Thursday, November 24, 2011

Last-Minute Thanksgiving Restaurant Recommendations

(Stuffed chicken with carrot-ginger puree at Bear Restaurant)

No time to brine a turkey?  Or lunch is taken care of, but you just want to relax with friends and have something besides leftovers with mayo on bread for dinner?  Here are a few of my most highly recommended options (that are definitely open) in the neighborhood for enjoying a delicious Thanksgiving meal without slaving away over your own stove!

Baked ziti at Ornella Trattoria

It is no secret that one of my favorite restaurants in all of New York City is Ornella Trattoria (29-17 23rd Ave).  Not only is the regional Italian cuisine some of the most delicious anywhere, but the family that runs the restaurant is one of the most loving and wonderful families I have ever met... truly my own New York City family away from home.  Giuseppe, Ornella, and their sons welcome you into their restaurant as though you were beloved kin.  With well over a hundred menu options (they'll make you things not even on the menu), there really isn't a place that feels more like home anywhere.  Check out their unique homemade pastas (made from chickpea flour or chestnut flour), or try the imbustata (chicken, veal, mushroom, spinach, and mascarpone stuffed pasta envelope baked in robust tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella).  Every thing here is exceptional, and made with genuine love.

The Bison Burger with homemade B.B.Q. sauce, jalapenos, crispy onion strings & pepper jack

Following its initial soft opening, Burger Club (32-02 30th Ave) has drastically upped its game.  With just a few minor modifications, this place has proven it is around to stay... with some of the most incredible burger options in the neighborhood.  The ingredients are fresh, prepared to order (try the beer battered onion rings or mozzarella fritters with prosciutto), and available in every combination imaginable.  Start off with the braised short rib and melted cheddar loaded fries, chow down on a juicy Pat LaFrieda blend of chuck and hanger steak on buttery challah, and finish up with a peanut butter banana malted chocolate ball milkshake.  This place is as All-American as it gets, and without any gimmicks.  For Thanksgiving, they promise to offer some traditional Turkey Day specials.  Plus their liquor license is ready within a few weeks.

Sweet potato gnocchi in browned butter sage sauce with romano cheese

I am crazy in love with the family and the cuisine at Long Island City's newest restaurant, Bear (12-14 31st Ave).  Be sure to check out their wonderful Thanksgiving 5-course prix fixe served from 3-10PM.   While they are offering traditional Thanksgiving items, I highly recommend the sweet potato gnocchi in brown butter sage sauce with shaved Romano.  Then again, the sea scallops are succulent and enormous, served with a vibrant autumn risotto. For elegance and beautifully executed plates as delicious as they look, this is one of the very best options.

TQK's killer mac & cheese

Their gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches are famous.  Their coffee and beverages are cutting edge.  The energy is tangible.  And there really is nothing less than glowing that can be said about The Queens Kickshaw (40-17 Broadway) and their wonderful crew.  And while the sandwiches and coffee may steal the spotlight, the sides are not to be missed.  This macaroni and cheese is out of control, with golden browned smoked mozzarella, gruyere, and cheddar studded with slivers of french green beans, all blanketed in a light tomato cream sauce.  I know I speak on behalf of the whole neighborhood when I say we are thankful to have The Queens Kickshaw just around the corner.

The Astor Bake Shop (12-23 Astoria Blvd) will be open until 4PM today.  Although the chocolate glazed pumpkin mousse cheesecake (below) is out of this world, don't skip over the savory options, like the triple decker croque madame (above).  The herb-seasoned fries and salted lemonade are must-try additions.  Chef McKirdy's baked treats are undeniably some of the finest anywhere, but don't be fooled.  This is much more than your average bake shop... the burgers and sandwiches are equally drool-worthy.  And yes, this is absolutely where I would swing by to grab a dessert to take to Thanksgiving if I really wanted to impress my friends and family.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Bear is officially open

Diver Sea Scallop with tomato and shitake mushroom barley risotto

Bear Restaurant & Bar (12-14 31st Ave., Long Island City)

As I wrote for Grub Street last week, Bear is officially open in Long Island City, bringing New European cuisine just a few blocks from Long Island City's Socrates Sculpture Park.  I am also pleased to share that my photographs of their fall dishes are featured on their website (checkout the cool slideshow on the homepage).  While I recently held an exclusive interview and spent some quality one-on-one time with the entire Pogrebinsky family who run Bear, that story (with new images) will be featured shortly in BORO Magazine.  Until then, here is my Grub Street article along with a few additional images.

