Tag Archives: Queens food

Steak and so much more


| mhayes@queenscourier.com

THE COURIER/Photo by Maggie Hayes

RW Prime wants its clientele to have a “five-star experience,” said manager Eric Rodriguez. Between the diverse menu, attentive staff and upscale yet relaxed environment, it truly was quite the experience.

The steakhouse, located on the second floor of Resorts World Casino, has menu options that go well beyond just steak. After noshing on the selection of three breads I was served, I told my waiter to hit me with his best shot, and he did.

I sat back in my cushioned booth and admired the dark wood and leather combination of my surroundings as my first course was served: one plate was a jumbo lump crab cake while the other had was crabavocat, which Rodriguez called RW Prime’s signature dish.

The crabavocat, with a bottom layer of crab meat, top layer of avocado and fried shrimp garnish on top, was a satisfying combination of salty and savory. The fried shrimp and avocado toned down the salty crab meat and made for a very smooth, delicious bite. The small amount of basil and tomato coulis added a nice component.

Rodriguez noted that since the restaurant’s opening two years ago, the menu has progressed from simply a steakhouse menu to a greater variety of dishes. This showed more and more with each course I was served. The creativity and thought put into several plates was evident.

Quickly after I was finished with my first course, I was brought out two salads: a simple caprese with tomato, mozzarella and basil along with a bibb and endive salad.

Upon my first bite of the bibb and endive dish, I thought I was tasting candy. The combination of caramelized goat cheese, candied pecans , poached pear and beet and orange dressing made it so.

For the entree, I was brought the fish of the day, a pan-seared sea bass, and another special, a surf-and-turf dish.

The sea bass, which literally melted in my mouth, was served over a bed of risotto in a creamy tomato sauce and topped with peas, asparagus, cherry tomatoes and shrimp. The diversity of the dish made for a unique and delectable experience and was my favorite of the night.

The steakhouse did not disappoint in the “turf” portion of my surf and turf. A filet, cooked medium, was both juicy and flavorful – all that you want in any piece of steak. A Brazilian lobster tail accompanied the filet and the combination of the two did not disappoint.

Side dishes are also available. I sampled the jasmine rice, baked potato and sautéed mushrooms. I enjoyed every bite. Other sides include shoestring potatoes, creamed spinach and sautéed broccoli rabe with roasted garlic.

Outside of its main, spacious dining room, RW Prime also has a sports bar for a simpler, quicker meal and an outdoor terrace with tables and couches. A DJ plays on the terrace Friday and Saturday nights.

Call ahead before heading to the steakhouse to guarantee a table at what I considered a fantastic, versatile dining experience.

RW Prime
Resorts World Casino
110-00 Rockaway Boulevard
718-215-2828

 

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Pancakes for dinner


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

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There’s nothing quite like pancakes for dinner, especially when those pancakes are Café Triskell’s tissue-paper thin buckwheat crepes painstakingly prepared in the culinary tradition of Brittany, France.

Once you pass through the doorway, you are transported to a secluded, rustic, French café with one cook, one server and just a handful of tables. Daily specials are inscribed on a chalkboard and the restaurant’s Facebook page. Chef Phillippe Fallait, a pastry chef by training, showcases both savory (try the chicken and goat cheese) and sweet crepes on the permanent menu alongside a handful of French classics.

Begin, of course, with a crock of French onion soup, the onions caramelized so tender they blend with the broth. Golden bubbles of cheese rise and fall before you in a thick layer of gruyere and swiss.

The frisée salad rivals even the best bistros in Manhattan, with a mountain of chicory, lardoons, buttery croutons, crumbles of bleu cheese and poached egg.

Next, five pinwheels arrive on a green-tinted platter – juicy chicken curled with ribbons of mozzarella, swiss and savory slivers of ham. A hearty entrée for one, the plate easily divides into meal-teasers for two to five people.

Salty medallions of corned beef arrive on crispy potatoes, topped with arugula, a poached egg, and hollandaise sauce, elevating corned beef hash to rustic French breakfast.

I am a sucker for a croque madame (anything with eggs and cheese, please), and the version here is one of my very favorites. Essentially, it is a toasted ham and cheese sandwich. But at Triskell, the pièce de resistance is a delicate béchamel that bubbles under the blankets of swiss, all topped with a golden-centered egg, perfect for popping and dipping.

Steak frites arrive sizzling in a skillet, and a pork stroganoff caught me off guard in a wonderful way, the tender creamy sautee served with a buttery bowl of mashed potatoes, ideal for mixing and matching bites of flavor. The chicken and lamb bastilla with a pompom of frisée on it transports me to Morocco, with the crumbled meat and seasonings packed into a crisp pastry parcel. Escargots are rendered sublimely tender and buttery, with intense garlic and sweet, tangy bursts of cherry tomatoes.

Dessert here is a must, with a flute of sparkling apple cider. The lemon and sugar crepe is sublime in its simplicity, and even better with a mixed berry compote on top. If they have not run out (because they so often do), ask for a shot glass of Fallait’s signature banana fudge jam to top a plain crepe. It will leave your lips sweet for an after-dinner French kiss.

Café Triskell
33-04 36th Avenue, Astoria
718-472-0612
Wed – Sun, 11a.m. – 10 p.m.

