Monday, August 30, 2010

So You Think You Can Cook?

The wildly popular new kid on the block, Astor Bake Shop, will be participating at this year's event!

Dish du Jour Magazine, creators of the "Burger Battle of the Boroughs" and "The Best Meatball of the Boroughs" competitions are now preparing for their upcoming 9th Annual Food & Wine Tasting Event, The Cuisine of Queens & Beyond.

Featuring 50 of the most delicious restaurants in Queens and beyond, this year's event offers not only an array of tastings, but also a cooking challenge where one VIP ticket holder will be staged up against noted chef Rocco Sacramone (of Trattoria L'Incontro) and Bravo's Top Chef Contestant Andrea Beaman.  The competition will involve 5 ingredients under the theme, "Spice it up with flavors of the fall."

The competitors will prepare a fall-themed dish with 5 ingredients provided on the spot, with the aspiring chef receiving a $150 gift card, dinner for two at Trattoria L'Incontro, and a personal coaching session for healthy living with Andrea, along with autographed copies of her books.

This exciting event will be held Tuesday, September 21, 2010 from 6-9 pm at the Astoria World Manor (25-22 Astoria Boulevard, Astoria, NY).

For tickets, call (718) 777-7918 or visit the Dish du Jour Magazine website.  Tickets purchased in advance are only $55 ($65 at the door--cash only).  VIP tickets are only $75 and enter you for a chance to compete (which you may decline), along with preferred seating, and gift bags.

Be sure to visit the event's Facebook page for insider scoops, and chances to win free VIP tickets!

I will definitely be there this year, and would love if you stopped me to say "hello" and share a bite or two.  It really sounds like a fun event.

Some of this year's participants include:

718 Restaurant

5 Napkin Burger

Aegean Cove

Artopolis Bakery

Astor Bake Shop

Da Franco

JJ's Asian Fusion

La Guli Pastry Shop

Lulu's Bakery


Seva Indian Cuisine

Trattoria L'Incontro

Saturday, August 28, 2010

French culinary fine art you can eat (and afford) at L'Artiste

L'Artiste (42-20 31st Ave., Astoria)
Open daily from 5pm (Closed Mondays)
Brunch from 11am to 5pm Saturday & Sundays

Like a solitary gourmet chocolate truffle hidden in a box of mass-produced candies, L'Artiste sits tucked into the corner of the popular Greek mega-club complex that is Cavo.  Previously Piazza Pizza (which is now relocated two blocks west), owner Youssef Echaybi and his exceptional team of visionaries have dramatically renovated the former pizzeria into a refreshingly inviting, comfortable, yet elegant French restaurant, now open only just a few weeks.  While the space is warm and casual, and the prices shockingly affordable compared to other French counterparts, the food is anything but ordinary.  At the risk of putting my credibility on the line, dare I say that the dishes remind me, and in some cases even exceed what I have enjoyed at such legendary mega-restaurants as Jean-Georges and Cafe Boulud in Manhattan, with a pain-staking precision for presentation that borders on rivaling the likes of Gotham Bar and Grill.  This is not your typical bistro, brasserie, or patisserie.  It is everything I could hope my ideal French meal to encompass, sans the pretense or snobbery, in an atmosphere that is simultaneously classic and relevant.

Just beyond the gorgeous polished oak main bar (L'Artiste is currently BYOB while pending licenses process) you enter a dining room outlined with classic black-and-white-striped banquettes.  Collected from antique stores and rummage sales, shelves and bookcases are adorned with vintage trinkets such as an old Singer sewing machine, a film projector, polaroid camera on a tripod, or a rotary telephone.  It's a nod to the tradition and history from which this classic genre of cooking arises, yet with sunny goldenrod-washed walls and contemporary upholstery and drapery reflecting a touch of the modern.  Tables lovingly handcrafted by the owner add a somewhat rustic and down-to-earth touch so often missing from the ofttimes more glittery competitors on the main island.