The dining room is studded with Swarovski crystal chandeliers set into the walls, with Venetian-tiled floors, and a full-service granite-topped mosaic bar.

On the "New European" menu, consider the house appetizer, "3-Shot Vodka," a seasonally rotating trio of small bites served with a mini-carafe of vodka intended to jump-start the meal and whet the palate. "Bear Wings" are actually large duck wings served with an apple salad and blue cheese dipping sauce. 

Another house dish features Long Island duck slow-roasted with a whole granny smith apple, served with sunflower-oil-seared potatoes. Cocktails, wines, and several obscure craft beers (including two from the Great Lakes brewery in Cleveland) make up the drinks selection.

Talk about "Bear"ing a resemblance: Bear is owned and run by the Pogrebinsky family

Executive chef Natasha Pogrebinsky comes most recently from the Castello Plan in Brooklyn, but has studied in a few of New York's top kitchens, including at Park Avenue Seasons and as an apprentice to Salumeria Rosi's Cesare Casella. While initially just serving dinner and an abbreviated late-night menu (2 a.m. weekdays; 4 a.m. weekends), Bear will eventually serve lunch and brunch as well. The full opening menu (featuring my photographs!) may be seen here.

Bear on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 12, 2011

I think I'll go eat worms... literally

A dear friend cautiously inspecting a wheel of casu marzu ("rotten cheese" or "worm cheese")

Ornella Trattoria (29-17 23rd Ave, Astoria, NY)

You obviously cannot order this on the menu (it can't even be stored anywhere near the other food), but if you're lucky enough (depending on how you look at it) Giuseppe--chef and co-owner of Ornella Trattoria--just might show you this Sardinian delicacy.  It's called casu marzu, translated "rotten cheese" -- so named because this large wheel of pecorino has undergone an advanced stage of fermentation... even decomposition.  How?  It's literally teeming with thousands of maggots.  Just check out this video I captured...

Before being declared a traditional food (the recipe goes back thousands of years), it was formally banned in the EU.  However, because it has been made for over 25 years, it is exempt from modern regulations.

These little buggers can jump up over six inches!

This traditional Sardinian sheep milk cheese is known for containing live insect larvae.

Derived from pecorino, the larvae of the Piophila casei (cheese fly) produce an advanced level of fermentation... Technically the maggots eat the cheese, break down the fats, and then defecate it.

Hakuna Matata!

When the cheese fly is introduced, a piece of the rind is removed so the cheese fly can lay its eggs. After several weeks, the fats are broken down, rendering the cheese soft and creamy.

The female larvae can lay 500 eggs at one time, so the fully broken down casu marzu has thousands of maggots inside...

In the above video, this is just what the underside of the cheese looks like. The larvae can jump up to six inches, so diners traditionally hold their hands over the cheese while eating.

And yes, I tried it.  While I am not an extreme food lover, how often does something like this appear at the table following a meal of baked ziti?  Slathered on a slice of rustic toast, the cheese was soft, smelled very strong (like an intense gorgonzola) and had an extremely complex layering of flavors.  The initial taste was pecorino, followed by gorgonzola, and then a spicy aftertaste, like freshly cracked black pepper.  Had it not been literally moving, I might have enjoyed a lot more... it was admittedly delicious.  But mind-over-matter only gets me so far...

Again, you cannot order this on the menu, but while the wheel lasts for the next few weeks (once the larvae eat everything, they die, and the cheese is no longer good), you might be able to sneak a peak.

Less brave palates will undoubtedly enjoy the more traditional fall comfort dishes being introduced to the menu, like the baked ziti, which is studded with spicy pieces of Italian sausage...

