Saturday, March 26, 2011

Grown-Up Grilled Cheese & Jammin' Java at Queens Kickshaw

The Queens Kickshaw (40-17 Broadway, Astoria, NY)

"A grilled cheese menu inspired by our neighborhood," reads the typed sheet of paper listing the offerings for Astoria's newest eatery, The Queens Kickshaw, which officially opens to the public tomorrow.  A kickshaw is a small, elaborate, or exotic delicacy, which after an initial sampling of their creations is precisely what this kitchen delivers. 

"Brooklyn is sort of its own brand," explains Jennifer Lim (co-owner with husband Ben Sandler), "but we really believe Astoria has something very special and unique to offer."  Not wanting to design a restaurant that intrudes on the neighborhood, the husband-wife team have conceived a sandwich shop that sources local cheeses and breads, with specialty gourmet coffees in a welcoming, intimate atmosphere.  Later this summer it will also showcase a carefully edited selection of craft beer.

The space was formerly a clothing store, and in a renovation that has extended well over a year, the couple partnered with EcoSystems to design a uniquely green space, with refurbished, recycled, and reclaimed materials.

EcoSystems cofounder Matt Tyson explains how it was almost like digging for oil.  "We really had no idea what we would find.  We just came in with hammers and chiseled away at the existing floors and ceilings."  After peeling away layers of old linoleum and tiles, the base level revealed the original wooden floors, which have been beautifully restored for the grand opening.  The ceiling, which had been lowered, was lifted to its maximum height, and tiled with vintage molds for a charming and rustic feel that suggests the history of the building and the neighborhood.  The Queens Kickshaw achieves the intimacy of a downtown coffee shop, but with surprisingly grandiose spaciousness and reclaimed wooden tables of every size and shape imaginable to accommodate individuals to couples or large groups.

Utilizing a Marzocco Strada coffee machine, Queens Kickshaw sources beans from Coffee Lab Roasters in Tarrytown, and a few of the Tarrytown team were in the store today to ensure the highest quality execution.  The latte I tried was otherworldly, using Circus Dog Espresso beans, a blend of Indian and South American coffees, for smooth, chocolate-butterscotch flavor with a clean finish ($3.75).

We enjoyed a selection of pastries and sticky buns from Balthazar, which will be providing the baked treats for the restaurant.

Sodas were available in hibiscus, lime, and grapefruit, using seltzer water on tap and syrups from P&H Soda Co.  The hibiscus was deliciously refreshing, with a hint of lime and slight but pleasant kick.

Above is a snapshot of the opening menu.  Prices are still being determined before the opening tomorrow, though customers can expect premium specialty ingredients to cost more than a typical grilled sourdough and Kraft single (update: opening prices listed below).

I was extremely pleased to see they offered a version of everyone's childhood favorite, and quite literally fell in love with their "classic"... molten-ribbons of endless strands of fresh mozzarella and shredded cheddar string from each bite on a buttery brioche, served with a cup of a thick and robust, wonderfully hearty and chunky tomato soup ($8).

The Fontina Val d'Aosta was a fluffy focaccia cut into finger-sized slices, piled with marinated mushrooms that harmonized with the earthiness of the cheese, all wonderfully complemented by a bright and vibrant drizzle of basil pesto, all served with a pine nut salad ($11).

The Manchego & Ricotta comes on multigrain, with minted eggplant and capers, served with a green salad with pickled golden raisins ($9).

But judging from outbursts around the room and at nearby tables, the unanimous favorite of the day was the insanely addictive gouda, with toasted brioche, black bean hummus, sweet guava jam, and tangy pickled jalapeños ($10).  Simultaneously sweet, savory, buttery, crunchy, smooth, and just plain outrageously delicious, this sandwich is truly something special, and that unique bite that creates raving fans and loyal regulars.  Inventive side dishes include curried pumpkin seeds, miso-mustard pickles, and lemon-coriander olives.