 BRADLEY HAWKS

 

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A tale of three Henrys


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

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“My brother is serving the food we cooked at home growing up,” explains Luis Aguilar of his brother Cosme, who began hand-stuffing chorizo and butchering meat at the age of seven.

Luis and Cosme, who worked for over a decade at Café Henri – with locations in Manhattan and Long Island City – are now the general manager and executive chef, respectively, at Casa Enrique. It opened last year in Long Island City under the same ownership. While the chef serves many dishes from Chiapas, where he was born, the menu reads like less of a regional tribute and more of a family history, since they moved several times throughout Mexico.

The space, formerly a satellite kitchen for Café Henri – the restaurant’s French older sister just down the street – is now whitewashed like a blank canvas, with a communal table up front and cozier, intimate seating at smaller tables in the back room.  Servers are attentive and eloquently describe the menu and cooking procedures in multiple languages. Unique cocktails and homemade soft drinks form a beverage menu to be enjoyed while dining or simply snacking on chips and salsa at the bar. A mojito with muddled cucumber adds subtle sweetness, while the horchata  – rich with vanilla and cinnamon – tastes like Christmas in a glass.

The menu boasts one salad, and for good reason. The Ensalada de Betabel con Jicama is unlike any I have ever enjoyed. Like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, slender sticks of golden and crimson beets and white jicama zigzag in a climbing haystack. It has two triangles of salty queso fresco and everything is doused with a fresh mint-speckled lemon vinaigrette. Crunchy, tangy, creamy, cold and refreshing, it is one of the most simple and all-around enjoyable summertime salads.

Though ceviche presents itself in several forms, the Tostadas de Jaiba remains one dish I have had to order every single time I visit. A long platter arrives with three seafood sombreros. Crispy tostadas are capped with mounds of lump crabmeat jeweled with citrus-kissed avocado, chiles, tomato and cilantro.

While tacos range from beef tongue to pineapple marinated pork, the chorizo tacos are not to be missed. The hand-stuffed sausage is crumbled onto mini tortillas with a surprising complexity of tenderness, sweetness, and gentle blend of spices, requiring nothing more than the light sprinkling of cilantro.

And speaking of complexity, the lamb shank draped in a huaxamole of dried peppers, apazote, and huajes falls from the bone at a mere prodding – a most exquisite presentation of mutton.

Weekday service is dinner only, and weekend brunch adds several egg-centric menu items. While the huevos rancheros is exceptional, the brunch dishes still do not outshine the entrees. Opt for the chicken quesadilla with a tomatillo sauce. And then you absolutely must save room for dessert. The pot de crème is like chocolate-almond velvet, but the tres leches cake puts to profound shame every other rendition I have ever tried.

Casa Enrique
5-48 49th Avenue, Long Island City
718-448-6040
Dinner 7 days from 5 p.m. to midnight
Brunch Saturday & Sunday from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.

BRADLEY HAWKS

 

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From the basketball court to the ocean floor


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

THE COURIER/Photo by Bradley Hawks

A lunchtime crowd gathers amid a vibrant hum of conversation beneath the grapevine-draped awning outside Taverna Kyclades. There is even a waiting list on this rainy Tuesday afternoon. Kyclades doesn’t take reservations; this 95-seat restaurant does not need them. It is always buzzing, even as neighboring establishments along Ditmars Boulevard scramble for business.

The first Michelin-rated restaurant in Queens, which has also topped Zagat’s lists, has no gimmicks. When asked to reflect on the secret of his longterm success, chef and owner Ardian Skenderi lights up.

“I cook with my heart,” he said.

The former pro point guard from Athens stands six-and-a-half-feet tall, but wears a smile that could melt titanium. He knows several customers by name, many of whom dine at Kyclades multiple times a week, sometimes twice in the same day.

“When I give [someone] a dish, I can always say, ‘This is the very best I can do,’ and if they tell me I can do better, then I am going to learn,” Skenderi said.

Room for improvement would be difficult to find. The sole chef, Skenderi is in the restaurant daily. He also gathers seafood before sunrise at the Fulton Fish Market in Hunts Point two to five times a week.

“We have no specials on the menu,” boasts the beloved chef, “because everything here is special.”

Flame-kissed swordfish kebabs skewered with peppers and onions duet with glistening beets or Spanish-style saffron rice. Whole red snapper is prepared to juicy perfection, carved tableside and accompanied with a ramekin of warm lemon oil.

Challenging dishes like Spanish octopus served with olive oil and red wine vinegar, and even steamed horta (dandelion greens), are exceptionally tender at Kyclades in Astoria. Whole branzino is simply prepared in extra virgin olive oil and sea salt and filleted tableside.

In fact, Taverna Kyclades exhausts nearly 20 cases of olive oil each week. Portions are the size of Skenderi himself, but the price point, remarkably, is lower than his Manhattan competitors’.

Is the meal worth the inevitable wait time? You bet it is. The multiple generations of families who gather here regularly for special occasions — or just for some of the best selection and preparation of seafood in all five boroughs — would enthusiastically agree.

The complimentary galaktoboureko (syrup-soaked phyllo layered with warm Greek custard) is baked daily — and runs out daily, to0.

