Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fiorini: Italian for New Yorkers

(An exquisite Risotto ai Frutti di Mare, luxuriously jeweled with lobster, diver scallops, ocean prawns, calamari, & jumbo lump crabmeat)

Fiorini [209 E. 56th St., b/w 2nd & 3rd Ave; (212) 308-0830]

"I don't worry about the creativity--I worry about the execution," explains famed New York City restaurateur, Lello Arpaia.  The creative force behind such institutions as Lello, Scarlatti, Cellini, & Bellini (and father of the beautiful Donatella Arpaia most visibly recognized of Food Network fame), at Fiorini Mr. Arpaia has collaborated with Executive Chef Xavier Quispilema on a standout menu of Italian (and Italian-American) classics.  "I took some of Italy's best and most notorious dishes, accommodating the taste slightly for New Yorkers."  Though extremely proud of his Italian heritage, and unafraid to showcase authentic Italian, Arpaia believes that successful restaurants must "understand the evolution of Italian cuisine in New York City."  A firm believer that too often the human factor is being removed from the equation of a culinary genre intended to bring people together around a table to talk and interact, he gently smiles as if recalling past favorite family gatherings...  "My food is not necessarily sophisticated, but it has a soul and an identity."  And it most certainly does.  Clean and often seemingly simple dishes are executed to excitingly flavorful effect, as I recently discovered at an invited tasting with the owner, Lello Arpaia, himself.

Impossibly delicate ribbons of tender prosciutto di parma recline as a cushion for creamy imported burrata, roasted peppers, asparagus spears, and a bold drizzle of tangy balsamic--a simple, classic antipasto to awaken the palate.

Grilled mediterranean octopus is rendered exceptionally tender, the crisp charred coating giving way to a sweetness and tenderness almost resembling more of a succulent prawn.  Plump capers and olives explode like berries of ocean water,  blended with a slight bitterness of arugula, and sweet onions and tomatoes.  Another simple, fresh, beautifully executed starter.

For the pasta course, al dente ribbons of homemade pappardelle are deliciously woven with a confetti of jumbo lump crabmeat medallions, sweet cherry tomatoes, and a basil-kissed lobster broth.  For risotto lovers, the super fine arborio rice glistening with a whole array of jewels of the sea (pictured at the heading) is one of the most straightforward, yet intricately decadent risottos I have enjoyed in awhile.

Whole branzino is presented table side, and then filleted into individual portions served to each guest.  Because fish from the Mediterranean harbors its own natural saltiness, "we add our own blend of spices and salt to enhance the natural flavor," smiles Arpaia.

Diver sea scallops are gently dusted with fresh mozzarella, which blends with the lemon zest and white wine to create a sort of mornay sauce drizzling the buttery morsels of the sea.  Seemingly out of left field, a single kumquat adds a surprisingly welcome tart candy essence to cut the richness, leaving the table wishing for a second helping.

Smoky and spicy star anise draws out the richness of the Petto D'Anatra, pan seared duck breast over poached Bartlett pears that whisper of sweetness in a shallow pool of dry vermouth reduction.  Tender and refined, this elegant (if not unexpected on an Italian menu) plate imprints itself as a memorable standout.

Following the resonant theme of refined simplicity (and yet again, French in origin) comes a truly grand finale--baba au rhum.  A cloud of sponge cake is stuffed with a light mascarpone custard, crowned with a single dried cherry, and soaked in a sweet marsala wine sauce, served with a side car of rum to drizzle over the puff just before consuming.  It tastes simultaneously medieval and magnificent, the warmth of the rum slowly traveling to the extremities.

But what more quintessential ending than a rich, molten-centered tortino di cioccolato, a surprisingly light and velvety soufflé--a classic end to a wonderful, Italian dinner.

The 120 seat mahogany and alabaster dining room is ideal for a moderately priced midtown lunch or post-museum/pre-show dinner.  An array of cocktails round out the carefully edited wine selection (consider the Melograno, with Citron, reduced blackberry puree with triple sec and fresh mint).

Fiorini on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Vote Now: Basil Brick Oven nominated for best new pizza in NYC!

Basil Brick Oven is one of just four nominees for best new pizza in NYC by Time Out New York magazine.  Click here to show some love and vote.  If you have yet to experience Basil, you are truly missing out.  This summer, when renovations and expansions are complete (the restaurant will be closed on Wednesdays for construction), the new spot will boast nearly quadrupled seating, a new cafe & Italian market, and an elevated backyard dining area for devouring these Northern Italian pies al fresco.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Whimsical flavor layering on new menu at Queens Comfort

Queens Comfort's signature Chicken & Eggos

Queens Comfort40-09 30th Ave (½  block east of Steinway), Astoria (718) 728-2350

Kitschy comfort food joints with country tchotchke, mason jar tea mugs, over-greased chicken thighs, and lackluster mac-n-cheese are a dime a dozen.  But at Queens Comfort, settled on 30th Avenue between Astoria’s retail thoroughfare and “hookah alley” on Steinway, comfort isn’t merely a gimmick.

