Saturday, December 22, 2012

New Dishes at Locale

Almond brownie with peanut butter and marshmallow topping with a dollop of vanilla ice cream
Locale | 22-02 34th Ave, Long Island City | (718) 729-9080 |

Don't arrive in a hurry.  Not because the service is lax.  To the contrary, it is rather attentive and refreshingly sincere.  Just plan to take your time ordering.  Ask to see the desserts first, because you will want to save room for a strawberry napoleon or the almond-studded brownie topped with a creamy pillow of homemade peanut butter, then draped with a blanket of whipped marshmallow that has been brulee-torched for a thin, crispy outer coating.

Passion fruit martini
Also allow yourself a few moments to drink up the beverage options.  Passion and pumpkin martinis incorporate luscious purees, but someone at the table should try Rosemary's Garden, a classic-style martini (and first course all on its own) with rosemary-dill infused vodka and a floater of crisp sauvignon blanc, garnished, of course, with a blue-cheese stuffed olive.  After you've determined the opening and finale of your meal, then debate over a colorful menu of starters and entrees worthy of multiple repeat visits until you try them all.  If you haven't sampled the new additions to the menu at Locale, I would highly recommend adding it to your to-do list this holiday season... and with a high priority.

Jumbo lump crab cakes with melted leeks and chipotle creme fraiche

At Locale, owner Johnny Koljenovic aspires to offer “a taste of the city without having to travel there.” With the expertise of Executive Chef and culinary visionary Jesse Davis (who returned to Locale after the unfortunate closing of Lucas Steakhouse), the team at Locale is achieving just that… and much more. “Families come for brunch, take the kids home, and then bring friends back for an elegant dinner,” smiles Kolyenovic.

By day, sunlight floods in through two floor-to-ceiling windows creating a cheerful openness.  By night, the glow of candles lights the entire street corner like a giant, serene luminary.  The restaurant is one of those rare chameleons that appeals to nearly every demographic, offering intimacy at window-side tables for two, communal space for larger parties, a vibrant bar for solo supping, and an elevated split-level lounge with sprawling banquettes for groups of friends.  A popular spot with nearby professionals of the film and television industry (Kaufman Astoria Studios is just around the corner), Nurse Jackie has filmed several episodes at Locale, and Life on Mars hosted its wrap party here.

Take just one bite of any of Chef Davis’s dishes, and it’s no secret why the stars and locals keep coming back again and again. Delicately balancing artistry with fresh flavors, the menu features gorgeous plates using only organic, locally sourced ingredients. Blackened Mayan Shrimp is served like a Jenga tower over a log cabin of yucca fries and a moat of tangy creole purée.

The cartoonishly plump thumb-sized homemade gnocchi get dollops of creamy fresh ricotta and a slathering of robust herb-roasted tomato ragu with a sprinkling of salty, crisped shallots and shaved cheese ribbons.

Pan-seared organic salmon with chive whipped potato and pinot noir reduction

The platings are as beautiful as they are delicious. But the most beautiful part? Unlike dining in the city, there is no waiting for a train or cab for the trek home after.

Locale on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 17, 2012

Exclusive First Look: Tufino Pizzeria Napoletana Opens Tomorrow

Tufino's Margherita pie, with organic Italian tomatoes, fior di latte, parmigiano reggiano, and basil
This is an expanded version of my post earlier today on Grub Street for New York Magazine.

Tufino Pizzeria Napoletana | 36-08 Ditmars Boulevard, Astoria | (718) 278-4800 |

Ever since 1905, when Lombardi's applied to the city for the first license to make and sell pizza in the U.S., New York has been synonymous with some of the best rounds, squares, rectangles, and slices in the country.  Although the Big Apple has been longtime associated with its own thin-crust version, a recent surge in pizzerias devoted to the original style born in Naples has led to a revitalized fanaticism for classic, artisan pizzas.

The oven warms up to over 1,000 degree Fahrenheit, cooking pies in under two minutes.
While Brooklyn and the Village seem to boast the most popular concentration of brick oven Neapolitan pizza joints (Motorino, Keste, Franny's, and the late Una Pizza Napoletana are personal favorites) , the past year has seen a notable change on the pizza front in Astoria, Queens.  Neighborhood staples Rizzo's and the coal-fired brick oven pies at Sac's Place have been recently joined by Antika, Via Trenta, and most notably Basil Brick Oven, whose Northern Italian style pizzas have garnered much well-deserved recognition--though no pizzerias serve a pie in the authentic Neapolitan style.