Taverna Kyclades
33-07 Ditmars Boulevard, Astoria
718-545-8666
Open daily for lunch and dinner

BRADLEY HAWKS

 

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Milkflower blooms


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

THE COURIER/Photo by Bradley Hawks

Milkflower’s storefront sits like a pristine display case allowing passersby an exposed view of the dining room and brick pizza oven. Created by brothers Danny and Pete Aggelatos, Milkflower is their first restaurant, though they have been baking pizzas with their uncle in New Jersey for over 10 years. The brothers spent the better part of the past year redesigning the space – formerly a dry cleaner – with reclaimed wood tables, burlap banquettes, a vintage-style mural paying homage to the space’s previous occupant and even a table created from old police barricades.

Named after “fior di latte,” the cow’s milk cheese used for their pizzas (and made in-house daily), Milkflower’s menu features an array of Neapolitan style pizzas.  The classic margherita, with tomato, mozzarella, basil, and parmigiano, is called The Queen. The spicy soppressata packs a sweetened punch that comes from red chili flakes and honey. But one of the most popular dishes is the Brussels Sprout – a sauce-free pie with mozzarella, cracked black egg, shredded sprouts, truffle oil and a soft-centered egg perfect for soaking up with the charred, flaky crusts.

While the pies are truly delicious – I have now tasted six of the 11 options – the dishes that make this pizzeria particularly unique are the small plates. Mixed greens tossed in lemon vinaigrette are jeweled with glistening ruby strawberries both sweet and tart. The Toast Plate for $12 is an absolute must-order, featuring four gorgeously dressed toast points. The chef has whipped a ramp puree into a savory pudding, spreading it onto the crostini, along with charred onions, broccoli rabe and a light dusting of cheese. It is otherworldy. Another is smashed with peas, a delicate ricotta and a whisper of lavender.  These are genuinely special.

The Queen sells for $10, which seems to be the going rate for similar artisan pies in the vicinity.

“We noticed a definite absence of artisan pizza on 31st Avenue,” Danny said.

Milkflower joins the powerhouse avenue lineup that includes the original Bareburger, mex-eclectic Pachanga Patterson, rustic neighborhood cornerstone Brick, tapas-paninoteca extraordinaire Il Bambino, date night favorite DiWine, and family-run Cypriot at Zenon Taverna, just to name a few within a 10-block span morphing this former sleepy street into a legitimate restaurant row.

Drink service includes a selection of craft ales along with some unique sodas – try a bottle of the Fentimans Cherry Cola – though a wine list is soon to come. Dessert arrives in the form of gelato from il laboratorio del gelato on the Lower East Side, with unusual flavors like toasted sesame and honey lavender.  The grapefruit is reminiscent of a delectably bitter creamsicle. From start to finish, Milkflower offers a unique new flavor to 31st Avenue, though I get the feeling people will be traveling from much further away to try it.

Milkflower
34-12 31st Avenue, Astoria
718-0204-1300

BY BRADLEY HAWKS

 

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Off the Hook is off the hook


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

THE COURIER/Photo by Bradley Hawks

“Which part of the lobster is your favorite,” my friend asks as I stare, dumbfounded, at the enormous lobster roll before me.

It is an entire lobster removed from its shell, giant claws—whole—and a buttery herbed tail, all sprinkled with sweet, juicy knuckle meat.

“I love it all,” I say.

The lobster roll at Off the Hook is literally off the hook.

After living in Astoria for almost 10 years, Iglent “Glen” Fejzulla noticed an obvious lack of non-Greek seafood restaurants in the area. Desiring to create an East Coast style “seafood shack,” he and business partner Dritan Xhuke (the two own Bocconcini in Little Neck) decided to open Off the Hook in the space formerly occupied by Montenegro Grill.

The front counter reveals an open kitchen and cold bar where oysters from both coasts chill atop glistening piles of ice. The chalkboard on the sidewalk boasts hard-to-believe specials like “order two dozen oysters, get a third dozen free.” An intimate lobby features a pair of swinging chairs made of old ship anchors. Lobster traps overhead act as lampshades and cast striped light patterns on the walls.

In the back, an aquatic mural painted by Fejzulla adorns the brick wall overlooking a small outdoor courtyard where guests can sip on a Bloody Mary, Cape Cod al fresco or any number of creative cocktails.

Available by the piece, oysters range from $1 to $1.50. They can also be ordered by the half-dozen or as part of a chilled seafood platter. One of the best deals is the “All-In” platter, an icy tray loaded with shrimp cocktail, clams, oysters and mussels with mignonette and spicy cocktail sauce for just $17. Dip slices of grilled table bread into decadent and creamy New England style clam chowder studded with potatoes and shredded carrot.  Plump, sweet Little Neck clams steamed in Pernod with a touch of cream arrive in a cast-iron skillet with a rustic loaf of bread.

Sandwiches range from shrimp salad on toasted brioche to a Pollock BLT and, of course, a Maine lobster roll. The potato chips are wildly addictive, homemade, and thickly sliced. Maine lobster is also served whole along with North Atlantic salmon on a savory pedestal of corn pudding.