On any given Sunday, twenty guests huddle by the entryway near the Big Chief smoker, or perch on swivel stools at the old diner counter eagerly waiting to jigsaw their party into the long communal table, snickering while Hulk Hogan battles on WWF reruns, gawking at a young loin-clothed Schwarzenegger in Conan the Destroyer, or quoting the dialogue to Weird Science... all projected onto a screen at the back of the dining room. 

While the atmosphere and energy transport you back to a time of bouffant bangs and parachute pants, it is the universally nostalgic food—albeit admittedly Southern in influence—that is the true flux capacitor here.  At Queens Comfort, Cheetos are crunched into chili cheeseburgers, Eggo waffles sandwich the fried chicken, Cap’n Crunch trumps panko breadcrumbs, and hamburgers are glazed with grape jelly, the buns slathered with gooey peanut butter.  But far more than just memory-evoking morsels, some serious love goes into the cooking and service.  It’s the kind of staff you’ll want to friend request before you leave (ask for George or Maria), and the sort of place where the whole family pitches in on the recipes and operations.

The Egg McRuffin'

Owner and cook Donnie D’Alessio opened Queens Comfort almost a year ago, and the menu has been perpetually evolving rather dramatically… until recently.  In the early months, the selection could literally overhaul completely overnight.  A favorite dish one week may have proven ephemeral, never to be seen again.  Now with Chef David Ginipro on board coaching the back of the house (a veteran of several kitchens in the Finger Lakes, who’s been cooking since he was fourteen), the culinary team is focusing on a fairly steady menu, with the addition of several rotating specials to maintain the whimsy (plates range affordably from $3.50 to $14).  “Our style is contrast,” explains D’Alessio, “we like to layer, and we take a lot of care into how people register flavors.”

Pork & grits with redeye gravy laced with Stumptown coffee

Consider, for example, the Fatty Arbuckle, a nod to the scandal-stricken silent film comedian known for his excess.  Pork shoulder receives an ancho chili brown sugar rub before entering the Big Chief where it’s smoked with cherry, apple, and hickory wood chips, then braised in Coca-Cola and pulled.  That juicy haystack is stuffed into a pork tenderloin medallion, liberally dowsed with a Kansas City-inspired barbecue sauce, made with onions, ancho chilies, molasses, and vinegar—all topped with cheddar and a crunchy apple slaw, served on a soft Martin’s bun.  The loaded masterpiece is simultaneously sweet, tangy, tart, hot, cool, crisp, and profoundly tender.  During weekend brunch, the pork shreds are stacked atop creamy Nora Mill grits with a moat of Stumptown-coffee-laced redeye gravy.

Cap'n Crunch chicken fingers with chili bacon caramel

Another mouthwatering layering of flavors is the Cap’n Crunch chicken fingers—substantially plump and juicy tenders dusted with the crushed sweet peanut butter cereal (also used to coat chubby French toast sticks during weekend brunch service), accompanied by a bowl of thick caramel sauce studded with bits of smoked bacon and red pepper flakes.  The red peppers are home-dried by D’Alessio’s father, a tradition passed down from his grandmother—which is used as a seasoning in several of the dishes and soups.

Three-leek macaroni & cheese with Cabot cheddar and vintage gouda

Macaroni and cheese arrives in a massive ceramic boat, studded with either bits of meatloaf, sausage and thyme with cabot cheddar, or leeks with smoked vintage gouda.  For Super Bowl weekend, pre-orders are being taken, including a version of cheesy mac with spicy buffalo chicken and bleu cheese.  

Disco Tots

Tater tots are draped in thick and peppery sawmill gravy, then crowned with golden cheddar, and baked until bubbly under the salamander.  Whole cobs of grilled corn are slathered in mayo, sriracha, and parmesan ($3.50).  These are plates intended for sharing, but witness how rapidly the forks fly at the quickly disappearing dishes.

The Sloppy Po'

An eclectic array of sandwiches range from the Sloppy Po’—a countrified banh mi of fried shrimp with bacon, pickled onions, shredded carrots, and chipotle mayo—to an open-faced fried pork chop of tenderloin brined in maple syrup, sage, and anise, which is then deep-fried, served on thick challah and topped with a velvety maple cheddar sausage gravy and a sunny-side-up egg.

