paper thin, crisp cracker made from lentils, and served with mint and tamarind chutneys.  A delicious orientation for your palate if you haven't had Indian in awhile, and a satisfying amuse bouche for the table.

I have an admittedly low threshold for spice, so although Seva allows you to order dishes spicy, medium, or mild, I always like to make sure I have a drink on hand to cool my tongue if things get too fiery.  Made from sweetened mango pulp, yogurt, and milk, a mango lassi is a traditional Indian beverage that Seva prepares to perfection.  The balance of sweet and creamy, it's just what I need to counteract sometimes aggressive spices.

The masala crab cakes are a hearty and savory spin on this popular seafood appetizer.  Seva's interpretation employs succulent lump crabmeat, as well as garam masala ("hot mixture"), but rather than packing heat, packs intense flavors.  Pepper, cumin, coriander, and other fragrant spices are balanced with the minty coolness of cardamom.  In a pool of fresh mint chutney and lemon-cilantro yogurt dip, it's a beautifully balanced crab cake that offers a unique progression of flavors with every single bite ($5).

On my most recent visit, I was extremely saddened that they were out of bok choy.  The bok choy crispy curls (fried in chickpea batter with mango powder) were my favorite dish during my previous visit, and are almost like a fragrant Indian tempura, which I will certainly return for in the near future.  In their absence, however, we selected the sampler platter (everything pictured in the photo at the head of this post for only $6).  The lamb spring rolls are golden-fried pastries packed with ground lamb, coriander, and green peas.

Pakora are like little Indian fritters... above is cauliflower and potato, dipped in a chickpea (gram flour) batter, and deep-fried.  If there are state fairs in India, I have to imagine this is what would probably be a most popular dish.  They're delicious, and dipped in the tamarind chutney, you can't stop eating them.  Golden and crispy batter is a brilliant disguise for tender vegetables.

Samosas were probably the first Indian dish with which I fell infatuated, and Seva's are no exception.  With the sampler platter, you get two of these pastry pyramids, one packed with curried potatoes, peas, and lentils, the other bursting with minced spiced chicken.  Nothing is more disappointing than a dry samosa, but here, they are crisp, flaky, buttery, and filled with moist stuffing, almost a miniature meal in and of itself.  Alternate dipping in the various chutneys, and you'll want a second order.

For a main course, I simply can't resist Seva's curries.  Curry is technically a gravy, mixing spices, herbs, nuts, and yogurt carefully chosen for each dish.  For the novice or skeptical Indian diner, chicken korma is a delicious way to go, blending almonds, cashews, and coconut.

Although Western influence has certainly impacted Indian culture, most dishes are traditionally eaten without the use of utensils.  Naan bread is commonly used to pinch the food and basmati rice between the forefingers, as well as for soaking up the leftover curry sauce at the end of the dish.  Though Seva offers onion, garlic, sesame, and cheese versions for $3 an order, I absolutely love the rosemary naan, yet another layer of herbs for a beautifully seasoned dish.  Seva's naan is excellently executed, with a slightly crispy outer edge and delicate, soft, steamy inside.  Why would anyone prefer to use a fork?

Our server recommended the parsi shrimp curry as his favorite main dish ($14), and I'm quite certain it will soon become my standard dish, as well.  Succulent shrimp are tossed in an amber curry of tamarind, garlic, and ginger.  Tangy, sweet, and spicy, it's almost like a tropical seafood stew over rice.

Diners who present a Why Leave Astoria? card are entitled to a complimentary appetizer or dessert.  So of course, we had to try a sweet ending to such a savory meal.  We fell in love with the gulab jamun, also known as "waffle balls" which are like deep-fried donuts with a cashew stuffing, glazed with honey, chilled, and served in rosewater with a hint of cardamom.  Sweet, light, and extremely refreshing, it was a beautiful finale to an extraordinary meal.

Whether you live in Astoria or not, Seva should be on the wish list of any lover of Indian cuisine.  They even serve an all-you-can-eat brunch buffet on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 3pm for just $11 per person.  A lunch prix fixe is also available for $13 throughout the week.  Excellent Indian food rarely (if ever in New York City) comes at such a great value. 

Seva Indian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rosa Mexicano is still my favorite...

Rosa Mexicano at Lincoln Center (61 Columbus Avenue at 62nd St.)