Though the restrooms open directly into the front entryway, they are beautifully disguised behind a floor-to-ceiling photo-wall of the Eiffel Tower.  Look carefully at the image above, and notice the cleverly hidden doorknobs within the iconic structure.  Inside the ladies' room, a hand-painted likeness of Marilyn Monroe graces the entire wall, reminiscent of the caricature portraits by artists on the easel-lined cobblestone streets of Montmartre.  

As soon as my order was taken, an absolutely stunning amuse-bouche arrived at the table.  Traditionally courtesy of the chef, and a window into his cooking style, an amuse-bouche is typically heralded for large flavor in a single, small bite.  At L'Artiste, a porcelain soup spoon was presented, cradling exquisitely tender beef carpaccio, a sliver of potato, shitake mushroom, and herb-infused olive oil.  A brilliant glimpse of entree, salad, and side accompaniment all carefully placed in a solitary bite with fresh, clean flavors showcasing impeccable technique.

A basket of wonderfully soft baked french loaf also arrived at the table, alongside a ramekin of black olive tapenade, a delectable feast in and of itself.

I was stunned as a second amuse-bouche of beet terrine with goat cheese and honey walnuts arrived at my table, this one also offered in a larger portion as an hors d'oeuvres for $9.  Never before have I seen such paper-thin sliced discs of tangy red beets, layered with creamy dollops of goat cheese, garnished with beet puree, herbed-olive oil, and honey-roasted walnuts.  The silkiness of the goat cheese with tender, tart burgundy beets, and the sweet crunch of honey walnuts created an absolutely brilliant flavor profile that tickled every single taste-bud.  Certainly a must-order starter for the table.

When a third and final amuse-bouche arrived at my table, what else was I to do but giggle in disbelief at the waiter.  "What can I say," he kindly smiled back.  "The chef is very eager to show you some of his favorite dishes... I hope you have brought your appetite..."  Before me sat a tiny little demitasse cup filled with a heavenly fluffy and light-as-air avocado gazpacho, garnished with fresh whipped cream, caviar, and a violet microgreen.  Almost like a delicate mousse of the summer garden laced with herbs, the velvety soup tickled my tongue on the way down with just a hint of spice, and literally made me smile.  When simple, wonderful flavors are executed with such precision and mastery, it doesn't get better than this at the dinner table.

I have been known to call scallops the filet mignon of the sea.  Their presentation at L'Artiste wins my endorsement as the most ridiculously delicious presentation I have ever enjoyed.  Served here with gloriously tender cauliflower and eggplant blanketed in Mornay sauce, the combination of summer vegetables, plump and tender shellfish bursting with the fresh kiss of the ocean, accented by a rich and elegant bechamel-cheese sauce reminded me almost of a deconstructed seafood chowder or an exceptional scallop fondue.  I literally sopped up every last drop with the french bread, and the plate was removed from the table as glistening clean as if just removed from the dishwasher.  These four beautifully chargrilled scallops with a vegetable gratin were utterly divine ($12).

I am still marveling, three days later, at the absolutely stunning presentation of the salmon carpaccio (also pictured at the heading of this post).  A most expertly, unfathomably thin-sliced salmon filet lay on the plate adorned with beet puree, salty capers, hard-boiled egg crescent, and glistening ruby caviar, with a nest of the tiniest microgreens and chives, like a gourmet stained-glass window.  Combining elements of the sea, earth, and air, I cannot imagine a more delectable or colorful presentation.  If the namesake of this dish is, in fact, reference to Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio, certainly this masterpiece could hold its own in any gallery.

When the winter winds finally roll into Astoria for the cold season, you can bet I will be craving this quintessential rendition of a classic french onion soup almost every single blustery evening ($8).  Unlike most versions where the cheese is poor quality, the croutons too soggy, the onions too tough, or the broth too salty, this crock of soup is the creme de la creme.  The golden-crusted cap of cheese practically emulsifies with the perfectly savory broth, filled with not just one, but layers of deliciously soaked crostini, and ribbons of miraculously tender caramelized onions that seem to have stewed to perfection for hours and hours.  If you are a lover of French onion soup, this portion is certain to ruin any previous version you might have called favorite.

