Monday, February 21, 2011

Watch Out Brooklyn, Comfort Cookin' Comes to Astoria

(Maple Bacon Buttermilk Biscuit at Queens Comfort)

Queens Comfort (40-09 30th Ave., Astoria)
Closed Mondays; Tu-Th 11am-10pm; Fri 11am-11pm; Sat brunch 10am-4pm &  dinner 6pm -11pm; Sunday brunch 10am-4pm & closed for dinner

I'm only gathering first impressions--these guys just opened their doors to the public today.  But if lunch was any indication of what we can expect from Queens Comfort, Astorians can already rejoice.  Southern-style comfort food has landed on 30th Ave.  And not just any comfort food.  This stuff will rival even your Granny's best baking.

Giving a major facelift to the space formerly occupied by recently shuttered Blue Restaurant, only the turquoise diner stools remain, with long communal-style tables replacing the booths, the whole eatery feeling more like a general store or old-fashioned Baptist potluck dinner.

(L-R: Thompson, Sullivan, Contini, D'Alessio)

Childhood friends since fifth grade from Long Island, co-owners Dave Contini (C.I.A. graduate and resident baker) and Donnie D'Alessio teamed up with Chef Casey Sullivan--who has a diverse resume that includes extensive experience with award-winning master smokers in Kansas City where "these kind of dishes are his religion," smiles Contini.  When artist-designer Avery Thompson came on board, it "just seemed a natural fit" and so he, too, joined the creative team.  

The restaurant, still in soft opening, will focus on southern style comfort food with a strong Louisiana influence (they even serve a traditional boudin--cajun rice sausage).  Along with Stumptown coffee from Brooklyn, brunch service is expected to start next weekend, featuring glorious recipes like a Kentucky Hot Brown Benedict and Bananas Foster French Toast.

While I will wait until their official opening for a full review, here is a sample of the dishes I have tasted. And let me tell you... these are some of the most outrageously delicious comfort plates I have enjoyed recently--in many cases exponentially better than their counterparts in Williamsburg.

Fantastically velvety split pea soup, almost like a warm and savory winter mousse, crowned with a haystack of crispy pork belly that actually crunches at the bite, giving way to salty and tender bacon inside.

Contini explained that they operate on the KISS-philosophy (Keep It Simple Stupid) which results in an absolutely perfect, classic rendition of some of the best mac-n-cheese you could crave.  Almost five inches tall, this golden browned casserole of elbow macaroni with cheddar, gruyere, and bechamel is crunchy crisp on the edges, yet smooth and deliciously cheesy throughout.  It's a perfect comfort meal all by itself (though I am dying to try their chicken pot pie, pot roast, and pulled pork sandwich!)

Best fried chicken sandwich. Ever.  A flaky buttermilk biscuit is slathered with maple butter and hot sauce, housing a juicy boneless chicken filet fried in a crisp, light, buttermilk batter, served with a heaping pile of Zapps potato chips delivered from Louisiana. Outrageous.

You haven't had a donut until you have tried Contini's cinammon-sugar-dusted cake donut.  As my stomach was grinning to full capacity, I enjoyed this donut hole.  The coating was crunchy with an almost toffee-like snap, giving way to a surprisingly moist cake donut you won't even want to dunk in anything.

The diner counter, reminiscent of a classic country store, is jeweled with cake stands of donuts and cookies, just an early preview of Contini's developing baked confections.

I couldn't keep my hand out of the cookie jar, and this "cluster cookie" will keep me sneaking right back in again and again.  A chewy chocolate crinkle cookie loaded with tender walnuts.

Though the menu, prices, and hours may fluctuate somewhat while Queens Comfort settles into its rhythm, I say you shouldn't wait much longer before this place gets packed.  The food is already great, the energy homey and warm, and the entire team couldn't have been more welcoming, even before I busted out my camera and started asking questions.

And since I know my posts can sometimes tip toward the heavier side of the menu, I took note for my vegetarian friends that they do offer some tempting entree salads, including a rendition with arugula, fig preserves, goat cheese, pear, and toasted walnuts, and even a Queens Caesar with charred romaine, black pepper mustard, and toasted croutons.

Sandwiches and salads are all $6.50-$8.50, with entrees ranging from $7-$14, and sides and soups from $3-$6.  While they await their liquor license, beverage service is BYOW (bring your own whatever).  I'd love to hear about your experiences as you welcome this wonderful new addition to the neighborhood... please post impressions and comments below.