A sign on the Ditmars Blvd storefront announces an official opening Tuesday, December 18th. 
All of that change's tomorrow when Tufino Pizzeria Napoletana opens its doors to the public.  On-line community boards have been abuzz since August, and it seemed as though the opening was perpetually prolonged.  Momentarily thwarted by plumbing woes, Astoria’s hottest new oven has cleared its pipes and is now ready to sing on Ditmars.

Co-Owner and pizzaiolo Stephen Menna pulls a pizza from the wood-fired oven.
I was beyond excited when owner and pizzaiolo Stephen Menna (a vet of Paulie Gee’s in Brooklyn, he co-owns the pizzeria with is wife, Maria) allowed me an exclusive first look (and taste) at the place and its pies.

A nod to the Greek neighborhood, the kalamata-studded Il Greco gets a squeeze of fresh lemon after baking.
Boasting a menu of 18 different pizzas, each pie bears a personal story. The Nonna features his grandmother’s meatball recipe; the Pistachianco—with the aforementioned green Sicilian nuts, fior di latte, and ricotta—is a shout-out to Chris Bianco. Another is named after his neighbor, who suggested adding raisins to a prosciutto pie, which ended up making the cut.

Menna describes the San Gennaro as "a sausage and pepper hero on a pie" -- the drizzle of picante honey is a nice touch
 “We will have weekly specials… I probably have around forty different pies in my head right now,” smiles Menna… all of which will be browned to bubbling bronze beauty in a Stefano Ferrara wood-fired oven born from the volcanic ash of Mt. Vesuvius.  Pizzas range from $9 to $16 per 12-inch personal pie, which which aligns the cost with Queens prices fairly well (Margherita pizza = $11 at Tufino and $10 at Basil versus $13 at Keste and $15 at Motorino).

Husband and wife co-owners Maria and Stephen Menna
Coincidentally, Menna is the fifth generation Stephen (or Stefano) in his family, which traces back to the town of Tufino (population 3,400) in Naples. It was a visit there in 2006 with cousin (and fellow pizzaiolo) Stefano, that sparked his passion to make Neapolitan pies. The fiery oven, which must warm up to around 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, bears the mosaic moniker ‘di Maria’ in tribute to Menna’s wife, who built him his first pizza oven in their backyard as an anniversary gift.

Storefront window art also identifies the pizzeria as a 'frigittoria', which means they will be crisping up some fried treats—or ‘dolci fritti’—including arancini, prosciutto croquettes, and deep-fried calzones.  The opening menu is just a teaser, as other treats are planned down the road, including a dish that uses hand-scooped spheres of chilled angel hair and a blend of cheeses, rolled in breadcrumbs and then deep-fried with a crispy golden coating.  Beverage service will include a carefully edited selection of craft beers, along with 7 red and 7 white “pizza wines.” Ciabatta and crostini for the sandwiches come from neighborhood favorite, Gianpiero Bakery.

The Trio of Cannoli dessert
Desserts are the handiwork of family friend, Pastry Chef Savva Ioannou, of The Garden City Hotel in Long Island, who will be at Tufino personally preparing the sweets three days a week.

Tirami Choux and espresso
'Dolci' will include a fresh seasonal fruit tart (a pear tart will be offered currently), a cannoli sampler, the "Tirami Choux' (a cocoa pastry puff with Kahlua mascarpone cream), as well as Menna's take on a Nutella pizza.

So how is the pizza, you wonder?  It's not just good.  It's phenomenal, achieving what many of the city's neapolitan nooks cannot...  The sourdough is leavened naturally... a 200 year old technique that takes nearly two days.  Menna is an admitted admirer of Una Pizza Napoletana's Anthony Mangieri.  Like Mangieri, Menna counts the baking time in seconds, rather than minutes, with most pies averaging around 90.

So an exquisite dough is gently hand-stretched like a dopey dwarf cap that falls loosely down the pizzaiolo's forearms as it twirls.  A shallow layer of choice toppings are meticulously applied (Menna places mozzarella crumbles as if setting jewels in a crown).  He then gently places the pie in the flickering dome opposite the embers in indirect heat, and the flames and pie have a staredown.  The pie rises slowly as if posturing, then gently blisters in the heat, as charred bubbles of condensed flavor arise on the outer crust.  And then just before succumbing completely to the heat, Menna retrieves the pie at its most vulnerable stage, carefully checking its underside with a long wooden peel before sliding it onto a metal disc to serve steaming to the table.