The steak au poivre is a generous filet of the most tender and buttery New York Strip, topped with sauteed wild mushrooms and a black peppercorn sauce, crowned with a row of crisp and crunchy paper-thin, hand-cut miniature potato chips, and served with a terrine of thin-sliced potatoes au gratin ($22).

One of my favorite facets of L'Artiste is that although the chef clearly harnesses the ability to execute classic French cuisine, he also boldly attempts several new takes on traditional favorites, with an unprecedented whimsy and brilliance.  Take, for example, my favorite dish of the evening, the open-faced ravioli with mascarpone sauce ($14).  Wide ribbons of perfectly al dente, loose pasta crisscross the plate, the bull's eye mounded with a generous dollop of wild mushrooms in cream sauce, all of which is then topped with a parmesan foam.  The earthy flavors of the mushrooms with rich cream sauce, delicate but firm pasta, and clouds of foamed cheese sprinkled with herbs were a simply wonderful, fun, and altogether sexy presentation of a dish that would otherwise get lost in the crowd, but in this presentation shines as a stellar standout.

How, you are probably wondering, does anyone even begin to contemplate dessert after sampling such a rich and luxurious banquet of savory plates?  When renowned, award-winning pastry chef of such prestigious kitchens as Buddha Bar, Hicham Lamzaouri, personally delivers his masterpiece to your table, how can I possibly risk offending him by refusing to lift my fork?  This Parisan Fig Tart made a fig fanatic out of me.  I have no idea how he accomplished it, but this crunchy and sugary macaroon crust was filled with the most tender figs I have ever tasted, almost more like a butterscotch apple tart than even figs at all, poised on a pool of cream fraiche with swirls of buttery caramel, and a dollop of vanilla bean ice cream, it made me literally sad that I didn't have even a fraction of the room I need to finish it.

The passion fruit parfait with blueberry confit was a heavenly masterpiece worthy of coming to L'Artiste simply to indulge in its kaleidoscope of flavors, and nothing else.  Cool raspberry sorbet, a pool of raspberry and passion fruit coulis, tart and sweet blueberry compote, all backup singers for a feathery light cloud of passion fruit mousse, adorned with a confectioners sugar-dusted cookie twirl.

And finally, the dessert that left me speechless... the French coffee panna cotta.  The height and complexity of this dessert demand that I describe it in two separate images.  Though the perspective of the camera doesn't quite do it justice, this classic, smooth, mocha panna cotta is served in what looked like a full, chilled pint glass.  Above the decadently rich and creamy panna cotta, a layer of salty and buttery bits of crushed nougatine, followed by a layer of finely crushed chocolate slivers...

Sitting atop the crushed chocolate, a dollop of caramel ice cream, drizzled in chocolate, sprinkled with crushed walnuts and almonds, surrounded by a moat of fresh whipped cream, and topped with a sugar-dusted pastry twirl and a dark-and-white-chocolate straw.  This is the end-all and be-all of sundaes and parfaits, and champions almost any other chocolate, caramel, or mocha dessert I have ever tried.  Simply amazing.

Chef Ted Dutta and owner Youssef Echaybi (Pastry Chef Lamzaouri is not pictured) approach the Modern French menu with the seasoned and distinctive palates of their respective Indian and Morroccan backgrounds.  The result is a nuance of herbs, seasonings, the highest-quality ingredients, and just plain, ol' fashioned talent of the brilliant degree.  I visited L'Artiste on three separate occasions (the first two without my camera, and without sharing any intent to review the restaurant).  On each visit, I was greeted immediately with generous smiles and hospitality, and treated as if my pleasure was the single aim of their evening.  This small, intimate, extremely focused establishment is certain to become a destination restaurant not just in Astoria, but in New York City as a whole.  I highly recommend trying while seats are readily available and before word quickly spreads that four star quality is available at such a reasonable price point.