We returned today with some friends, and here are some more images of what we sampled!  The owners also confirmed that once the liquor license arrives, they plan to host ping pong after dinner service in the evenings.

Arugula salad with goat cheese, fig preserve, pear, & toasted walnuts

Smoked turkey sandwich with bacon, cheddar, apples, & herb mayo

Pulled pork with Stumptown BBQ sauce & slaw

Chicken pot pie

Homemade coffee cake

Queens Comfort on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 18, 2011

My article about Ornella's blood pudding on Grub Street

My first article for Grub Street, New York Magazine's food news website:

"You'll forgive us if, lately, we've felt a bit of snout-to-tail ennui. After all, it's become increasingly easy to find chefs who are happy to serve you all the eyeballs, brains, tripe, and, yes, tails anyone could possibly want. So when we first got word of the sanguinaccio that's being served at Ornella Trattoria in Queens, we perhaps weren't as excited as we should have been. (We won't ruin the surprise here if you don't know, or haven't yet guessed, what this Italian specialty's secret ingredient is.) Lucky for us, Bradley O'Bryan Hawks made a beeline to the fourteen-month-old Italian eatery and got the lowdown for us."

Read the actual article here.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Meatball Shop: Having a ball with variations on a theme

The Meatball Shop (84 Stanton St., Lower East Side)

Yellow tulips on each tabletop.  An Executive Chef who was cooking at Le Bernardin even before he was of legal driving age, leaving only to attend the Culinary Institute of America on full scholarship from the James Beard Foundation.  The General Manager, childhood friend of aforementioned Chef and an honors graduate of the French Culinary Institute.  Premium meats sourced primarily from acclaimed purveyors.  Sound like the makings of fancy, elite four-star NYC establishment?  Not exactly, although the food is arguably as delicious if not exponentially more satisfying on levels of comfort and nostalgia.

Conceived and owned by Daniel Holzman (Executive Chef) and Michael Chernow (General Manager), The Meatball shop is a refreshingly straightforward chow palace, with a menu focused primarily on a few variations of one main dish... meatballs.  The meat is ground in-house, the shop some days reportedly cranking out literally thousands.  Though a few staples remain continuously on the menu (the classic beef meatball, for example) there are upwards of nearly thirty different meatballs in rotation (bolognese balls, chicken cordon bleu balls, buffalo chicken balls, Mediterranean lamb, chile relleno balls, reuben balls...) as well as a chalkboard showcasing the seasonal offerings of risotto, salads, greens and veggies.  They even have a permanent veggie meatball, ironically resulting in a rather loyal vegetarian following.

A friendly staff is eager to induct first-timers, though the customizable menu is extremely user-friendly and pretty straightforward.  Wipe-board menus are pre-set at each table, alongside a jar of dry erase markers.  Meatballs are available a la carte as Naked Balls (4 for $7), Sliders ($3), Heroes (with a side salad for $9), as a Smash (on brioche with a salad for $8), or in a salad ($8).  All sides are $4, and can be served on the side or underneath the meatballs (rigatoni, spaghetti, polenta, as well as seasonal greens...)  You can even add Family Jewels (a fried egg for $1).  And yes, the ball jokes are nearly impossible to resist.  These little orbs of supreme Italian deliciousness are more filling than you might think, and you can always order more.  We opted to try a few sliders to sample a variety of combinations without filling up too much.

NERDY SIDE NOTE: Though it's a simple menu, there are literally hundreds of potential meatball combinations.  Consider five daily balls with five different sauces.  That's 25 options alone, just if you order them "Naked".  But considering the various sandwich, salad, and pasta offerings under or over your meatball, you could easily create well over 300 possible combinations of just one dish.  Factor in adding stuff on the side like veggies, dessert, and beverages, and you could eat at The Meatball Shop every day for the next several years and never have the same meal twice!

The classic beef meatball with classic tomato sauce was... well... classic.  Naturally the most popular meatball on the menu, it seemed a necessary choice.  Because the balls are baked, they are extremely tender and moist, lacking a crisp outer coating achieved by sauteing.  And though this little guy was quite tasty and classic, I'd recommend skipping it for the more unique options.  You can get a decent beef meatball many places in the city.  But some of The Meatball Shop's more inventive offerings are one-of-a-kind finds that will turn you into a raving fanatic.