When the original Rosa Mexicano opened up in 1984 on Manhattan's upper east side, it shook the restaurant scene by offering elevated classic Mexican cuisine in a more upscale, fine-dining setting.  While that original location (a longtime favorite of mine) still offers much of their original menu with a traditional and old school festive Mexican ambiance, the Rosa Mexicano brand has since expanded.  Now with 9 locations (including three in NYC), patrons can enjoy Rosa Mexicano in New Jersey, Maryland, even California.  Of course as I've watched their empire expand over the past several years, I grew fearful that quality would be compromised in the chain.  So I recently paid a visit to their more elegant and grandiose location across from Lincoln Center to see if I still enjoyed the dishes as much as I recalled (for several years, this was where my friends and I celebrated birthdays and special occasions).

While reservations are highly recommended (especially in the evening with Lincoln Center just a stone's throw away) if you do have to wait, the bar is simply beautiful, with backlit glass panels of pressed rose petals along the ceiling.  They offer the full drink selection, as well as the menu, so if you score a seat, it might be worthwhile option on an evening that an unreserved table seems unlikely.

My favorite seat in the house, however, is just up the floating orange and red terrazzo staircase.  A seat by the window offers impressive elevated views of Lincoln Center and Columbus Avenue, while a table on the railing overlooks a 30-foot iridescent blue tiled gently cascading water fall that steals your breath in the evening light.

With 240 miniature sculpted cliff divers soaring downwards, it's pretty easy to see why the interior has garnered awards and much acclaim.  But here is an insider tip.  Just as several Manhattan venues implement cover charges or admission fees for stunning evening ambiance or entertainment, Rosa Mexicano seems to have built theirs into the menu.  One of it's biggest criticisms has been the price.  Though portions are not noticeably different, lunch items are sometimes $5 cheaper than on their dinner menu.  If you are willing to gaze upon the waterfall in daylight, then lunch here is where you'll find the best deal.  Lunch is served 11:30 to 4:00 weekdays (brunch on the weekends until 2:30) so I recommend arriving around 2:00 to miss the business rush and enjoy a more relaxed early afternoon meal.

Although they've been serving flawless and addictive frozen pomegranate margaritas since long before it became Manhattan mainstream, the bar also offers many classic Mexican concoctions that you won't likely find elsewhere.  Consider La Paloma (Sauza Hornitos reposado tequila with grapefruit soda over ice), El Vaquero (agave nectar, muddled lemons, and grapefruit juice spiked with Jack Daniels), or the Martini Mexicano (Ketel One shaken with jalapeno-infused olive brine), not to mention a coconut-cilantro mojito or a spiced vanilla and clementine orange rosé sangria.

Quacamole is a no-brainer, the best and freshest in the city, so just plan on placing an order right away.  The server will ask you when he inquires whether you prefer tap or bottled agua.  Though they claim a single order serves two, it really is a perfect starter for up to four just to whet your palate for the upcoming meal (remember generous communal bowls of pureed black beans with cheese and deliciously tender red rice are served with the entrees, so plan on being filled up beyond your expectation).  Prepared tableside in traditional lava rock molcajete, the guacamole attendant will wheel a cart directly to you as he cuts open fresh avocado to blend with tomato, onion, cilantro, and jalapenos.  

Even the mild has a tiny kick to it, so order accordingly.  Be sure to clarify if you want no jalapenos whatsoever, as it is definitely present in even the mildest blend.  Along with the creamy avocado dip, you'll receive a basket of soft tortillas, crunchy chips, and ramekins of pasilla de oaxaca and a tomatillo and habanero salsa... smoky and tangy condiments intended to be used as accompaniments throughout the entire meal (although they taste wonderful on the tortillas alone).

My favorite empanadas anywhere are still Rosa Mexicano's empanadas de jaiba.  Three crispy corn turnovers are packed to bursting with jumbo lump crabmeat, and served with a creamy avocado salsa, as well as a mango pico de gallo.  Tropical sweet bits of mango dancing with salty sea lumps of crab and a golden pastry crunch is one of the most divine appetizer combinations fathomable ($12 at lunch or $14 at dinner... same portions).

Not many foods in this world are quite as sinfully delicious as a skillet of melted cheese.  For $9, we enjoyed a generous cast iron cauldron of melted chihuahua cheese with crumbled chorizo, rajas (slow-roasted peppers), and fresh cilantro.  Mix it with the guacamole, wrap it in fresh warm soft tortillas, or dip a crispy chip into it.  At a table for four, we devoured this rather quickly.