Do you see those edges, the flaky and chewy bubbles filling the puffy end crust, in contrast with a flatter, crisp inner crust?  After you eat the tip, you rip the edges as steam escapes, to dip the salty spongy sourdough in the spilled cheeses and olive oil.  The pies are served with a knife--unsliced--to avoid compromising the crust as toppings and sauces escape under the pizzas.  This also allows the guest to rip and tear at the gourmet rounds at their own pace.

The addition of fontina to the Greek added an earthiness I loved, with those tangy (and pitted, thank goodness!) kalamata olives, but the sprinkle of oregano with the chilled mist of lemon juice added post-oven really makes the pie special, with flavors that pop.  On the San Gennaro, the drizzle of a playfully spicy picante honey makes the pie particularly special.  It's like what the street festival in Little Italy might taste like in a dream.  But there is always something to be said about an excellent margherita, which is the standard by which I gauge any pizzeria.  Although I now feel compelled to return until I have tried several other pies, I will most likely intermittently order the excellent margherita--whose simple, bright, satisfying flavors and scents are what we think of as pizza when we crave it most.

Stephen Menna, Junior and Senior
Menna, who makes his own dough each morning, has every intention of making pizza as long as he can.  "Detail is everything... and staying true to what I believe in," which is something he's been doing his whole life.  "My dad and I have been making pizzas together since I was born."

Lunch and dinner will be served Tuesday through Sunday beginning at noon daily.  Tufino is closed on Mondays.  Welcome to the neighborhood, Stephen (Junior and Senior), Maria, and the whole Tufino crew!

Tufino on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 13, 2012

First Look at The Thirsty Koala Menu

Indigenous Australian artifacts like boomerangs and didgeridoo (a long woodwind instrument) adorn the dining room.
The Thirsty Koala (35-12 Ditmars Blvd, Astoria)

As I mentioned earlier this week on Grub Street, the highly-anticipated new Aussie restaurant, The Thirsty Koala, is poised and ready to bring some Queensland to Queens, following their final hearing with the liquor authority this week—which could potentially mean an opening as soon as next week (fingers crossed).  Adorned with boomerangs and didgeridoo amongst vibrantly lit blonde onyx and pinewood-planked walls, the new eatery is the collaboration of three Astoria mates, Katherine Fuchs (former FDNY Chief turned Executive Chef), Alex Styponias (Astoria-born mixologist, raised in Greece), and Christine Chellos (Aussie native, and financial advisor).

According to Fuchs, the opening menu will feature “dishes that are familiar, but with an Australian flare” which she describes as “international… often British… with some Asian influences” including lamb lollies over caramelized pumpkin (meats will be sourced from Australia), ginger beer-battered fish ‘n chips, boomerang tacos with grilled prawns (fish and seafood arrive via the Fulton Fish Market at Hunts Point), “crostis” (crostini) with house-made chevre, jaffles (Australian pressed sandwiches), a beet-and-pineapple-topped Aussie burger,  a few vegan and gluten-free options including a black bean and edamame “Earth Chili,” and Aussie desserts like pavlova, lamingtons, and a Tim-Tam tiramisu.  Here is the very first look at some of the dishes planned for the opening menu.

Herb-crusted lamb lollies (chops) with caramelized pumpkin and pomegranate citrus salad... delicious and gluten-free.
Coopers and Fosters will be served on tap, headlining a beverage program of Australian and New Zealand wines and craft beer.  Aussie-inspired cocktails created by Styponias will include a Hooly Dooly caipirinha and the Gabba—a gin and honey blend named after the Brisbane Cricket Ground.  All in all, this sounds like a bloody welcome newcomer to Ditmars Boulevard.  Follow them on Facebook and Twitter for official updates on their opening.  To whet your appetite in the meantime, here's a preview of a few more dishes guests can look forward to trying.

The vegan 'Earth Chili' is loaded with edamame and black beans in a thick, piquant tomato stew with the perfect amount of spice to warm you but not set you running to the fire hydrant.  It's genuinely one of the most delicious bowls of chili I have enjoyed recently...

The tangy cream sauce is a house secret, but it perfectly draws together the sweet and succulent jumbo prawns, shredded cabbage, and avo (Aussie for avocado) salsa on a giant grilled tortilla in these open-faced, California-style 'Boomerang Tacos'.

