Monday, July 25, 2011

Vesta Brunch: Starring the Hangover Pizza

Vesta Trattoria & Wine Bar (21-02 30th Ave., Astoria, NY)

With the recent explosion of restaurants popping up like wildfire throughout Astoria and Long Island City, it can be easy to let old favorites take the back burner.  A few recent visits to Vesta (big sister to newcomer, Pachanga Patterson--a Mexican-inspired fusion joint by the same owners and chef), however, reminded a group of friends just how tasty this three-year-old neighborhood staple can be... especially at brunch.  Brunch is a meal attempted almost everywhere, but not always executed to celebration.  And while dinner crowds fill this neighborhood trattoria to the seams (the baked lasagna is killer), Vesta's brunch wins my affection for favorite meal.  While the name and menu items suggest Italian cuisine, the dishes, in my opinion, are uniquely American--perhaps served up via an Italian vessel.  But just as true Italian cuisine is sourced locally, varying from region to region, Chef Michelle Vido at Vesta plays with local ingredients, often through Vesta's well-known partnership with the Brooklyn Grange, Astoria's rooftop farm.

A few ephemeral treats on the brunch menu disappear from week to week, but one undeniably popular nosh seems to always remain.  The pizza-lovers answer to a bloody-mary, the Hangover Pizza is a crispy wafer-thin crust blanketed with a spicy tomato sauce, adorned with pancetta, potatoes, sausage, and soft-centered fried eggs.  This bad boy is an ideal starter for a table of four.

Baked in the same casserole dish as their bubbling lasagna comes the "Warm Bankie" -- one of Vesta's heartier morning options.  Exceedingly creamy and custardy polenta is topped with jewels of asparagus spears, sauteed mushrooms, a drizzle of truffle oil, and fried eggs.

Another personal favorite is L'Italiano, toasted Italian bread with a smear of ricotta, thin salty slices of hot sopressata, and creamy-yolk-centered poached eggs... with tuscan home fries.

Light-as-air buttermilk pancakes arrive stacked with fresh berries and unsweetened whipped cream.

Flawless omelette selections vary from a veggie omelette with sauteed mushrooms, escarole, & mozzarella to yesterday's egg white omelette with ricotta, basil, & tomato (pictured above with home fries).

A few of the dinner items also appear at brunch under a section labeled "Everything Else".  Orecchiette tossed in a light oil with artichokes, & sauteed mushrooms showcases the focus on the local ingredients.

Save room for what has become one of the most famous desserts in Astoria and appears in almost every review of Vesta.  This luxuriously moist brown sugar date cake is topped with a toffee sauce and served with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream.  The dates, rehydrated and then pureed, offer a richness that harmonizes fantastically with the buttery sauce, delicately lightened by the cloud of cream. It's name, "Baby Jesus Cake," was allegedly born during preliminary taste tests for the restaurant when upon tasting it, a friend exclaimed, "this tastes like Baby Jesus."

Though if only choosing one dessert, the Baby Jesus Cake should be the decision, other delicious confections appear on the rotating dessert menu, including variations on bread pudding (the chocolate bread pudding is exceptional) or the limoncello tiramisu (pictured above), like a layered citrus custard with actual citrus segments... wonderfully refreshing in the summer heat.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Weekly Bites of BORO

The Brunch Burger at Queens Comfort

If you have enjoyed Amuse*Bouche, then I hope you will take a moment to sign up for newsletter at BORO Magazine.  I absolutely intend on continuing my own site, seeking new ways for it to grow.  But since the beginning of this year, I have been blessed to be a regular contributor to BORO, an exciting and inspiring publication that highlights the very best our neighborhood has to offer in virtually every facet of living.

Recently, I have begun a regular online column entitled "BORO's Best Weekly Bites" where I share with BORO readers my favorite dishes of the week.  By signing up for the free newsletter, you will have my column automatically sent to you.

Here is a sample of the columns from the past two weeks, as originally posted on BORO Magazine Online.  I will make a genuine effort to repost more of my BORO stories here, as well.

Thank you SO MUCH for your continued support!

* * * * * * * * * *

Morning Munch:

What could possibly spell brunch more deliciously than Ovelia’s Ham Chip-Drip, an open-faced toast combining thin-shaved ham, creamy mozzarella, sautéed ‘shrooms, poached eggs, and a blanket of citrusy hollandaise?
Ovelia, 3401 30th Avenue, Astoria, NY –

Noonday Nosh:

Can’t decided between a sandwich or pasta with a side salad? Thanks to the outrageously fun Spaghetti Sandwich at M. Wells, you no longer have to! Spaghetti with meat sauce baked as a patty, topped with mozzarella, marinara, & Caesar salad on a toasted bun.
M. Wells Diner, 21-17 49th Avenue, Long Island City –

Suppertime Savoring:

Giuseppe Viterale recently offered a preview of the gourmet pizzas soon to be offered at Ornella Trattoria, and the Pig-in-a-Blanket will knock your socks off! A buttery crust split open and stuffed with prosciutto, arugula, house-aged cream cheese, and a drizzle of truffle oil.

