Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Delicious Memorial Day Staycation

The Triboro Bridge and Harlem as viewed from Astoria Park

UPDATE: YOU DID IT!!!!  Your support won me the trip to Hawaii with Urbanspoon!!!  I'm cRaZy excited and a little overwhelmed at how many friends (and friends of friends of friends) helped make this happen.  Just goes to show what you can accomplish when you have an awesome community and team around you. I may have written a post and been invited to enter this contest, but YOU gave me this gift!  I get to go to HAWAII to do what I love to do!  Share food, culture, and tradition through my writing and photography.  Thank you SO MUCH!!!!

New York City is where you live when you want to live everywhere else in the world all at the same time.  Where else can you stroll just a few streets and travel from one ethnic enclave into another and another endlessly without leaving the city?  Though Memorial Day weekend marks a traditional date for New Yorkers to vacation outside the city and tourists from around the world to explore the Big Apple, my funds didn't add up for such an excursion.  But when you live in a city like New York, local travel can be just as thrilling, if not more, than journeying long distances.  After all, if each of the boroughs were independent cities, Brooklyn and Queens would still rank as the third and fourth largest cities in America, just behind Los Angeles and Chicago!  So I decided to devote my holiday weekend to celebrating the culinary diversity of the city by traveling to a few new locations beyond my usual borders.

The Smokehouse Club

What's an all-American holiday weekend without good, old-fashioned barbecue?  To start the weekend off, I headed to the highly acclaimed John Brown Smokehouse in Long Island City, Queens.  The crew there is built of a football coach, a former Navy SEAL, and a food blogger.  "None of us have ever been a 'sous' anything... we aren't fancy.  We just really love what we do," smiles owner and pitmaster Josh Bowen (formerly of Hill Country).  The proud Kansas native (a Jayhawk clock is displayed next to the soda fountain) is also known to occasionally pluck at his banjo, which rests on a stand near the meat counter.

Luxuriously velvety foie gras can be ordered atop any sandwich or platter, or as a side by itself.

Though reviews rave of the brisket and burnt ends, Bowen suggested I try the Smokehouse Club.  "People forget the turkey here is incredible."  It truly is delicious, juicy and smoked, stacked with pork belly brisket, fresh lettuce and tomato and a slight slathering of mayo.  Bottles of BBQ and Ghost Pepper BBQ (atomic, I am told) are at my disposal, but a sandwich this good doesn't need any extra sauce.  One side accompanies each order, and the mac & cheese is a tasty classic version, though the molasses-rich pureed sweet potato steals the show.

Homemade pies are lovingly baked by various members of the staff, who wave in turn as the cashier introduces each slice and its creator.  I wanted to try them all, along with a bread pudding, but just shy of needing a cot to sleep off my food coma, my friend and I settle on a wonderfully gooey and buttery pecan pie, balanced perfectly with a creamy, zesty key lime pie.  The dining room may be no frills, and you have to order from the counter.  But a meal here is well worth the trip--a gorgeous reminder of what is great about American cooking.  It was the ideal way to kickoff the holiday weekend.

John Brown Smokehouse on Urbanspoon

Empire State Building & Midtown as viewed from the East River Ferry.

When you live in a city of five different boroughs--each unique and special in thousands of its own ways, how do you determine which one or two to visit over a Memorial Day weekend NYC "staycation"?  You don't.  You let all five of them come to you!

To kick off summer, Food Karma Projects produced a first-ever 5 Boro PicNYC featuring food and drink vendors from each borough, all held on Governors Island.  With history dating back to the Revolutionary War, the island has been part army base, part landfill, part coast guard headquarters and now national monument and center for recreation, turned over to the City of New York for just one dollar in 2003.

A complimentary ferry service taxis visitors to and from the island for free on the weekends, departing from Brooklyn Bridge Park and Manhattan next door to the Staten Island Terminal at South Ferry (near Battery Park).  My favorite way to visit the island, however, is via the East River Ferry, which stops at various ports along the East River in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens for just $4 one way or a $12 hop-on-hop-off pass, allowing for breathtaking views of the skyline, as well as unique ports of entry in culinary hotspots like Williamsburg, Hunters Point, and Midtown Manhattan.  Once on Governors Island, bicycles can be rented by the hour or full day--ideal for travel around the island's various recreational offerings, including snack bars, hammock coves, and even a miniature golf course.  But we weren't here for putt-putt, so it was straight to the row of colonial homes for the picNYC.

One of the most consistently long lines came from The Jarlsberg Cheese stand, one of the event's main sponsors.  From wafers and cheese with whole figs, to fired up grills making these golden molten sandwiches of gooeyness, one of the most delicious morsels of the day was this grilled cheese with maltese cured pork, silky relish, corn cracklin, and handmade bread.

I've always wanted to try these guys, but never quite make it down that far--so I was thrilled to see the Red Hook Lobster Pound.  They were offering exquisite lobster rolls either warm with butter "Connecticut Style" or chilled with mayo "Maine style".  Opting for the former, the meat was sweet, tender, and incredibly juicy on a beautifully toasted bun.  Nothing screams East Coast summer to me quite like this.