The Queens Kickshaw will be open Monday through Friday from 7:30AM to 4:30PM, and weekends from 9:00AM to 4:30PM.  Certain to be a local favorite, this fantastic addition to the neighborhood is just seconds away from the Steinway station on the R train, and will inevitably draw eager patrons from well beyond the borough.

The Queens Kickshaw on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Being frank about Astoria's top dogs

The Completo at San Antonio Bakery II

When you really think about it, the hot dog is a trailblazer... and was sort of way ahead of its time.  Only recently has the trend turned toward glorifying the unmentionable livestock parts, once considered peasant food.  Pig snout, belly, ear, and even blood are now the star ingredients in some of the city's most highly raved dishes.  But long before the offal took the main stage, that savory tubesteak that is so quintessentially New York was turning some of those least desirable cuts into an affordable street food we so fondly associate with baseball, fairgrounds, backyard grilling, campfires, and city street vendors.

Since we live in a culinary capital, wieners are prepared in every style imaginable.  While the traditional dirty water dog is served on a classic bun with steamed onions and deli mustard, I recently embarked on a quest of the neighborhood's menus to see what unique and delicious varieties I could find.  In honor of America's affordable summertime sandwich, here's my roundup of ten of the tastiest dogs around.

#10: The hot dog and cheese pocket at Got Empanadas?

During lunchtime, $5.75 gets you this tasty twist on a hot dog, with a salad and a bottle of water.  The Dog pocket is $2.50 by itself.  The pastry crust is deliciously buttery and flaky, loaded with sliced franks.  And when you're finished, grab a dessert empanada to satiate your sweet tooth, like fudge-banana or raspberry cheesecake.

Got Empanadas? on Urbanspoon

#9: Frankenchips at Crave Astoria

Admittedly, Crave Bowls are probably something you'd order only after last call at this neighborhood joint serving food under 5 AM on weekends.  But the truth is, these dogs are delicious all day.  The Frankenchips is a skillet loaded with potato "chips", cocktail franks, jalapenos, fried onions, and cheese sauce.  Oh... and pita wedges on the side, fun for making mini jazzed up pigs in a blanket.

#8: As a topping on a loaded kumpir ("jacket potato") at La Papa

This tater/panini/salad joint opened by the guys at Mundo Café is a quaint little shop that specializes in loaded potatoes scooped and blended with butter and kasseri cheese, then reloaded and topped to order.  You can get a Turkish hot dog cooked in tomato sauce and topped with a Russian vegetable salad and a pickle, but my favorite is to have the frank sliced as a topping on my potato.  For $6, you can load it with as many toppings as you like (pictured above: beef franks, black olives, beets, artichokes, & corn)

#7: The assorted frankfurters at Wunderbar LIC

Okay, so not exactly the classic American ballpark franks, but absolutely worth a mention. At Wunderbar, the Sunday German buffet is only $12, and gains you access to over 14 classic German dishes, including their delicious knockwurst, bratwurst, and bauernwurst.  Or for $27 get a meter with a liter... a full meter of bratwurst with a Liter of draft beer, served in a glass boot.  

Wunderbar on Urbanspoon

#6: The chili and cheese dog at Crave Shack

Not to be confused with Crave, or even nearby Krave, Crave Shack is the home of New York's first Donut Bacon Cheeseburger.  But this Halal sandwich and shake shop in the Little Egypt section of Steinway serves up one incredibly delicious and messy chili cheese dog for $3.50.  Also worth a try is the Crave Dog ($3.25) with the same pepper-studded chili and crave sauce instead of cheese (almost like a house 1,000 Island dressing).

#5: Uncured Jumbo Beef Hot Dog at BareBurger

If you don't feel like spending upwards of $12 for some of the gourmet burgers at BareBurger (though I do love a BareBurger Supreme with a pistachio milkshake), this jumbo beef frank is a delicious option, and one of the tastiest in the neighborhood.  Housed in a New England style roll, this $5.95 frank comes with little cups of jalapeno relish, dill pickle relish, grilled onions, and sauerkraut.  I actually piled on all the fixins, and it was a superb lunch.