Not only are Tim-Tams fantastic for dipping in their 'flat whites' (Australian-style coffee with microfoam), but these popular Aussie cookies are also the base for the Triple T dessert--the Tim-Tam tiramisu--which adds a playful crunch and extra chocolate beneath velvety smooth cocoa-dusted creme.

Executive Chef & Co-Owner Katherine Fuchs
Stay tuned for even more sneak peeks at the exciting new menu coming your way.  I thinks it's fair to say you will be hearing a lot more about this soon-to-be neighborhood favorite in the upcoming months.

The Thirsty Koala on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Biscuits, gravy, and honky-tonk at The Strand Smokehouse

The Strand Smokehouse (25-27 Broadway, Astoria)
Open weekdays 5PM to 1AM; Sat & Sun 11AM to 1AM

I've been eagerly anticipating the opening of The Strand Smokehouse for about a year now, since owner Tommy Vasilis took over the former Blockbuster space on Broadway a few blocks west of the N/Q train station--a stretch of Astoria I already love because of Sanford's, Sac's Place, Pao de Queijo, and Linn.  It's also a strip formerly known as The Strand, the moniker stemming from the name of an old cinema that closed during the 80s.  After catching this post on WhyLeaveAstoria last weekend, I threw on my ball cap and hoodie and headed straight there to try 'em out with my favorite meal, Sunday brunch--taking along with me one of my closest friends, an NYC transplant originally from Hill Country in Texas, to verify its authenticity as a southern smokehouse.

With no wait for a table (they only opened a week ago), we were given our own communal table made of reclaimed wood, and loaded with  homemade sauces and table water all served in emptied whiskey bottles.  The spacious, industrial dining room is augmented by both backyard and street front patios, which promise to make The Strand a hot new beer garden in Astoria's growing collection.

Our server explained that in a space of almost the same size directly below the dining room, local musicians have been using "forty or fifty" studios for rehearsals, "building great relationships with the owner over the past year."  Nightly music on the upstairs stage then features several of those bands playing sets in The Strand, mostly country, bluegrass, and rock.  A few of those artists now double as The Strand's staff, making it almost like a musician's commune with a giant smokehouse and whiskey hall over a subterranean rehearsal and recording lair.

While brunch features table service by an impressively large (and uber friendly waitstaff), dinner service is offered via a meat counter near the back, where guests order brown-paper-lined trays of various smoked meats.  A rotating selection changes daily, served by the pound (or half) along with sides.  Here's a sample of  recent evening's offerings:

All smoked meats and side dishes are prepared next door at Bakeway NYC.   Whiskey is served from a long row of wooden bourbon barrels with taps, alongside a draught selection featuring, among others, several beers from Barrier Brewing Co. on Long Island.

A list of six brunch cocktails included both pictured above, which warmed us like liquid flannel: the Shelter (Whitetail caramel whiskey, hot spiced cider, and star anise) and the Bloody Steve (a Jim Beam Blacky bloody mary with smoked broccoli and sea salt).  Ginger Beer and Spiced Plum soda from Brooklyn Soda Works were refreshing spirit-free options.

Although most of the smoked meats are not available during brunch service--replaced by a pretty fantastic array of breakfast comfort dishes--we were able to order the pork belly as a side.  Here, it was rendered exquisitely tender, almost like smoked, candied, thick bacon.

Buttermilk biscuits (available as a side, as well) are wonderfully moist and buttery, sitting on a mound of warm southern grits, everything blanketed with thick, peppery, sausage gravy and topped with fried eggs and diced green onions.  My friend and I regularly search out biscuits and gravy and have been known to travel for a good version.  These biscuits and gravy are undoubtedly some of the most delicious in the city.

And would ya look at that?  The Strand is no jokes when it comes to brunch.  This duck leg confit was simply phenomenal, over braised greens, smoked tomato, and potato hash, crowned with an easy egg.

I can only imagine that as word spreads, each night this place is going to slowly get busier and busier.  I'd highly recommend jumping on board during these cold months, when snagging a table is still a possibility.  If the early weeks of service are indication of what we can expect long term, The Strand will inevitably prove to be a substantial force in the food and entertainment scene in Astoria.  Welcome to the neighborhood, folks!