But be sure to save room for dessert, where apple crisp gets a Middle Eastern twist.  Sliced apples are baked in coconut milk with cardamom, cinnamon, and a myriad of exotic flavors all crusted under crumbled cookies and with a dollop of vanilla frozen yogurt on top. They also make their own fresh ginger ale with actual ginger puree and lime wedges.

From atmosphere to menu, this little oasis just off of 28th Avenue magically transports you to a small New England tavern where something as simple as velvety clam chowder can warm the spirit and cool your nerves.

Off the Hook
28-08 34th Street, Astoria
Dinner daily from 5 p.m.
718-721-2112

BY BRADLEY HAWKS

 

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A four-leaf clover just off the beaten path


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

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One of Astoria’s best-kept secrets is Stove, where Irish-born chef and owner Declan Cass serves British-inspired dishes – the fish and chips are a textbook rendition – alongside inventive New American cuisine to offer something for everyone.

The narrow, sconce-lit restaurant is just far enough off the beaten path to feel secluded and special, yet within walking distance of Steinway’s thoroughfare. The eatery is just one block from the 46th Street stop on the Q18. Thanks to a recent revamp of the menu, Stove classics like the grilled Angus shell steak with creamy peppercorns and honey-glazed, five-spice ribs are now joined by a mesquite barbecue butter pork loin haystacked with frizzled onions and a trout almondine with beurre noisette. The “Downton Abbey” set will want to stick around for proper English desserts like the sherry trifle and homemade apple pie blanketed with a sweet ribbon of crème anglaise.

“It’s unbelievable how so very many ingredients are combined in such a small dish,” the server proclaimed as she delivered our baked stuffed clams.

She was right. These clams are superb, and as soon as they were gone, I wished we had savored them a little longer. They contain the perfect blend of bread crumbs, minced clams, a hint of clam juice, a whole spring garden of seasonings, garlic and a crown of Irish smoked bacon that is simultaneously smoky, salty, crunchy and tender. You don’t even need the lemon wedge, although the drip of citrus illuminates the flavors just that much more.

“Oh, perfect choices! That makes me so happy!”

Our server smiled and clapped her hands in approval as we turned in the order for our main dishes. How often do you meet a server who not only knows every ingredient in each dish, but seems to genuinely love the food she is serving, investing in it as if it came from her own kitchen.

Everything we tried was, quite simply, outstanding.

The baked shepherd’s pie arrives in a casserole dish the size of a large football. A blend of vegetables including peas and carrots are stewed into gorgeously seasoned minced meat gravy that smells deliciously of Worcestershire.  The hearty meat stew is adorned with artful pipings of whipped potatoes like a savory decorated cake, with crispy golden peaks browned while baking in the oven.

The sherry trifle, layered with cherries, pears, pineapple, JELL-O and English custard, was the perfect ending to our proper Irish dinner, and we stumbled out the door with both stomachs and spirits sated.

Although we could not put another morsel in our mouths, we were already planning Sunday brunch to enjoy the corned-beef hash, traditional Irish breakfast and eggs royale.

Stove
45-17 28th Avenue, Astoria
718-956-0372
Closed Mondays
Tuesday-Thursday: 4-10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 4-11p.m.
Sunday: noon-10 p.m.

BY BRADLEY HAWKS

Pizza pies and pasta cakes


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

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At Tufino Pizzeria Napoletana, each pie has its own personal story. One is inspired by chef and owner Stephen Menna’s grandmother’s meatballs, another by his favorite festival as a kid and yet another by his neighbor, who suggested adding raisins to a prosciutto pie.

Naturally leavened dough is gently hand-stretched and falls loosely down the pizzaiolo’s forearms as it twirls. A shallow layer of choice toppings is meticulously applied. Menna places mozzarella crumbles as if setting jewels in a crown.

The addition of fontina to Greek cheese adds a subtle earthiness when coupled with tangy kalamata olives. A sprinkle of oregano with lemon juice added post-oven really makes the pie special. The flavors simply pop. On the San Gennaro, a drizzle of playfully picante honey makes the pie particularly good.

“We have weekly specials including several gluten-free options,” Menna said. “I probably have around 40 different pies in my head right now.”

All of them are browned to bubbling bronze beauty in a Stefano Ferrara wood-fired oven made from volcanic ash of Mt. Vesuvius. The oven was an anniversary gift from Menna’s wife.

Pizzas range from $9 to $16 per 12-inch personal pie. Daily specials also include a few pastas, salads, panini and crostini. Sunday brunch features a pancetta pizza with a fried egg.

Storefront window art identifies the pizzeria as a “frigittoria,” which means they also make fried treats, or “dolci fritti.” These include jumbo arancini, prosciutto croquettes and deep-fried calzones. On weekdays, guests can even indulge in a cappellini cake – angel hair tossed with a blend of cheeses, rolled in breadcrumbs, fried and served with a moat of alfredo sauce.

Desserts include a fresh seasonal fruit tart (the current pignoli tart with basil cream is sublime), a cannoli sampler, the “Tirami Choux” (a cocoa pastry puff with Kahlua mascarpone cream) and Menna’s take on a Nutella pizza.

Menna, who makes his own dough every morning, intends to make pizza as long as he can.

“Detail is everything… and staying true to what I believe in,” he said.