#4 "Hot Dog" at M. Wells Diner

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.

#3: The Slaw Dog at Queens Comfort

This puppy also comes on a New England style roll, but the juicy frank is bookended by two crispy whole strips of bacon, and then adorned with creamy cole slaw and sliced jalapenos, with a side of Zapp's potato chips shipped directly from N'Awlins.  At $5, it blows almost all competition out of the water for value and quality.  This is a top frank, southern-style.

#2: Half-Pund Kobe Beef Foot Long at 5 Napkin Burger

You might flinch at the price tag of $10.95, but once you've tasted this monster, you will return again and again.  My server tells me that maybe one dog is ordered for every ten burgers, but if people knew how incomparably delicious this all beef frank tastes, I can't imagine ever ordering a burger again.  A half pound, and at least a foot long (it was longer than my forearm!) and smothered with sauerkraut and sweet & sour onions & peppers, I recommend sharing this with a friend, along with some tater tots and a s'mores milkshake.

#1: The Completo at San Antonio Bakery II

As its name suggests, no list would be complete without the Completo, the chilean-style hot dog from San Antonio Bakery 2 that is quite possibly the most famous frank in Queens, and for great reason.  This puppy comes on its own little stand, a juicy beef frank in a warm, homemade bun, piled with sauerkraut, diced tomato, avocado puree, and a zigzag of mayonnaise.  Add a few spoonfuls of pebre, the garlicky house hot sauce (pictured at the top of this post) and you'll see why this $3.50 monster is drawing fans from all five boroughs.

Some fun facts:

* Last year, over 720 million packages of hot dogs were sold in retail stores in the U.S. (excluding Wal-Mart, which does not report sales data) -- that's over $1.68 billion spent on hot dogs!

* Over 21 million franks were sold in ballparks last season alone.

* Last year, New Yorkers spent more money on hot dogs ($105 million) than any other market in the country.

* Hot dogs are included as an item at the Vatican snack bar.

Check out the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council for more than you ever needed to know about hot dogs... they even have a YouTube channel devoted to franks, including a video on hot dog etiquette.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Pachanga Patterson: Your Invitation to Family Meal

Pachanga Patterson (33-17 31st Ave., Astoria)

Anyone in the restaurant industry will tell you that sometimes the most delicious creations may never find their way onto a menu.  What might be your favorite dish at your local restaurant is more than likely pedestrian and common to the chef or waiter who unfortunately more often than not eats it out of convenience rather than choice.  In the back kitchens after dinner service has simmered down, those common ingredients get manipulated and rearranged into who can result in some pretty delicious and inspired bites.  Staff members remove their aprons to savor family meals while decompressing, oftentimes sharing favorite family recipes or recent discoveries.  With cooks frequently from Mexico, it should come as no surprise that more often than not, those family meals are predominantly Mexican-inspired.

If you're an enthusiastic diner who now feels gypped from some of New York's most exciting off-menu specialties, the owners of Vesta (the successful Italian restaurant famous for wines on tap and Baby Jesus Cake) opened a restaurant last week, Pachanga Patterson, conceived around the very principal of bringing those simple, creative, secret recipes to the front of the house for customers to enjoy. In a nod to both their philosophy as well as the history of the neighborhood, the name is a blend of a term for dance party and the former name of 31st Avenue.  While the menu is decidedly Mexican, the ingredients might catch you a little off guard... in a rather delicious way. And just as with her successful kitchen at Vesta, Chef Michelle Vido has created a menu devoted to supporting local farmers and artisans with ingredients sourced in the area.

They've only been open a few days, but here is a sample of the delicious dishes we devoured in a cozy, exposed brick dining room dressed up like a festive street party.  The service was impeccable, relaxed and friendly, elevating the innovative food which is lovingly prepared with the signature stamp of clean, simple flavors we have come to love at Vesta.