The Strand Smokehouse on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Not egg-sactly your typical brunch

Scotch eggs at The Queens Kickshaw (pickled quail eggs in panko-crusted sweet potato over a garlic-leek confit)
The Queens Kickshaw | 40-17 Broadway, Astoria |

Only open for just over a year, The Queens Kickshaw has already swept the "best of" title in a variety of categories from several respected publications: the best mac & cheese (New York Magazine), the best coffeehouse (The Village Voice),  one of the best restaurants in New York (Details Magazine), the best grilled cheese (New York Daily News), the best hard cider (The Queens Beat), even the best pick-up spot in Western Queens (Boro Magazine).  So when the accolades are rolling in from every direction, what can you possibly do to crank it to the next level?  You launch a killer, one-of-a-kind, "egg-centric" brunch.

Until today, the only sunrise menu offering was this delicious cheese crisp toasted brioche with egg, ricotta, thyme, and maple hot sauce.  Though it remains on the daily menu alongside such grilled cheese favorites as the Gouda (with guava jam, pickled jalapenos, and black bean hummus), today a new brunch menu is unveiled, which will be served alongside an edited version of the regular menu on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.  "We have wanted to do this for a very long time," smiles Ben Sandler (co-owner alongside wife, Jennifer Lim)... "this" meaning a "brunch menu of standard and exotic egg dishes with a twist."

Chef Youngsun Lee
"We've been working on this off and on since September, really..." explains Chef Youngsun Lee, whose credits include substantial kitchen time at the original Momofuku Noodle Bar, CraftBar, Blue Fin, and even two of his own endeavors, the Kimchi Taco Truck, as well as Persimmon in the East Village.  Juxtaposing his Korean heritage (he immigrated to Flushing at age 12) and culinary training, guests can expect some playful, inventive, quite sophisticated dishes on the new brunch menu--all the while maintaining a harmony with everything else that is TQK (the plates are all egg vegetarian.)  Here's a photo rundown of the new items you can expect to see on the brunch menu starting today (as well as the scotch eggs at the heading)...

The steamed Egg Custard balances the fine line between a "western version of chawanmushi and an eastern version of egg custard," explains Lee.  "Chawanmushi can be too light and thin sometimes, and western egg custard can sometimes be dense, so we tried to find a balance."  Soy milk and heavy cream add a surprising, consistent velveteen smoothness that maintains even as this dish cools.  Jeweled with red peppers, gruyere cheese, and a dollop of ricotta it makes for a perfect light, but exquisite brunch.

The Eggs & Miso Butter are the stuff of which dreams are made.  This dish is something I cannot easily describe, but will not soon forget.  Cranberry walnut toast serves as the pedestal for what can best be referred to as an umami benedict, which is blanketed with ribbons of luxurious miso butter, a glistening pair of Japanese-style cold poached eggs, and tangy mounds of pickled mustard seed "caviar".  The plate is runny, messy, and exceedingly satisfying.  By the time you master how to balance each component on a forkful, the plate is finished.  Though I attempted to show restraint as I sampled several egg dishes during my visit, this was the one that I absolutely had to devour in its entirety.

The Egg Salad is TQK's "nod to deli salads" explains Sandler, although those plastic containers never contained anything this good.  Served with homemade flatbread, the egg salad is made with both hard and medium boiled eggs, resulting in tiny orbs of glistening orange yolk adding a playful texture to the all-American classic.  Accompanying is a bowl of potato-beet salad tossed in a refreshing homemade lemon aioli.

And just wait 'til you get a bite of this french toast, a morning grilled cheese of perfectly custardy toasted brioche with a sweet and slightly tart hard cider pear compote, all crowned with a crisp, peppery chili frico adding crunch and a subtle kick.

TQK's twist on a sunnyside egg and home fries is this layered potato cake.  Wafer-thin gruyere scalloped potatoes are baked to golden, served alongside two eggs.  

Eggs with fingerlings and roasted vegetables will change seasonally with the market, but presently the dish is gorgeously prepared with tender balsamic glazed brussels sprouts.

What egg menu would be complete without an omelette?  TQK serves two beautiful renditions, a quattro formaggi (pictured) with gruyere, cheddar, manchego, ricotta, caramelized onions, and shallots--as well as a farmers market omelette with gruyere, red pepper, tomato, and shallots.

The other house favorites appearing on the brunch menu include the classic grilled cheese (above), the gouda, the egg & cheese sandwich, mac & cheese, the kitchen sink salad, and the orange caramel bread pudding.  New brunch cocktails range from a red pepper Michelada to a ginger shandy and sparkling cider sangria.

Congratulations to the entire TQK family on what is certain to soon be acclaimed as yet another best...

The Queens Kickshaw on Urbanspoon
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