My absolute favorite of the day was the spicy pork slider with parmesan cream.  Jazzed up with pickled cherry peppers, it was the most delicious meatball I have tasted in years, and made me instantly wish I had ordered a whole plateful over rigatoni.  The parmesan cream is described on the menu as "alfredo sauce on steroids" and that pretty much sums it up.  Think decadent, creamy cheese sauce on spicy minced peppered pork on a mini-brioche.  Probably the yummiest bite-sized sandwich I have ever tasted.

The classic beef meatball was wonderfully transformed by the mushroom gravy, creating something of a mini stroganoff sandwich.

My second favorite ball of the day was this juicy little chicken ball on a bed of vibrant pesto.  Herbed chicken rarely tastes this delicious, the perfect harmony of barn and garden.  It was light, bursting with flavor, and simply exceptional.

Though the sandwiches are fantastic, I simply can't overcome the craving for pasta that always inevitably accompanies my affinity for meatballs.  Pictured above was one of the most multi-layered flavor explosions to ever land in a pasta bowl.  The meatballs were the specialty of the day, Jambalaya, with ground andouille sausage, shrimp, chicken, and rice.  They were like N'awlins in a golf ball-sized bite, and the most unique meatball I could imagine.  I loved the textures of the different meats with the occasional surprise of a tender little grain of rice  And we topped it all with the spicy meat sauce, an exceptional bolognese.  With a little fried egg yamulke sitting on the back of the dish and a generous dusting of shaved cheese, this was a real WOW plate.

No where else in the city are you likely to get such delicious risotto for $4.  The daily recipe was simply saffron, which was the perfect accompaniment to our flavor-loaded meatball selections.  Too often risotto is masked by its garnishes, and this was a classic, creamy, al dente boat of the perfect rendition.

Who doesn't love a good old-fashioned ice cream sandwich, especially when the ice cream and cookies are made fresh on the premises?  You can even choose a different cookie for the top and the bottom if you want, with options ranging from thin meringues, to peanut butter, brownie, or ginger snap. We decided to keep it simple, with chocolate chip cookies and mint ice cream.  The cookies were thin, chewy, and laced with mini milk chocolate morsels.  And the mint ice cream was a first for me, classic vanilla speckled with actual flakes of natural mint; the most refreshing sweet ending I could have wanted.

Though I enjoyed a sparkling mint lemonade, The Meatball Shop actually offers bar seating in addition to the tables, featuring a reasonably priced wine and beer selection, even including sangria and P.B.R. ($3).  They also serve iced sweet apple tea, as well as Abita Root Beer on tap, which you can also use to make an ice cream float.

We were seated immediately in the early afternoon on a Wednesday, but lines have been known to approach wait times of well over an hour or more. Serving until 4AM on the weekends, I can only imagine what that line must look like when the bars begin to spill out.  You can find out the current wait time by calling (212) 982-8895.

Check out this great clip about The Meatball Shop on The Cooking Channel:

The Meatball Shop on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

M. Wells Diner dishing up supremely delicious & innovative comfort food

M. Wells Diner (21-17 49th Ave., Long Island City)
Brunch Daily 10AM-4PM (Closed Mondays)

"Wowwww, what is that?!?" asks one man sitting next to us at the communal table.  As the server drizzles a small pitcher of heavy cream over the steaming bowl of gooey golden deliciousness bubbling in front of me, every diner around us momentarily freezes to watch the ceremony.  "It's the pudding chaumeur, basically cake batter poached in maple syrup" I reply, rather proud of my dessert selection.  "And according to the server, there's only one left today, so you should probably..."

"Excuse me... server!!!" hollers another guy at the end of the table, cutting me off, "I want the last of that pudding thing this guy is eating, okay?"  The faces of the couple beside me instantly fall, beaten to the punch, as if the prospect of their entire meal has now been ruined.  I feel a little guilty, like winning the $25 lottery tickets to see Wicked on Broadway, when some disappointed couple from Iowa doesn't win during their one time visiting New York City, and I live just fifteen minutes away and have already seen it multiple times.