The Red Hook Lobster Pound on Urbanspoon

There were several sausages being smoked up around the park, but one of the most outstanding franks came from the team at Peels, who offered a homemade smoked green garlic and poblano kielbasa on a tender nest of braised cabbage.  It was the heartiest, most flavorsome sausage of the day, and one I won't soon forget.

Peels on Urbanspoon

"Try the healthy option" chanted the gang from the Brooklyn Grange, NYC's very own rooftop organic farm, with signs inviting customers to watch them toss their own salads.  And it just goes to show how refreshing and flavorsome simple, high quality ingredients can taste.  A mix of spicy leafy greens with a citrus-strawberry vinaigrette, and my palate was cleansed, my appetite ready to tackle other tidbits.

But there's something to be said for home, and loving what you know.  When I saw Chef Ian Kapitan of Alobar (the closest participating restaurant to my apartment), I nearly sprinted over to see what he was serving up.  All bias aside, it was one of the best sausages I have ever enjoyed--with duck and foie gras.  Several picnickers commented on the fantastic franks, pausing to ask what else they serve at Alobar, if they could make a sausage taste this special...

Just a few weeks ago, I devoured this mushroom toast, stacked with decadent and creamy smoked ricotta, roasted garlic, a duck egg, and red wine onions with a sweet little punch that holds the whole tower together.

Or how about their maple bacon popcorn with a drizzle of truffle oil -- the quintessential gastropub bar snack to duet with a frosted pint of craft beer.

Alobar on Urbanspoon

As the day drew to a close, new and old flavors began to swirl like watercolors in my mind as a contented sleepiness settled in.  But isn't that part of the wonderful fun of a picnic and outdoor food festival?  Triggering memories of past favorites and inspiring new ones, in the first warm days of summer surrounded by new and old friends.  The 5 Boro PicNYC was a wonderful success, but half the fun was visiting the gorgeous Governors Island, which will be open with several other festivities on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the summer.  Even more comforting, returning home to Astoria that night, it was nice to be reminded of just how much I love my own little niche in this great city.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Queens Comfort on Eyewitness News PLUS New Lunch Special

The new croque monsieur bread pudding with a fried egg is outrageously delicious.

Queens Comfort | 40-09 30th Ave, Astoria | 718-728-2350

It's no secret that Queens Comfort is one of my favorite places to nosh, so it was an honor when I was interviewed by ABC 7's Lauren Glassberg for her feature on the comfort kitchen which is scheduled to air today, May 18,  at 5 p.m. during the Neighborhood Eats segment (does this mean my mug might be menacing yellow cabs next week on Taxi TV?!)  The featured recipe for the segment: the Cap'n Crunch Chicken Fingers with red chili bacon caramel sauce, of course!  Just for the record, Lauren Glassberg seems extremely charismatic and pretty on television--but in person, she is actually stunning, and very generous in sincere conversation.  I was already a fan, but witnessing her work last week was affirming of her genuine talent.

After singing the praises of Queens Comfort, I was asked by a nearby diner if there is anything I don't particularly care for.  After all, you can't love everything about everything, right?  Upon consideration, I suppose my only criticism would be that the menu is sometimes overwhelming in options that make you drool.  Unless you come toting a gaggle of friends ready to share a smorgasbord, it's likely you'll walk away bummed you didn't have the ravenous hunger demanded to sample everything that catches your eye.

Biscuits & Gravy

Take, for example, two new dishes that appeared this week on the menu.  First comes buttermilk biscuits and a maple cheddar sausage gravy with cayenne, sage, rosemary, and thyme.  A decadently creamy, savory and sweet spin on the comfort breakfast classic (delightfully served here for lunch and dinner).  Or the real kicker that hasn't left my taste memory since I first devoured it--a croque monsieur bread pudding with black forest ham, gruyere, fontina, and a passionate kiss of dijon mustard.  Top it with a fried egg and turn that mister into a madame.  See?  How on earth do you choose which one dish to enjoy?

Egg McRuffin'... an open-faced English muffin with bacon, gouda, cheddar, béchamel, & a fried egg 

As if Queens Comfort read my mind, this week they launched a fantastic new lunch special.  For $14.95 you can choose one starter, one entree, and one dessert from a broad selection of menu items (items qualifying for the lunch special are denoted on the menu with an asterisk).  Slightly more manageable portions of a variety of delicious dishes at a great price is reason to celebrate.

Jalapeño Hushpuppies with lemon pepper ranch

The starters on the prix fixe included their grilled Mexican street corn, bacon scallion or three leek mac & cheese, or homemade jalapeno cornmeal hushpuppies.  Mains range from a fried green tomato sandwich to a peanut butter & jelly burger, as well as their famous chicken & eggo waffles.  Desserts, rotating frequently, vary from s'mores bread pudding to homemade ice creams, which have recently included walnut fudge brownie, or even a version with actual strawberry rhubarb pie mixed in, crust and all.

Strawberry rhubarb pie ice cream with actual bits of crust

Now that's real comfort food...

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