Tufino Pizzeria Napoletana
36-08 Ditmars Boulevard, Astoria
718-278-4800
Open at noon daily (closed Mondays)

BY BRADLEY HAWKS

 

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The restaurant Sandy built


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

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It is only a spring roll, but I have somehow rapidly devoured three of these crispy golden fingers before realizing I have yet to dunk one into the accompanying chili sauce. The delicate wrapper crackles and gives way to a steaming center of al dente glass noodles, tiny slivers of carrot and sweet lumps of fresh crabmeat. A spring roll this delicious can really heighten your awareness of just how monotonous most other renditions can be. I am already grinning, and this is just the first course.

The quality of food at Bún-ker Vietnamese is beyond surprising. The first syllable is the Vietnamese word for vermicelli (pronounced boon), while the restaurant’s full name is a play on its bunker-like location.

Chef Jimmy Tu said the space was initially a boutique seafood distribution site. Tu previously opened Manhattan’s famed Eleven Madison Park, where he also cooked for two years.

Since he originally intended Bún-ker to be a storage space, he said “the location really didn’t matter.”

He added that cheap rent was why he chose the location.
Sandy saw things a little differently. The storm put the distribution center out of business for almost a month. Facing major damage and with no flood insurance, Tu and his partners — including younger brother Jacky, who is also the sous-chef — decided to close the distribution business and open Bún-ker in its place in January.

With gingham tablecloths, buckets of utensils on each table and a bamboo and straw thatched ceiling, the tiny dining room daily buzzes with locals clustered around tightly packed private and communal tables.


The draw here is simple: excellent Vietnamese cuisine. After leaving the fine dining industry, Tu spent a month and a half studying street food, befriending local establishments throughout Vietnam and

Thailand and studying their recipes and techniques.

“Noodles are a really big street food in Vietnam,” Tu explained, “We also use a Japanese grill with realcharcoal, because out in Vietnam, it’s all charcoal, which definitely adds to the flavor.”

It’s “street food made with a lot of love,” Tu added with a smile.

Take, for instance, the Saigon Special Banh Mi. It is a flaky baguette stuffed with five-spice pâté made in-house as well as steamed pork shoulder ground with cinnamon, sugar and fish sauce. The sandwich also has garlic sausage, and it’s all garnished with pickled vegetables, mayo, cilantro, jalapeno and a ribbon of sriracha hot sauce.

The Pho Ga is an intense chicken noodle soup consisting of smoked shallot broth with bobo chicken. The kitchen develops it over eight hours.

Even simple plates explode with flavors carefully cultivated in the kitchen — tomato garlic fried rice and creamed taro leaves like collard greens with a hint of curry, ginger and garlic.

Drinks are limited to a cooler where customers serve themselves water. You can also order artichoke kefir iced tea or Vietnamese black coffee. Next week, the restaurant plans to introduce several homemade soft drinks including flavors like lime ginger mint, tamarind and chili lychee.

Until then, plan on cooling your palate with a bowl of coconut tapioca pudding whose tender pearls are studded with slivers of young coconut, pineapple, star fruit and palm seeds.

Sounds simple? It is simply delicious.

Bún-ker Vietnamese
46-63 Metropolitan Avenue, Ridgewood
718-386-4282
Tuesdays & Wednesdays 5 – 10 p.m.
Thursdays & Fridays 5 – 11 p.m.
Saturday noon – 11 p.m.
Sunday noon – 10 p.m.

BY BRADLEY HAWKS

 

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Tabletop BBQ at Sik Gaek


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

THE COURIER/Photos by Bradley Hawks

“Oh, that’s probably too much food,” the server warns in a refreshing moment of honesty. “Most dishes are intended to serve three to four.”

He then reaches under the table for an invisible switch, and flames appear.

The restaurant is Sik Gaek, and the booths are tucked under tin awnings reminiscent of a back alley in a bustling Asian city, the walls plastered with karaoke posters. Next to each table sit enormous plastic red buckets where diners discard shells, bones and shrimp tails. This is Korean barbecue at its very best. It’s a whole different ballgame than the American version.

Soon the waiter returns and begins frying a couple of eggs in a skillet to be set aside as one of many garnishes. Next, a technicolor parade of small plates arrives, none of them ordered by the table. These are customary complimentary dishes often enjoyed as appetizers or used as toppings with the main course. There are bowls of flaming red kimchi—one of pickled mushrooms and vegetables, garlic cloves and jalapenos—and yet another steaming dish of what appears to be an egg soufflé. The Korean rice cakes are a favorite at Sik Gaek. The thin strips of fish cakes glistening with a glowing red sriracha glaze actually resemble long, chewy gnocchi. Lush leaves of bibb lettuce serve as jade wraps for the delicacies to come.

And now, the barbecue begins. Paper thin strips of bulgogi—sesame, soy and garlic marinated short ribs—sizzle and curl as they brown on the grill. A gargantuan, ice cube-studded platter covers the end of the table and brims over with piles of clams, sea snails, prawns, scallops, mussels and even shells full of crab meat, veggies and mozzarella cheese. It’s all slowly grilled on the tabletop.

Bold diners will want to try Sik Gaek’s famous plate, the seafood hot pot—a rice bowl placed over the grill and filled with fresh seafood, including a live octopus, that is slowly steamed over the heat. Skeptics may want to check out the YouTube clip with Anthony Bourdain and David Chang.