One of the best deals at Rosa Mexicano is the taco platter.  Pictured above is a pescado pibil, red snapper marinated in achiote, orange, and garlic, and topped with habanero-lime pickled onions.

Each of the taco skillets (chicken pictured above) are served with a bowl of red-bean chorizo chili, corn esquites (a Mexican street favorite), salsa, and soft corn tortillas, with a small salad of mixed greens.  At lunch, the chicken tacos are $13.50. When you consider that you can easily make four or five tacos with the portion, and individual tacos at authentic vendors in the city run close to $3 a piece, I'm not sure why so many people gripe about the prices at Rosa Mexicano.  Not to mention that they used extremely fresh and superb quality ingredients.  This exact same entree at dinner, however, is $18.50... which does seem like a rather arbitrary and ridiculous mark-up.

My friend ordered a dish I had not yet tried (and believe you me, I have tried almost everything here throughout the years), enchiladas mole blanco.  I have erroneously always assumed mole to be the poblano and chocolate sauce commonly used, but there apparently exist many other variations.  In this extremely satisfying rendition, two corn tortillas are generously stuffed with tangy and spicy tomato-chipotle shredded beef, then blanketed in a thick and creamy sweet corn and pine nut mole.  The rich buttery earthiness of the sauce juxtaposed with the piquant peppered beef was entirely unique and exciting for me to try.  This is a dish I would enthusiastically recommend again ($15... $19.75 at dinner)

I nearly panicked when scanning the menu I noticed the absence of my longtime favorite, the Budin Azteca.  Though my server couldn't offer an explanation, I was relieved to discover that it had simply been renamed Budin de Pollo.  Almost like a Mexican lasagna, this little baked pillow of cheesey deliciousness consists of layers of corn tortillas, pulled chicken, chihuahua cheese, corn, and roasted peppers, surrounded by a moat of poblano cream sauce.  If my arteries could afford it, this is a dish I could eat day after day, and remains one of my favorite guilty pleasures in the entire city.

Is there anything more traditional than churros en bolsa?  Warm Mexican doughnut sticks dusted with cinnamon and sugar.  Crisp and buttery on the outside, soft and warm inside, and served with chocolate, raspberry, and caramel dipping sauces.  Though the milky caramel was decadent, I couldn't help but double-dipping in the chocolate and raspberry for a sweet and tart cordial pastry combination.

Keeping up with the Manhattan cupcake obsession, Rosa Mexicano serves up its own version, the Pingüino... a moist chocolate cupcake filled with hazelnut mousse, topped with whipped creme fraiche.  The cocoa-nutty pastry sits in a pool of espresso-piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar) chocolate sauce and is crowned with a chocolate wafer completing the penguin effect.  This was a top hit at the table, moist, not ridiculously rich, balanced beautifully between the chocolate, mousse, and fresh cream.

One of the most unique and delicious of this classic dessert I have ever tried, the Flan de Rosa is incomparably creamy, almost like a vanilla bean panna cotta, served over a thin wafer of toasted almond cake for a unique contrast in texture and flavor you don't ordinarily find.  The pool of maple syrup was almost unnecessary, as the flan itself was so perfect, and paired with an absolutely exquisite and peppery chocolate mole sorbet. Just yet another prime example of how Rosa Mexicano takes classic Mexican recipes and adds just the right amount of elevation to transcend common street food.

The food, despite the somewhat muddled and confused pricing disparity between dinner and lunch, is at the top of its class.  It would be difficult to find better Mexican food in New York City.  And while you may prefer the street vendor or hole-in-the-wall vibe with your chips and salsa and Coronita, it is nice to know that you can enjoy delicious Mexican food and receive exceptional service as well; Rosa Mexicano's service would be hard to beat.  We had to chuckle, as they even drew a curtain in the dining room to separate the patrons from the incoming dinner staff gathering for pre-shift.  Though it's probably intended to delineate private gatherings, we appreciated not seeing or hearing the staff as they prepared for the evening and tasted communal samples of the day's specials.  If you're not going to share, I'd rather not see or hear about it.

Though some may argue, we found that you absolutely get more than what you pay for.  Although I will probably avoid the dinner menu inflation, anyone who considers themselves to be a true lover of Mexican cuisine should at least drop by for lunch.

Rosa Mexicano on Urbanspoon
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