Lacking on recent kind Samaritan acts, I lean back toward the sunken couple.  "Grab a clean fork or spoon and take a bite of ours before we ravenously devour it... I mean it, go ahead."  "No, we couldn't possibly..." her mouth says, while she and he both reach toward their forks.  I smile as my teeth sink into the sticky, crunchy toffee coating of caramelized syrup that cracks like a brulee and gives way to maple and cream soaked yellow cake dollops, simultaneously piping hot and refreshingly cool from the cream.  Within about sixty seconds, four of us have nearly licked the bowl clean.

"Oh thank you... thank you so much... that was heavenly." The couple grins like two children who just finished a whole jar of chocolate chip cookies that were intended to be saved for later.  They haven't even ordered appetizers yet.  "If you want to try anything of ours at all, please help yourself."  "That's alright," I smile gratefully, "but thank you.  This is my third time here this week.  I'm sure I will have it again."

(Entirely on accident [honest!], I snapped one young patron who brought his own milk.)

Owned by the dynamic team of married couple Hugue Dufour (of Montreal's famous Au Pied de Cochon) and Queens native Sarah Obraitis, the perpetually evolving menu features many traditional Quebecois classics (tourtiere and poutine specials--sans the curds), as well as some American favorites with a few smart twists.  Dubbed a Quebecois-American diner, the menu was slightly different each of the three times I have visited, though several M. Wells favorites remain with slight variations on fillings or garnishes.

Even on the coldest days, expect a sometimes substantial wait for this highly buzzed hotspot.  I waited one Sunday afternoon over an hour and a half, though the payoff was worth every minute.  Obraitis recommends coming right when they open, or around 3PM for the best chance at quick seating.  Short for Magasin Wells (juxtaposing the French word for "store" and Obraitis's middle name), do not be  misguided by the fact M. Wells looks every bit like a 50-year-old diner.  This culinary destination restaurant is serving up some of the most interesting and fantastic dishes in all of New York City, yet at accessible prices expected of a diner--with the occasional exception of daily specials like sturgeon with caviar for $45, still reasonable, if not diner fare.  Then again, even the most simplistic dish titles are merely deceptively pedestrian monikers for exceptionally executed and fanciful recipes.  While Dufour mans the griddle, Obraitis rather sweetly orchestrates the dining room and seats each guest, acting as liaison between the customer and the kitchen, occasionally touching base with a gentle hand on the shoulder to make sure everything is enjoyable.

(Tables are adorned with ceramic doll head planters by Plants on the Brain)

Eclectic decorations foreshadow the free spirit and sophisticated whimsy of the dishes.  Half of the dining car is lined with booths opposite bison leather-cushioned counter stools facing the open grill.  The other side of the diner holds showcases of a rotating selection of daily freshly baked goodies alongside a couple of wooden communal tables, ideal for large groups or diners willing to spark conversation with their neighbors.  It's also where the staff retreats after service each evening for a family-style dinner.

Inspired by the McDonald's breakfast sandwich, Dufour has quite possibly perfected the egg-sausage muffin.  Built on a flawless, warm, chewy English muffin made fresh on the premises, this sunrise flavor carnival is stacked with a thick Berkshire sausage patty that sings of nutmeg and sage, a substantial egg pillow first microwaved for fluffiness and then finished on the griddle, tangy pickled jalapenos, dripping ribbons of melted cheddar, sweet and juicy heirloom tomato, and a generous slathering of homemade mayonnaise.

Simply named "Hot Dog... $6" on the menu, this little puppy is a jazzed up New York classic, like a Coney dog on steroids.  Tucked in a gorgeously toasted New England style hot dog roll, this juicy frank is generously piled with a sweet chili of firm, plump beans and tiny salty charred bits of crisp bacon, all crowned with a tangy mustard grain slaw, knocking any other version way out of the ballpark.

The tortilla espaƱola is an exceptional rendition of this classic spanish omelette ($6), literally a cloud of buttery and fluffy egg laced with slivers of sauteed onion and potato, also available with sweet Maine shrimp ($9), both blended into the omelette, as well as garnished with two whole sweet sea jewels, decadently brimming with salty roe.

Not a day has gone by that I haven't described in extensive detail to someone in my life what was one of the most extravagant and luxuriously delicious dishes I have ever enjoyed in my life: the seafood cobbler.  A casserole pan is lined with exquisitely tender brussels sprouts, then cobblestoned with flaky chunks of pollock, all drenched in a thick, velvety pool of bechamel, stacked with two homemade biscuits, and then sealed with a blanket of gruyere cheese, and baked to golden brown.  Forkfuls of butter-drenched sprouts, flaky biscuits, ocean-kissed whitefish, and endless melted rivers of nutty Swiss cheese stringing from the dish... well, food just doesn't get better than this.