For fans of the signature dish, imubustata (pasta envelope), a delicious addition is the torcino, a rolled pasta sheet loaded with steak and bacon, covered in tomato sauce and baked with fresh mozzarella.

With the steal pizzaiola, tender filets of beef are blanketed with a tangy red sauce of sauteed mushrooms, and red bell peppers.

And for those brave enough to ask about the casu marzu who might not make it to Astoria before the cheese disappears, don't worry.  Giuseppe has been testing this year's sanguinaccio recipe, which should debut within the next few weeks.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A SOUPer Winter Menu at Il Bambino

(Check out the recipe for this Roasted Pumpkin Soup below)

Il Bambino (34-08 31st Ave)

An edited version of this article appeared in the November issue of BORO.

“Someone could call themselves a chef for 30 years, and still never really understand flavor,” says Darren Lawless, chef-owner of Il Bambino, the beloved paninoteca and tapas bar—one of only three restaurants in Astoria to place in the “extraordinary to perfection” bracket in Zagat’s most recent rankings, with a food score of 26.  “[At Il Bambino] it’s all about flavor and technique…” he passionately explains in a cheerful Irish lilt,  “…knowing how to transform a carrot into a roasted carrot salad.”  The secret?  Quality ingredients and superb technique at extracting and layering flavors.

Most of the dishes at Il Bambino have only a few simple ingredients, but one bite of a panini or a spoonful of the daily soup, and it doesn’t take a food critic to recognize something special going on here.  The split pea and prosciutto soup is really only four main ingredients: peas, prosciutto, onions, and carrots.  Sounds simple, right?  Chef Lawless first sweats the prosciutto, drawing out the savory juices, to which the onions are then fed, until rendered sweet and translucent.  Next, the peas are cooked into the base, like a risotto.  “So much goes on before we even add water,” smiles Lawless, who never uses stocks.  “I always want the featured ingredient to shine through.”  Herbs are only added at the very end, allowing the heat to release the oils just in time to serve.  Vegetarian soups are given just a touch of cream for heartiness, or maybe even a pureed potato to add a velvety smoothness to the body.

While the soups hibernate throughout the summer, their resurrection each autumn is highly anticipated.  On a typical day, the restaurant can easily sell over one hundred 16 oz. servings.  The price for these gourmet ephemeral gems comes to $7.08 after tax, and each portion is accompanied by a toasted crostini slathered with homemade basil pesto, ideal for dunking.

(The Notorious P.I.G.)

Along with this year’s seasonal soups comes the extension of brunch to Fridays, as well as Saturday and Sunday.  New, cleverly-named breakfast panini include the Sir Oink-a-Lot (with sweet sausage), Wake & Bake (with “smoked” mayo), Sweet Ass (prosciutto and fig spread), and the Notorious P.I.G. (smoked bacon, eggs, artisan cheddar, and truffle spread).

(Assorted crostini--these mini sandwiches are exploding with exquisite flavors)

Daily specials this season have included a panini of smoked chicken with bacon mac & cheese.  Among the lineup of upcoming soups, patrons can anticipate the following: smoked tomato bisque (the best seller, usually featured Wednesdays and Saturdays), roasted pumpkin with sweet spices and fresh thyme, split pea prosciutto, potato with roasted mushrooms and garlic, potato-cauliflower with toasted almonds, and—for when it’s really cold—a sweet sausage minestrone with ditalini pasta.  “I froze some of this last year, and bring it out when ever my boys get sick,” smiles a visibly golden-hearted Lawless, who seems to treat his family and staff with the same loving attention he does each of his recipes.