Whether you are adventurous or timid, the menu is ideally suited for sharing among friends who can agree on a few dishes. Even the spicy ramen soup is intended to feed a small family. Start off with a few orders and add more as you go along to gradually build a tableside grilled feast.

From steamed fresh lobster to beef short rib stew, monkfish and mackerel to prawns and scallops, each order arrives in heaping platters. Although health codes prevent guests from taking home unconsumed raw meats, don’t waste those untouched gems. Ask nicely, and your server will have the kitchen steam or grill your leftovers and package it to take home.

Sik Gaek
49-11 Roosevelt Ave, Woodside
718-205-4555
Open daily from 3 p.m. to 4 a.m.

-BY BRADLEY HAWKS

 

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Something fishy at JJ’s Asian Fusion


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

Photos by Bradley Hawks

“I like to add a twist, a touch of new, modern ingredients to make regular sushi become more fun,” explains Philip Chen, the executive chef of JJ’s Asian Fusion, as he personally delivers the appetizer to the table. “Sushi of such high quality and flavor doesn’t need any soy sauce.”

Chen went on to detail the “New Style” Sushi Sampler that includes Indonesian-style salmon with blow-torched lemon zest; yellowtail with jalapeno, Dijon, and yuzu zest; marinated and grilled bonito sprinkled with mint, black pepper and Himalayan rock salt; white tuna with deep-fried pearl onion and yuzu miso; and tuna topped with whipped tofu puree, yogurt and a drizzle of lime soy.

The rich and tender slice of yellowtail practically fell apart between my chopsticks. A fish with high oil content, it would be nearly futile to dip it in soy sauce. That would stubbornly bead up and roll off. So it’s brilliant that this piece of sushi is topped with fried jalapeno and spicy mustard to add texture and heat along with citrusy shavings of yuzu rind to cut the richness. Each piece is uniquely delicious and unlike anything being served even remotely nearby.

This cozy restaurant, unassumingly tucked away on 31st Avenue, features an often French culinary approach to a marriage of pan-Asian cuisines. Just beyond a neon blue glowing waterfall in the entry and bamboo-partitioned tables in the dining room, Chen enthusiastically creates an artistic array of dishes that satisfies both sushi purists and fusion enthusiasts.

The dumplings are made in-house. The most popular are the edamame pot stickers, which are $5.50 for a serving of four. The dumplings are stuffed with pureed edamame beans, blanketed in a wasabi cream sauce and drizzled with basil-infused olive oil.

With the shumai ($4.95), six tender meatballs of delicately seasoned minced chicken and crabmeat are wrapped in thin, savory noodles, steamed on a broad bamboo leaf that infuses a hint of sweet earthiness and served with a small bowl of ponzu sauce for dipping.

Try the rock lobster starter. These juicy lumps of sweet lobster meat are lightly tempura battered and fried, tossed in a yuzu mango glaze and dotted with red and black tobiko (flying fish caviar). Magenta and jade micro greens crown the creation.

Along with several basic sushi rolls, a kaleidoscopic array of chef’s special rolls is on the menu.  Tropical roll #2 features shrimp tempura with diced mango and slivers of avocado. They are wrapped in rice and thin soy paper and drizzled with mango and strawberry sauces. The tempura batter and sweet glazes create a decadent harmony in your mouth.

For entrees, consider the tamarind-glazed roast duck over steamed baby bok choy or the miso-glazed salmon with stir-fried vegetables, accompanied by herbed mashed potato spring rolls with an orange glaze.

With at least five days notice, Chen will personally craft an omakase tasting at a fixed price point.

“We have certain things flown express from Japan,”  he explained.

So whether it’s a $50 to $200 private tasting or just an afternoon of dumplings and green tea, JJ’s has something for everyone. Just be sure to end the meal with stacked green tea crepes. Even the sweet ending is flawless.

JJ’s Asian Fusion
37-05 31st Ave, Astoria
718-626-8888
Open daily for lunch and dinner
Closed Mondays

-BY BRADLEY HAWKS

 

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Queens restaurants serve up kangaroo, alligator, other exotic meats


| ctumola@queenscourier.com

Photos by Bradley Hawks

Looking for something new to try?

Even in New York City, adventurous foodies can get bored. But people looking for a taste of the exotic can find plenty of options in Queens.

In Astoria, the Thirsty Koala serves kangaroo burgers, sliders and steaks.

“The wild game meat is extremely lean, resembling a cross between bison and venison,” Queens Courier dining writer Bradley Hawks said after trying the kangaroo dishes. “The steak is best described as a sweeter filet mignon.”

Kangaroo burger 

Moving from marsupials to reptiles, Max Bratwurst und Bier German Restaurant has rattlesnake and alligator on the menu.

“Believe it or not, the [rattlesnake and alligator bratwursts] are very popular, especially among the young crowd,” said Fiori, a manager at the Astoria restaurant.

He described the rattlesnake as tender and flavorful. The serpent is combined with pork to make the bratwurst because rattlesnakes are expensive and have little meat on them.

The alligator bratwurst tastes like chicken, Fiori said.

The restaurant decided to add exotic meats to the menu as a way of standing out from other area eateries.