L'Artiste on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 26, 2010

SriPraPhai: a delicious hidden Thai garden of green curry, crispy golden bags, & deep fried salad

(After dinner at SriPraPhai, be sure to check out the refrigerator cases of take-home goodies, like these handmade Thai marzipan $3.50)

SriPraPhai (64-13 39th Ave., Woodside)
11:30am - 9:30pm (Closed Wednesdays)

I've unfortunately learned the hard way that just because something exists in abundance does not necessarily mean it is something you should explore.  Take Japanese restaurants, for example.  Unless you happen to reside in a pricey apartment above Nobu or Gari, chances are that the most local joint isn't really the best option.  Sushi bars seem to have sprung up all over the city like dandelions after a summer rain, but if you aren't cautious, you'll find yourself tediously gnawing at nori that resembles more of a black rain tarp encasing tepid mock krab and browning bits of cucumber, surrounded by sticky little polka dots that taste more of vinegar-drowned air niblets than sticky rice.  It's sad but true that if you want quality, you have to pay--or at least be willing to travel--for it.

Thai restaurants are no exception.  In Indiana, I'd never even heard of lemongrass or tasted anything with curry.  Tom Yum was a frighteningly hairy neanderthal who sat at the local biker bar and grunted "yummmm..." at his fried appetizer sampler basket and malted chocolate milkshake, alternating between drags of his Marlboro reds, bites of fried cauliflower dipped in ranch, and terrifyingly noisy slurps from his melted ice cream beverage.

After living briefly in Manhattan and having my first rendezvous with chicken curry puffs and actual tom yum soup, and the sweet and savory deliciousness that is pad thai, I nearly did a roundoff-back-handspring-into-the-splits sequence upon realizing there were thirteen Thai restaurants within walking distance of my current apartment in Astoria... eleven of which deliver directly to my front door (who'd have thought!?)  That is, until, I actually began trying some of them.  After several devastating encounters with grease-soaked frozen chicken curry "un"puffs, and hot and sour soups that were neither hot nor sour, but rather lukewarm bathtub water with celery strands, merely thrown in to make the lunch special seem like a real bargain... well, I realized that just as with sushi, sometimes the road (or in my case, the subway or cab service) less traveled makes all the difference.

I was ready to throw in the towel last week, after a particularly horrific meal of overcooked rice noodles dowsed in sugar heavy syrup with frozen shrimp, wilted basil leaves and bamboo shoots that tasted more like hay, garnished with a dried out yellowish-brown lime wedge.  I threw nearly the entire meal away without even opening the bath water soup, settling instead on a hot dog I found in the fridge with a Kraft single and some mustard relish folded in a piece of Wonder bread.  As I grumpily drifted to sleep later that night, I was teetering at the precipice of calling it quits on my quest for outstanding Thai, when I suddenly remembered a couple I adore telling me about this magnificent Thai restaurant they love in Queens.

This is how my stomach works.  I must have been extremely discontent with my dinner that night, because these friends had shared this tidbit literally years ago.  Feeling like a failure to completely give up hope on any particular cuisine, my brain must have sent an S.O.S. to the synapses in my brain, triggering the long-repressed memory and only remaining shrapnel of hope.  I vaguely recalled that they would frequently sojourn from their apartment on the Upper East Side all the way to Woodside for this favorite little joint.  Groggily, I opened my MacBook and Googled "woodside thai" and seven of the entries on the first page of results screamed to me the answer: SriPraPhai.

The very next morning, I sent a text message to one of my dearest friends and favorite food explorers, Mikey, to ask if he would be up for a blog adventure.  The excitement must have been glaringly evident in my text, and he wrote back "YES!!!"  Though the restaurant is just off the 65th street stop on the R train, I was far too excited to walk to a station and then wait for a train, and so we hopped in a cab.  From my apartment in Astoria, we were there in just 7 minutes.

My excitement admittedly took a momentary blow when we pulled up to the restaurant only to see a crowd of hungry diners waiting on the sidewalk for tables.  I felt like an out-of-towner at the box office lottery for tickets to see Wicked on Broadway, knowing darn well that the people getting seats before me had probably already eaten here numerous times, and should graciously forego their seats for me, the eager first-timer who would inevitably appreciate it exponentially more.  Considering the fact I have won lottery tickets to Wicked far more times than I am willing to admit on the worldwide web, I figured karma probably wasn't on my side.  So I politely pushed through the growling stomachs, and gave my information to the hostess.  In exchange, she handed me a pink Post-It with the number "68" written in ballpoint pen.  "30 minutes... more or less..." she stated, and returned to the receipts she had been sorting.  A lit number board both above the counter inside and on the sidewalk outside would flash our number when the table was ready.

