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

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Bakery giant arrives in Astoria

Leli's Bakery & Pastry Shop (35-14 30th Ave, Astoria)

As I have been scurrying around Western Queens gathering images and information for my upcoming December story in Boro Magazine, my path has taken me past several neighborhood holiday favorites... in particular, the bakeries.  While I was sad to notice the absence of Terrizzi, whose hand-painted marzipan I featured in last year's story, I couldn't help but notice a huddle of people crowded around the window this past Saturday, eagerly peering inside the newly renovated space.

When one door closes, another opens--this time, to make way for what has the potential to become a popular bakery not only in Astoria, but perhaps several other locations around the city.  Leli's Bakery and Pastry shop is the first retail outpost for the team whose Bronx-based wholesale bakery supplies high-end pastries and sweets to such mega-stores as Dean & Deluca, Starbucks, Crumbs, and luxury hotels and restaurants like the Waldorf-Astoria.

Cupcakes range from carrot and caramel-filled apple, to mocha, and even a raspberry linzer cupcake.
Baked on premises, the bakery boasts gorgeous assorted fruit tarts, artisan breads, gourmet cupcakes and cookies, and soon, specialty sandwiches for meal service at the cozy, rustic dining area overlooking the delectable pastry showcases.  In just a few visits, I have sampled delicious, fresh-from-the-oven cranberry walnut bread, an enormous rugala stuffed with chocolate and plump raisins wrapped in a honey-soaked pastry topped with crushed walnuts, a chocolate cupcake stuffed with mocha cream, and white chocolate and milk chocolate rainbow cookies with a chocolate shell so thick and delicious, it reminded me more of a pastry-and-jam-filled candy bar.

Only open a few days, lines are already building as the neighborhood greets this specialty newcomer with outstretched arms.  Open for business just in time for the holidays, Leli's promises to become a neighborhood favorite in almost no time at all.

Leli's Bakery & Pastry Shop on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Eat a grilled cheese & help a hurricane victim

Classic toasted cheddar and mozzarella on brioche with herbed marmite tomato soup and Mast Bros. mocha
Who knew that contributing to a worthy cause could taste so good?  This coming Thursday, The Queens Kickshaw (40-17 Broadway, Astoria) is donating 100% of their profits to Hurricane Sandy relief.  If you plan on enjoying a mug o' coffee or eating Thursday (or grabbing a drink later), why not make sure it satiates more than just your physical hunger and thirst?  Savor a gourmet grilled cheese (my favorite is the smoked gouda with black bean hummus, guava jam, and pickled jalapeños), one of their savory new dishes (a braised vegetable shepherd's pie, baked ravioli, or a basket of mini knishes), try one of their gourmet coffees, a craft beer, glass of wine, mead (honey wine), vinegar cordial sodas, or a decadent serving of fontina cheesecake.  For more details, click on the flyer below to visit the Facebook event page...

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