They wanted to “make a challenge” for their customers, said Fiori, who sometimes hears diners daring each other to try the alligator or rattlesnake bratwurst.

Alligator is also on the menu at Sugar Freak in Astoria.

Its popcorn alligator dish is made by deep frying the meat and serving it with a spicy, tangy grape jelly sauce.

Slightly less adventurous diners who still want to try something new can head to Alobar Restaurant in Long Island City or one of four Bareburger locations in the borough.

Alobar offers familiar meat, but served in an exotic way.

Its Amish pig tails are exactly what the name implies.

“It was one of those approachable items that people aren’t afraid of trying, especially the way we prepare them,” said executive chef Michael Rendine.

The tails, which are six to eight inches long, are deep fried and covered in house barbecue sauce. Rendine said you eat them like ribs or chicken wings.

Originally an everyday menu item, the pig tails are now only served as a Tuesday night special. But Rendine added that people come in and ask for the dish all the time.

Amish pig tails

Bareburger, on the other hand, offers a familiar way of eating meat made from an unusual animal.

In addition to the typical beef and turkey burgers, diners can order ostrich, wild boar, elk and bison on their buns.

Manager Bobby Kumar said customers like the ostrich because it tastes similar to beef, but is lower in cholesterol and 98 percent lean. He added that they enjoy bison and elk, which are also red meats, for the same reasons.

Wild boar is leaner than beef, but has a similar texture to ground pork.

“We’ve become very well known for our exotic meat,” Kumar said. “After some people try it, some people fall in love with it.”

 

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At Ornella, you are home


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

Photos by Bradley Hawks

“Now this is the real fusilli, not like the spiral stuff… this is so much better…” smiled Giuseppe Viterale as he proudly placed the masterpiece on the white linen before me. His deep, melodic voice is as thick and comforting as the Bolognese sauce blanketing the long coils of fresh pasta. Half the joy of dining at Ornella, after all, is having Giuseppe serve you.

As I devour the savory meat sauce and thin, hollow al dente noodles, he points out one of the greatest joys of eating homemade pasta. Since he never uses a machine, each noodle is slightly different in thickness, shape, and texture, making each bite uniquely enjoyable. The fusilli Bolognese is a dish from his hometown that his mother-in-law has made by hand probably thousands of times over the course of her life.

Each and every dish comes with a family story, and there are well over 100 different dishes available in the restaurant any given day of the week, though only a select few are listed on the menu.This is the man who was famous for his contraband supply of casu marzu (worm cheese) as well as his seasonal offering of the legendary sanguinaccio—a chocolate pudding made with fresh pig’s blood, which Giuseppe also uses as a cannoli filling.

Giuseppe’s menu is undeniably the most diverse Italian menu anywhere around. Will he make you chicken parmigiana? Sure. But only because he likes to please each customer, not because it’s a favorite authentic dish.

The signature dish at Ornella is undeniably the imbustata. Italian for “envelope,” the imbustata is a sheet of fresh pasta piled with chicken, veal, mascarpone cheese, spinach, mozzarella and mushrooms, all folded into a tight parcel that is baked in a creamy tomato sauce with a dusting of Parmigiano cheese, like a gigantic ravioli or edge-sealed lasagna. Also, be sure to order the duck meatballs, stuffed with herbs and cheese, and glazed with an orange-brandy reduction.

If you truly want to enjoy what makes this restaurant so incredibly special, simply ask Giuseppe about the dishes inspired by his home in Salerno, Italy. From his father, who ran a flour mill, Giuseppe learned the nuances of making different flours. One of the most exquisite dishes he serves is the pizzoccheri alla fontina, featuring long flat noodles made from buckwheat flour. The hearty pasta ribbons are tossed with tender braised cabbage, golden potatoes, fontina cheese and a touch of garlic and olive oil. The dish is simultaneously light, hearty, decadent, and a playscape of textures and flavors.

The whole restaurant is a tribute to his family and history.

Painted like a quaint Italian street scene, the walls hold signs for various piazzas named after each of his four sons, who also sometimes serve in the restaurant—which is named after his beautiful and effervescent wife, Ornella. In fact, do not be surprised when on your second visit Giuseppe remembers your name. He quite literally treats everyone like family.

Ornella Trattoria Italiana
29-17 23rd Avenue; 1/2 block from Ditmars N/Q station
718-777-9477
Open daily from noon to 10 p.m.

 -BY BRADLEY HAWKS

 

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Nothing shady about this lady


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

Photos by Bradley Hawks

Opening a new restaurant in New York City can pose countless unforeseen bumps in the road, but the worst is when someone mistakes your new restaurant for an actual speed bump. Last week, a hit-and-run motorist did precisely that, driving his truck directly into The Shady Lady, which recently opened on the corner of 30th Avenue and 35th Street. Fortunately no one was injured, and the team worked vigorously to reopen last weekend, just in time to introduce brunch service.

There is only one television screen, above the bar, that plays silent films. The concept is intended to foster socializing and interaction amongst friends, with a global menu focused on plates meant for sharing.

From the kitchen, co-owner and executive chef Billy Pappas is cranking out some rather impressive creations so delectable you just might not want to share at all.