Ring of Fire 

A rotating “Burger Stand” showcases a stellar take on In-N-Out’s Animal Burger with a dead-ringer of the special sauce and caramelized onions only on a much thicker and juicier patty, a PB&J Burger with a slab of smoked bacon, and a behemoth Ring of Fire Burger stacked with a fiery inferno of battered bell pepper rings stuffed with fried jalapenos, melted cheddar, and sriracha mayo.  Another comes blanketed in dijonnaise, cheddar, and crunchy fried pickle coins.

Cheetos Burger

The ultimate nostalgia burger arrives piled with beef chili and a layer of Cheetos under a homemade cheddar sauce speckled with crumbled bits of the cheesy corn snack (sadly only a special not in the daily rotation).

Meatloaf Sandwich

The restaurant’s signature sandwich is a boneless breast of chicken brined overnight, buttermilk-battered, and glistening with maple butter and Tabasco—stabbed between two Eggo waffles with a steak knife.  The honey dripper features the same bird beaded with golden droplets of honey, the sweetness cut by stoneground mustard and spicy bread & butter pickles.  Not your grandma’s meatloaf, a thick slab is served under a lava flow of melted cheddar, stacked with onion rings on a soft bun spread with house bacon ketchup.

In a neighborhood where brunch is the busiest meal of the week for restaurants, the BYOB policy creates a vibe of communal party, with store-bought bottles of bubbly and pitchers of orange juice on nearly every table.  Benedicts of whole butter-poached lobster are tucked into jumbo croissants and capped with a fried egg and lemon aioli.  Kentucky hot browns are smothered in Dijon mornay; brioche is dipped in custard and French-toasted.  The Mickey D’s classic is upgraded to an Egg McRuffin’ with béchamel, vintage gouda, cheddar, bacon, and fried egg on an open-faced English muffin accompanied by tater tots.  

A surprising must-try is the fried bologna sandwich, with generous slabs of Leberkäse (from Forest Pork in Long Island) that have been flash-fried (beautifully charred on the outside but juicy within), then stacked with a sunnyside-up-egg on a bun slathered with mayo and Texas Pete.

Port-poached pear salad

In the wake of Paula-phobia and New Year’s resolutions, D’Alessio acknowledges that not everyone readily indulges in such decadent and rich meals, which is why he added the Old Dirty Bastard, a 7-grain sandwich of grilled beets and honey roasted carrots, goat cheese, and seasonal pickles.  A glistening port-poached pear arrives fanned over a mound of baby arugula, ornamented with craisins and candied pecans lightly tossed in a honey apple vinaigrette.  Paired with $4.50 cups of sweet potato coconut or turkey noodle soup with spinach and those spunky red chilies, hearty, light meals are just as exciting as their more lush counterparts.

Double-glazed Trix donut

Desserts are prepared by the duo of D’Alessio’s mother—who makes eclectic bread puddings (salted caramel & chocolate, red velvet, eggnog, and s’mores)—and sister—who turns out free-spirited pies and baked sweets.  “Montana doesn’t spend half the time worrying most people do,” D’Alessio brags of his sis, “which I think helps; if you’re afraid, the flavors don’t come out, which is what works here… everything is over the top.”  Her biggest hits include a cereal donut and a cereal bar marshmallow treat with peanut butter, Corn Pops, Lucky Charms, and a ribbon of homemade strawberry jam, as well as a banana pudding layered with chocolate chip banana bread, graham crackers, and Chessman shortbread cookies.  Quirky ice cream flavors often guest star, like Grape Kool-Aid or Hot Chocolate with marshmallows.

Homemade ancho beef chili cheddar fries

Downsides are minor and few, but can be easily avoided.  Ingredients and produce are inventoried to avoid excess waste, so daily specials often run out by the end of a busy meal service… best to arrive early if the website broadcasts an irresistible dish.  And remember that comfort is the operative word.  It may be a recipe for disaster to plan a “quick bite” during a peak service time—especially brunch.  With a tiny kitchen, orders can get stacked up—which the staff admits quite candidly as guests are being seated.  Stumptown coffee from Brooklyn can be ordered even while waiting to be seated.  Better yet, just around the corner is a liquor store where boozy brunchers can snag an extra bottle of cheap champagne to mimosify the time.  Because when it does come, the food is hug-your-ribs comforting, and the kind of stuff worth bragging about to friends for weeks to come.

Queens Comfort on Urbanspoon
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