Placing my Willy Wonka golden ticket into the side pocket of my cargo shorts, I gazed around the dining area, which extended into two rather large rooms that could easily seat a few hundred patrons.  Several non-Asian families happily twirled glistening noodles of pad thai onto wooden chopsticks, but as servers walked by with trays of strangely exotic and colorful dishes for the numerous tables of actual Thai families gathered for dinner, the non-Asian families would strain their necks to see what mysterious culinary treats they were missing out on.

Now when it comes to driving, I might accidentally waste an hour on a sidetrack because I refused to pull into a gas station for directions.  But when it comes to food, I'm never too proud to ask an expert for advice.  What happened next is one great trick I have learned, and one of the best tips I can give to any first-time diner at a new restaurant.  I approached the host stand, and politely asked the cashier if she had a moment.  "This is my very first time here.  I love trying new things.  In case this is my only visit, and I never get to return, is there any particular dish on the menu you think I simply have to try?"  The cashier smiled at me. "Oh yes..." she grinned, as she grabbed a takeout menu and proceeded to circle a few items with a black Sharpie.  "Here, try these.  You will be pleased."  I thanked her, and walked back outside to share my new information with Mikey.

After only about fifteen minutes from when we had taken our ticket, 68 lit up on the number board, and I nearly hurdled the other waiting patrons while Mikey trailed behind me chuckling at my enthusiasm.  I mean... sometimes you just know when a place is going to be fantastic.  A hostess guided us to a very tiny table near the front, packed tightly next to a row of other two-tops, creating a feel similar to a long communal table.  After squeezing into our seats, she then handed us thick menus that seemed more like spiral-bound dissertations than a list of curries, rice, and noodle dishes.  Just as I flipped open the cover to peruse, I heard some rustling coming from behind me.  The menus were suddenly snatched from our hands as quickly as they had been given.  Were we being kicked out because I had inadvertently toppled a senior citizen on a walker in my excitement?  Had I accidentally trampled a toddler in my haste?

To my surprise, it was the same cashier who had given me her menu suggestions, and she appeared to be scolding the hostess who had seated us.  Her face softened as she turned to me, "come... I will show you a better table."  The tables around us glared, as if we'd been granted a free upgrade to some mysterious first class cabin of which I had no awareness.  "Naw... It's okay, this table is fine for us," I replied, a little frightened by the small scene we were now causing.  "Trust me... come..." she smiled.  Out of respect for the woman who had offered her sage advice, we rose from our seemingly perfect window table, albeit somewhat cramped, and followed her... beyond the large dining room, past the kitchen, and through a back doorway I had assumed led to an alley.

Like Lucy stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia, I gasped at the outdoor garden into which the cashier led us.  Out here, diners seemed even happier in the breeze, and laughter floated from all of the tables as men and women feasted on a kaleidoscope array of dishes.

Our new hostess placed the menus on a large table intended for four people under a canopy of leaves (someone must have gotten the memo that I order a lot), with a gorgeous view of the entire garden area.  She winked at us, and grinned, "see... better table..." like a playful told-ya-so, and then disappeared back into the busy dining room.  Needless to say, the rest of the evening was magical.  Beyond the exceptionally friendly service and unique atmosphere, SpriPraPhai executes what numerous magazines, blogs, and critics have heralded as some of the best Thai food anywhere outside of Thailand. This food blogger is no exception.  We took our cashier's advice, and added a few choices of our own, as well.