Juicy, tender, pork tenderloin medallions are encrusted in mushrooms and dijon, then baked in a flaky pastry crust. Served two to an order, these wellingtons are a definite must-try.  Meatloaf meatballs are served on a pedestal of chive whipped potatoes with a tangy tomato demi-glace.  Foie gras terrine (made in-house by Pappas) is paired with cashew butter and port wine gelee for a sophisticated PB&J. Rock salt crystals cut the richness—and spread on toasted buttery brioche, it’s a remarkable blend of textures, flavors and colors.

Mini sandwiches for sharing include sliders and pork belly taquitos, as well as lobster tacos with lime aioli, sriracha, and pico de gallo.  Mac and cheese carbonara and lobster pot pie are highlights, as well as oysters on the half shell.

The star of weekend brunch (which drew an enthusiastic crowd its premiere weekend) are Pappas’s homemade buttermilk biscuits, which are the quintessential rendering of the comfort classic. The flaky, moist and buttery pastry pillows are topped with a hearty sausage and bacon country gravy.  Or try the fried chicken version, the poultry and biscuits blanketed with cheddar cheese, a zigzag of bacon, and then a slathering of the pork gravy.   The “Back to Bed Mac & Cheese” has an actual egg baked into the bubbling crust, and eclipses almost all of the other dishes in decadence and the guilty grins it forces at each forkful.  Jack and Coke French toast is caramelized in a crispy coating and syrup of the popular beverage, served with mixed berries.

At dinner, it would be well worth your while to place an order for the classic chocolate soufflé with vanilla bean ice cream and fresh strawberries about 20 minutes before you are ready to devour it, as this favorite always demands a little extra love in the oven.

While the sharing plates are unparalleled, the cocktail list is worth a strong look, with concoctions like a basil julep or a ginger habanero margarita. Check out the whiskey carafes available, as well as a notable beer selection (including Single Cut on draft, of course). There is even a weekday shady hour from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. where guests can enjoy unlimited half price well drinks, beer, and wine with any food purchase.

The Shady Lady
34-19 30th Avenue, Astoria
718-440-9081
Open daily for dinner at 6 p.m.
Brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.

 -BY BRADLEY HAWKS

 

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Salt & Fat: Raising the bar


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

Photo by Bradley Hawks

BY BRADLEY HAWKS

It arrives at the table resembling a toddler’s attempt at a sandcastle.  A simple prodding with a fork and a cautious bite later, however, yields sensations—textures and flavors simultaneously familiar and exotic.  Those grey pieces of down are actually shaved Hudson Valley foie gras, rendered light and feathery, cloaking a heaping mound of cinnamon-dusted mandarin orange segments that explode like sweet, tangy bursts of fresh orange juice.  The blend of citrus and foie gras is reminiscent of a luxurious creamsicle, with a playful crunch of paper-thin stained-glass tiles of bacon brittle.  It is one of the ugliest, most profoundly delicious dishes I have ever tasted.  And it is a quintessential introduction to the technique and delicious whimsy of Daniel Yi, owner and chef of Salt & Fat in Sunnyside.

A native of Sunnyside, Yi grew up in a Korean-American household, which shaped his definition of New American cuisine.

“Eating spaghetti or a slice of pizza with kimchi was one of my favorites as a child,” explained the chef.  “Because of eating American and Korean food growing up, it is deeply reflected in my cooking.”

Salt & Fat’s fluffy BLT bao buns look like Pac-Man savoring a power-up of tender pork belly medallions with shredded lettuce, ruby tomatoes, and spicy mayo.

Though Asian influences are undeniably sprinkled throughout the menu, the New American cuisine borrows influences from around the world.  So we asked, “What is the inspiration for the name?”

“Even though salt and fat are associated with unhealthy eating, they aren’t necessarily bad or unhealthy ingredients. They are actually the backbone of anything and everything that is tasty and delicious,” said Yi.

Dinner begins with a complimentary brown paper sack of warm popcorn popped in bacon fat, an addictive replacement for traditional bread service.  The one-page menu is comprised of 17 plates intended for sharing, all ranging from $8 to $23 and accompanied by a carefully-edited selection of wine and craft beer.

Must-tries include the oxtail terrine, which looks more like a sinful chocolate brownie, falling apart at the touch and melting on the palate, served with a caramelized onion puree and roasted mushrooms.  Who knew pigs’ feet could evoke such a gleeful response?   Here, the pork trotters are tenderly prepared in a torchon, then breaded like a gargantuan crab-cake, and topped with a slow-cooked egg that acts as a rich gravy.  The sweet & sour duck breast with buttered lychee is gorgeous in every way.  A salad of succulent lobster claw and tail meat over frisee and citrus segments is jazzed up with an ancho vinaigrette.

Absolutely plan for dessert, like the rice crispie treat with marshmallow ice cream, or a seasonal selection of ice creams and sorbets, which presently include Thai iced tea and miso apple.  No room for a sweet ending?  The check comes with mini Korean cran-yogurt probiotics, the perfect icing on the cake of an eclectic, excellent meal.

Salt & Fat
41-16 Queens Blvd, Sunnyside
718-433-3702
Tuesday – Saturday 6 to 11 p.m.
Sunday 5 to 10 p.m.
Closed Monday

 

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