Indulgent Inclination:

You won’t find it on the menu, but do not leave Il Bambino without trying the vanilla bean-speckled panna cotta with strawberry sauce and homemade chocolate-dipped corn flake clusters, like a sophisticated and delicious twist on cereal for dessert.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

William Hallet Now Open

William Hallet: An American Bistro & Bar (36-10 30th Ave., Astoria, NY 11105)

Foie gras sliders you can pinch between your thumb and forefinger on mini brioche with red onion marmalade are just one of the many exciting and inventive offerings showcased at William Hallet, the newest restaurant to open on 30th Ave.  These little guys may be tiny, but they pack a deliciously savory punch.  And while Astorians may have wept at the closing of Marino & Sons, longtime favorite fish market, the restaurant and bar taking over the newly renovated space promises to soon become every bit just as much of a neighborhood cornerstone.

From the lanterns on the dark wood entryway to the tin ceilings and embossed wallpaper, William Hallet (named after the founding settler of Astoria) feels like a proper New England tavern, with a uniquely new American menu.  The kitchen combines the creative culinary forces of Bistro 33's Gary Anza and Hell Gate Social's George Rallis.  The bar presently features a full liquor selection, with beer and limited wine.

Presently, hours are from 5PM until business decline daily, but within a few weeks, the closing hours will be extended until 4AM with the full menu available until last call.  The hope is to create a neighborhood lounge for those Astorians in the industry, returning to Queens late at night still in want of great food and beverage service.  Brunch will then be added, and eventually lunch hours, as well.

I thoroughly enjoyed the scallop appetizer, with gigantic plump seared scallops in a chilled watermelon soup with fresh basil and orange supreme.

And I am already craving the turducken sandwich, a meatloaf of turkey, duck, and chicken topped with crisp bacon and bourbon ketchup on an onion roll.  No favorite meatloaf... ever.  Plus it's really fun to say "turducken" over and over again.

Be sure to ask for a ramekin of the bourbon ketchup... literally a Jack Daniels-infused ketchup.  It packs a wonderful kick, and with the killer seasoned steak fries, you could quickly go through a pint of it.

Other promising menu items included:

Beef Tenderloin Tartare with pinenuts, avocado, & quail eggs  $12
Suckling Pig with potato puree & succotash $14
Seasonal Vegetable Puff Pastry $12
PBLT (Pork Belly, Bibb Lettuce, Tomato) $11
Cobb Salad with crispy poached egg & tarragon creme $12
Ribeye with peppercorn demi-glace (price & steak selection vary daily)

and yes, a Fried Peanut Butter sandwich with bacon, banana, & raspberry jam $8 (they were out of it when we arrived)

Service is exceptionally friendly in a cozy and unpretentious setting.

What are your first impressions of William Hallet?

William Hallett on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 1, 2011

Basil Brick Oven: True Italian Pizza at the Mouth of the Triboro

Basil Brick Oven Pizza (28-17 Astoria Blvd.)

Astoria has been home to some wonderfully delicious Italian American pizzas--and for many, those admittedly delicious standbys are exactly what you are seeking (don't get me wrong--I love, love, love me some Rizzo's and Sac's Place).  But the world of true artisan pies has seemed exclusive to Brooklyn, the Village, Arthur Avenue, and Eataly... with few exceptions.  To think that I not longer have to trek to Kesté or Motorino for a gourmet pie is like a culinary Christmas present.

These aren't thin-n-crispy pizzas.  They aren't sicilian.  One pie won't feed a family.  It really won't even feed two.  But if excellent, authentic, Italian pie baked in the northern Italian tradition is something that makes you salivate, then you need to immediately head over to newly opened Basil Brick Oven Pizza just a block from the Astoria Blvd. stop on the N/Q.

The oven, kept piping hot (850-900˚ F) brings these individual-sized rounds to bubbling glory in mere seconds.  And while I have learned that a margherita is always my favorite (the ingredients are so fresh, you really don't need much else to confuse your senses), Basil offers a mindblowing selection of over 25 varieties, including speck & brie, gorgonzola & pear, mussels & garlic, or asparagus & egg.

If there are little charred bubbles, your pizza is not burnt.  It's a standard marking on this style of pizza, cooked at such extreme temperatures.  The crust is crisp on the edge and then fluffy inside... the tomato & basil insanely fresh (watch as Chef Danielle cuts the herbs to-order from a little garden right by the pizza oven).

A limited selection of antipasti, panini, and pastas are also available to round out the meal.  We sampled the Fettuccini al Antonio, and were absolutely thrilled.  Al dente pasta tossed in what could best be described as a pesto bolognese--tender ground beef, fresh basil, a touch of cream, sauteed mushrooms, Parmigiano Reggiano, and truffle oil.  It was savory, decadent, and simply delicious.

The pana cotta, polka dotted with vanilla bean specks, was exceptional, skirted in juicy fresh sliced pear with dollops of whipped cream and a dusting of confectioner's sugar.  All of the desserts (including a Nutella stuffed pizza with strawberries), as well as the dishes, are made in-house by Chef Danielle, who brings his family recipes from Piemonte, Italy.

The space is small, but immaculate... the seating limited to not many more than twenty or so.  And when the neighborhood discovers what a true gem they have, there will easily be a line down the block.  But for now, take advantage while you can.  Delivery is even available, though I recommend trying these masterful pies in person, fresh from the oven, as they are intended.

Basil Brick Oven Pizza on Urbanspoon
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