To begin, share the trio of salsas, available for $5 each or all three for $12.  The roasted corn and tomato is like a cool confetti of vegetables spilled from a salsa piñata.  The tomatillo & avocado is creamy and packs a slight snap on the tongue, with the charred tomato & serrano chili (pictured at the heading) loaded with a wickedly playful dose of fiery heat.

Tacos range from batter-fried pollack to Berkshire pork shoulder with cracklins, but we fell in love with the Moo Shu Duck, deliciously glazed in a caramel-sweet and tickling-spiced sriracha hoisin sauce, with color and cool crunch added by crisp slivers of cucumber and radish (3 for $12).

While I will return soon to enjoy the pork belly enchiladas with chocolate & fig and cumin crema, I rather hastily licked the plate clean with of the vintage hanger steak, tender seared beef medallions surrounded by a tangy poblano moat, arranged on a savory mountain of exquisitely tender swiss chard laced with a lava flow of wonderfully salty oaxaca cheese ($19).  Herbivores will delight in the Veggie Jenga, a stack of tostada, smashed beans, and avocado, capped with a fried egg sombrero, all served on a silky pool of sweet potato puree ($19).

While we didn't save room for dessert, the show-stealer is the El Diablito (baby devil cake), a spin on the sacred Vesta dessert, presented here as a chocolate date cake drowned in chili-infused caramel.  The drink menu features several classics with a few new concoctions, including a Tequila Mockingbird--a sparkling margarita with mint, cucumber, and champagne. Tequila and mexcal shots are served with a sangrita chaser of orange, lime, and tomato juice with ancho chili powder.

Have you tried Pachanga Patterson yet?  While it's still newly opened, please share your experiences in the comments below...

Pachanga Patterson on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Jimmy Fallon by the Gallon: New Ben & Jerry's Flavor Debuts

Jimmy Fallon ice-cream-sandwiched between the actual Ben & Jerry

"Everyone should become a talk show host," jokes Late Night host Jimmy Fallon, genuinely grateful for the announcement of the newest Ben & Jerry's flavor, Late Night Snack, arriving in freezer sections across the country this week.  As if the hugely famous ice cream duo would name a flavor after just anyone...

He may be an American comedic icon, but Jimmy Fallon makes no secret of his passion for food.  A recent Top Chef All-Stars episode featured the contestants choosing recipes for Fallon's birthday lunch via a cell phone shootout where they used phone cameras to capture a rapid slot machine image that would serve as inspiration for their dish.

But all of that pales in comparison with Fallon's greatest contribution to the culinary world... Late Night Snack, the newest Ben & Jerry's flavor, officially announced last night in studio 6B.

Outrageously addictive (yes, I went back for a second scoop while dainty reporters pretended to show restraint on one spoonful), the newest in the B&J family features vanilla bean ice cream with ribbons of salted caramel, and little clusters of salty kettle-style potato chips dipped in chocolate.  The chocolate coating preserves the crunch of the chips, so you literally get that classic potato crunch in each spoonful of ice cream.  It's salty, sweet, and absolutely delicious.

On hand were Ben & Jerry themselves, as well as John Shaffer (pictured), the mastermind behind developing the actual flavor.  The concept for the Fallon-inspired confection came after a skit with the Roots in which they sing a chant about why they love Ben & Jerry's.  The next day, Fallon was bombarded with gift pints, and the comment was made in passing he should develop a flavor.  And well, the rest is now history.  Watch the initial skit below...

Not only does the release of the new flavor coincide with the second anniversary of Fallon's show, but it marks a significant effort on behalf of the Ben & Jerry's team to advance Fair Trade, an organized social movement and market approach geared at promoting better trade conditions and sustainability for farmers and producers in developing countries.

The ice cream gurus explained that they are so passionate about the Fair Trade movement, in fact, that they'd rather see consumers purchasing fair trade items even more than they'd like to see them purchasing Ben & Jerry's.

Now that's an ice cream you can feel great about eating!

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