The fish 'n chips is yet another exceptional rendition, this time of an English classic, served at M. Wells in the traditional newsprint cone, with hand cut fries under the fried fish planks, as well as a generous boat of extra on the side.  While we enjoyed a version using crispy-battered pollock with skin on, sealing in extra flavor, M. Wells has also recently served them in a popular Australian style using shark meat.  The breading is wonderfully thick yet crispy, and refreshingly greaseless.

Though the chipped fries are substituted here will actual full-length french fries, I have no complaints.  These fried spuds are exceptional, remarkably long and thin, with a crispy coating and tender inside.  Be sure to ask for a bottle of malt vinegar to best enjoy some of the tastiest fried fish around.

Now with their liquor license, M. Wells offers a limited selection of beers and carefully edited wines, along with fresh lemonade, Boylan's sodas, and a killer bloody caesar laced with just a whisper of clam juice and a peppery rim.

The salads on the menu are practically a steal, ranging $6 to $9 and more than enough to share.  The blue cheese salad is generously studded with wonderfully light, albeit mutant-sized crumbles of blue cheese, candied walnuts, and tart julienned green apples.

One my favorite dishes out of everything I have sampled was this refreshing, bright, salad kaleidoscope of shredded green cabbage, plump dried cranberries, crunchy rustic croutons, parmesan shavings, and remarkably tender and and smoky venison jerky, with a light sprinkling of cracked black pepper.

For a somewhat refined yet lumberjack-satisfying breakfast, you can't go wrong with their rotating hashed potato selection; this particular visit it was jeweled with red peppers, toothsome slab bacon, and a perfectly poached egg.

Though you may not find classic Quebec poutine on the menu (Dufour claims the curds here just aren't worthy), who wouldn't drool over this absolutely mouthwatering heap, simply called "hot chicken".  Flaky biscuits are loaded with boneless, juicy skin-on poultry, a teepee of handcut fries, polka dotted with plump green peas, and then decadently glazed with hearty brown gravy.  Stacked like a blazing bonfire of comfort food at its very best, this is a simply must-try dish for any M. Wells first-timer.

Proof that the best things come in small packages, the Coquille St. Jacques earned a place in my top five of the most mind-blowing delicious explosions of carefully harmonized flavors I have tasted in recent years.  White wine and butter poached succulent scallops and plump mussels sit in a pool of their own reduction alongside herbed breadcrumbs in a scallop shell cradle, topped with mild gruyere and skirted with a delicate piping of creamy potato mash.  Though only a trio of these tiny gorgeous gems arrive per serving, it demanded unprecedented willpower to make them last, and even more to offer a precious bite to my friend.  

I would have to dine at M. Wells every day to sample the full array of what I can only imagine is an entirely delicious menu.  Parsnip soup with foie gras tempted me, as well as a cubano with roasted pork and mortadella.  Bone marrow and escargot is only $9, and they were sadly out of the pickled pork tongue each time I last visited.  Desserts are equally varied and beckon you from behind glass cases, like this wonderfully dense and dunkable cake donut I shared.

I have been told the banana cream pie is out-of-this-world, although I cannot even remotely fathom anything winning my obsession affection the way the pudding chaumeur has.  Even if you don't have room, at least brownbag a Graceland for $3.50.  This Elvis-inspired confection is an exceptionally moist banana cupcake topped with peanut butter buttercream frosting, and puts anything those other cupcake shops are peddling to shame.

Oversized chocolate chip cookies are $2, and warm killer brownies the size of a jumbo slice of sourdough are $4, also available Mex-cellent style with spices and orange zest.

While the menu is gradually expanding, service currently remains every day of the week except Monday from 10AM to 4PM.  Dinner service, though initially scheduled to open last month, has been temporarily postponed, though it will gradually commence just a few evenings of the week.

Regardless of where you live, treat yourself to the brief ride on the 7-train to one of the most unique and innovative restaurants anywhere in the city.  Leave yourself ample time to wait, but if you're game, those waiting are likely to be regulars or return visitors eager to share their anecdotes and personal favorite dishes.  Besides, who doesn't love the nostalgia of eating in a half-century-old diner?

M Wells on Urbanspoon
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