The first suggestion we took was the crispy Chinese watercress salad ($10).  This required a significant amount of faith.  Considering the alternative salads, like shredded mango or papaya, who on earth would choose a salad of floating cabbage?  But thank goodness we heeded the advice, because it was one of the most delicious salads I've ever tasted.  If the title had said, "deep-fried salad" my eyes would have gone straight to it... but watercress?  Are you serious?  There's no way I would have chosen watercress from the list of forty-three potential appetizers.

It was absolutely delicious.  Peppery, tangy strips of fresh green watercress were lightly battered and fried.  Like some fantastic Asian onion ring, the crispy nest of fried greens sits atop a generous pile of tender shrimp, calamari, and chicken, which have been tossed in a thai chili oil, with tiny slivers of fresh red onion and sprigs of citrusy coriander.

Thung thong, or stuffed fried golden bags ($6), were practically too beautiful to touch.  Inside these surprisingly crispy parcels are a blend of shredded chicken, yellow corn, and snow peas.  The sweetness of the corn with the delicate texture of the snow peas and the savory chicken, all gift-wrapped in crunch with a small dish of thai chili sauce for dunking made for an exceptional second course.

I couldn't help but snicker at the title of our next dish: vegetable soup with ground pork, squid, and shrimp ($5).  In my experience, the last three ingredients don't make for a vegetable soup, but who was I to complain?  The broth was absolutely packed with the flavors of the meats and vegetables and a variety of herbs.

The gai-kua sauteed noodles with chicken and squid were a dish we will definitely be ordering again on our next visit.  Broad pappardelle-like rice noodles had been pan fried to perfection, expertly balancing the tightrope between tender and overcooked.  Served over freshly washed bibb lettuce, the broad noodles are sauteed with egg and chicken, then tossed in a delicate garlic and fish sauce.  Definitely a more savory alternative to the popular pad thai ($8.50).

That having been said, we simply couldn't resist trying the pad thai, which was sheer perfection.  Narrow rice noodles tossed with egg, delicious and succulent shrimp, peanuts, kaffir lime, sugar, and a kiss of tamarind.  Unlike many other imitations, the pad thai at SriPraPhai is exploding with flavors.  This is absolutely the real deal ($8.50).

Served with a heaping bowl of sticky white rice for $8.50, the chicken and bamboo shoots with green curry is an absolute must-try for both first-timers and aficionados alike.  Distinct from other curries because of the sweetness of the coconut milk and the fragrance of the basil leaves added at the end of the cooking, this aromatic dish packs a tangy and wonderful heat that brings just the right amount of sweat to your brow.  Be sure to specify to your server the desired degree of spice, but do not be frightened by the zip.  At SriPraPhai, this Thai favorite is beyond comparison.

Because some degree of heat is an element of many Thai dishes, I highly recommend a delicious accompaniment of a tall, refreshing glass of thai iced tea.  Strong red tea flavored with a hint of orange blossom is sweetened with sugar and condensed milk, served chilled over ice cubes.  It's an absolutely delicious counterpart to soothe your palate when the spice gets your brow glistening ($2.50).

Though many of the desserts are geared toward young ones with colored and flavored gelatins and rice, there's certainly a sweet ending for every age of taste bud.  Mikey enjoyed this generous dish of lychee ice cream crowned with lychee fruit ($4.50).

For dessert, I savored a slice of mor kang... better translated as taro custard ($3).  Made from the corm (underground stem) of the taro plant, this egg custard is sweetened with palm sugar (also know as coconut sugar, palm sugar is popular because of its low melt temperature and high burn temperature).  The result resembles a Thai Thanksgiving confection, sort of like an outrageously delicious, crustless sweet potato pie, topped with sweet, fried onions.  Another excellent recommendation we received, and the perfect ending to an exceptional dinner.

Though the website fails to list the desserts besides the ice cream, be sure to peruse the refrigerators by the main entrance while you are waiting.  The extensive menu offers decent English descriptions and images of most of the offerings, though a firsthand glimpse always reigns supreme over menu snapshots.  If dinner leaves you content without dessert, I highly recommend taking one home to enjoy later.  These tiny pieces of art are just as fascinating as the menu itself.

Sripraphai on Urbanspoon

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Locale exceeds everything you could desire from a neighborhood gem

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.

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