Chef Lawless graciously shared the recipe for one of his most popular soups below:

Roasted Pumpkin Soup with Nutmeg & Moscato

7-8 lb pumpkin
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 large potato, peeled and roughly chopped
2 oz of unsalted butter
1 pint milk
1 cup moscato or dessert wine
1 pint heavy cream
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
freshly grated nutmeg
salt and white pepper
Prepare the pumpkin by cutting it into quarters, and then into eighths. Remove seeds, and separate the meat from the skin (discarded skin). Cut pumpkin meat into smaller chunks and set aside. Melt the butter in a large pot, over medium high heat. Add onion and cook for 10 minutes until soft and translucent. Add the pumpkin and potato, and cook for 10 more minutes. Add the moscato, and boil to reduce by half. Add the milk and cream and simmer, covered, for 1 hour (or until completely soft and very tender). Puree the soup, and season with salt and pepper, freshly grated nutmeg and chopped fresh thyme.
Yields 6 servings.

Ovelia: Still Fresh After 5 Years

(The Lamburgini--lamb burger on pretzel bun with crimini mushrooms & feta cream sauce)

Ovelia Psistaria & Bar (34-01 30th Ave.)

The edited version of this article appears in the November 2011 issue of BORO.

Tradition whimsically blurs with the contemporary in both culinary approach and ambiance at Ovelia Psistaria—the beloved Greek restaurant that celebrates half a decade of business this December.  Outside, the café appears no glaringly different from the handful of others nearby.

Patrons sip frappes along Astoria’s Grand Avenue while noshing on such classics as a decadently creamy version of an onion-studded garlicky hummus with tender pita points, arguably some of the finest in this Greco-centric neighborhood.

Inside, reality slowly breaks, giving way to creativity and invention.  Electronic butterflies gently flap their wings amidst the planters above the banquettes.  On the mezzanine, a torso-less glam rock mannequin is caught with his pants around his Technicolor ankles.

At the bar—an enormous concrete slab studded with tiny pulsing fiber optic dots overlooking a glass-paneled garage door—regulars grow giddy on Rakomelo, a cardamom-laced moonshine served warm in a teapot.    

The vibrant and eclectic décor is thanks to Chris Giannakas, the charming and charismatic criminal-law-student-turned-restaurateur who runs the front of the house operations.  But he’s only one-fourth of the family team behind Ovelia.  His brother and Executive Chef, Pete, was finishing his Ph.D. from NYU at Mt. Sinai when the two decided to launch a new restaurant in Astoria.  “There was no way we were going to even try this unless we had our dad in the kitchen…” asserts Chris.  “It’s a little different cooking for forty instead of four, and [dad] has been cooking professionally for almost 40 years”  When father and mother, Ioannis and Evangelia Giannakas, agreed to climb aboard, the sons knew they had a recipe for success.

The menu at Ovelia brings together favorite Giannakas family dishes.  Yiayia’s omelette, an egg casserole with French fries and feta, was a favorite made by Chris and Pete’s grandmother growing up.  The monastiraki bifteki (classic ground beef and lamb kebabs) are affectionately named after a store frequented by their parents on dates.

And while mom and dad tackle the traditional Greek portion of the Ovelia menu, Chef Pete brings modern flare to the kitchen with his inventive fare.  Though saganaki, a classic flame-broiled cheese, is offered as hot meze, the menu also boasts giant cubes of creamy feta that have been dipped in a sesame batter and fried, then drizzled with honey.  Lamb is prepared in the psistaria “grill house” tradition (the name Ovelia refers to the ritual of cooking lamb on a spit over an open flame).  But less conventional diners may want to tackle the exceptionally delicious “Lamburgini,” a tender lamb burger with sautéed crimini mushrooms, drizzled with a feta cream sauce, all on a house made bretzel (a soft pretzel bun jeweled with rock salt crystals).

Rock n’ Ribs Wednesdays feature an entirely different menu, with house smoked ribs, pulled pork, brisket, and marshmallow candied sweet potatoes.  Their new raw bar receives shipments of little neck clams and blue point oysters twice a week.  The organic, locavore weekend brunch features hearty open-faced sandwiches like the chip drip (with shaved ham, sautéed mushrooms, mozzarella, and hollandaise) or the shredded skirt steak with sofrito, both topped with an egg.  “It can be expensive having such diverse, high quality ingredients,” admits Chris, “but when you invest that kind of commitment, people really can taste the difference.”

Ovelia on Urbanspoon
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