Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Circle in a Spiral (Wave Thai, 21-37 31st Street)

For a time, there were no Thai restaurants in the area near the Ditmars stop (unless you count Bangkok Tasty, which may not meet the table-and-chairs requirement for consideration in this project). Then, suddenly, as if in compliance with antitrust ordinances, there were two -- separated on 31st Street by only a laundromat and an ABC Superstore. Wave is the closer of the two to the subway stop, with what looks to be some sort of postmodern bull's-eye over the window. (Down the street is Thai Elephant, which isn't trying nearly as hard.)

Each Thai place in Astoria tries to put its own distinct twist on accommodating the neighborhood's seemingly ever-expansive demand for the cuisine. Thai Pavilion is known for quirky Thai in an oddly formal setting; Arharn Thai is the mom-'n'-pop Thai; Yajai sates diners who apparently prefer their Thai in a setting that rivals Trade Fair for poor feng shui. (We're not particularly looking forward to our obligatory visit there.)

Wave Thai is all about the romance -- and though we generally roll our eyes when restaurants employ tricks that might have wooed us in college (red walls, half-blackened light bulbs), the place has enough ingenuity to get a pass. The fountain near the entry, bedecked with small statues of elephants, imparts a genuine calm, as does the lulling but kind of weird soundtrack (elevator-music versions of Prince?). The concentric-circles motif, plus the flatware with undulating handles, is gentle and wavelike -- we get it -- but it too works toward its end. The bathroom deserves special mention for making us feel like minor royalty -- the faucet was like one of those fancy showerheads you find in nice hotels, the kind that's supposed to mimic rainfall. Again: a semi-classy gimmick, but one that turns out to be welcome.

The food? It's Thai. That's all there is to say; it's just Thai food, it fills you up for a reasonable price and tastes yummy and the noodles are fine and the curry is spicy but not too spicy. The Pad Kee Mao looked like this (even the plates are a bit wavy):

In truth, we mourn the departure of Ubol's Kitchen every time we try to go out and find someone special again. But until something that good comes back to Astoria, we'll go to Wave again, and Thai Pavilion, and Arharn, and Thai Angel, etc., depending on the mood we're after. Sure, Wave tries a little too hard, but ultimately we just shake our heads, squint in the dim light, and give in anyway.

Price: Under $15.
Will we go again? No, but we'll send you there on an Internet date.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A Brief Enquiry Into Pizzeria Ethics (Alba's Pizza and Restaurant, 36-20 Ditmars Boulevard)

We expect to encounter many places like Alba's on our mission, serviceable places that you would never go to unless you lived down the street. Neighborhoods need places like Alba's but rarely will anyone bother to sing their praises; it would be like championing your garbage collector or corner-bodega proprietor. In short, a pizzeria needs to be pretty conspicuously good (or remarkably awful, for that matter) to warrant special attention. Alba's is neither of those things.

We went in on a cold afternoon and were thankful for the heat blasting out of the pizza ovens. We asked what was good, but the answer surprised us, as the counterman recommended what looked to be clearly the least appetizing offering behind the glass, the penne a la vodka slice, which looked like an ordinary slice with some ziti baked into it on top.

This raised the ethical question that confronts any food-service employee when asked for a recommendation: Do they say what they really like, or what it would be expedient for the establishment to get rid of. We suspect that we will become more adept as we proceed at placing the divers waitstaff we encounter along that moral spectrum. But right now we need other cues. For instance, should we be alarmed that Alba's, like La Mia Vita, also offers a Grandma pie? If we can't trust Alba's nana, who can we trust?

The penne a la vodka slice ended up being perfectly edible, if a little bizarre, and the plain slices were adequate and filling. No pizza toppings at individual tables, but they were readily available at the counter. And seating was ample and the mood relaxed. It felt like a safe harbor from the street.

So if we were hungry for slices and happened to be walking by Alba's, nothing would make us hesitate from going in. But it's hard to imagine planning a special trip there.

Price: Like all other pizzerias.
Will we go again? Totally unnecessary to do so.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Grandest Tofu (JJ's Asian Fusion and Sushi Bar, 37-05 31st Avenue)

The Magazine That Shall Not Be Named, so dubbed because of its propensity for inducing status anxiety and making proclamations about the whole of the city that, in truth, only apply to a small set of middle-to-well-heeled Manhattanites, awarded JJ's Fusion the honor of best pot stickers in New York. We're always glad to see Astoria restaurants get their due but remain suspicious that there's some sort of outer-borough quota that the writers feel the need to fill. (At least they're not touting Uncle George's as the best Greek in New York.)

We'd be less wary if the heralded pot stickers lived up to the name. They're good, don't get us wrong, and original -- dumplings stuffed with tender soy beans, served with a wasabi cream sauce. But there's a reason soybeans are enjoyed one-by-one as edamame, as we found out when the beans took on a glue-like consistency when we bit in. They'd be better smaller, or with a sauce that didn't add to the paste problem -- cream is a dubious flavor carrier here, though it did nicely soften the wasabi punch. We also admit we can be skeptically ornery when the "Best _____ in New York" label is applied; we like to think that means we're merely open to the possibility of there being a better pot sticker in one of the city's 36,000 other restaurants.

Our cantankerous fits aside, JJ's is a delight. The Astoria roll, with crab meat and crunchy flakes, was topped with fresh salmon and an unidentifiable but delicious sauce. And the sushi was fresh and reasonably sized, well worth the risk of mercury poisoning. The basic rolls and sashimi we tried were of higher caliber than other sushi haunts in the neighborhood too -- the fish may not have been wriggling in our mouth, but close enough.

One of us used to get delivery from JJ's but had never dined there, so we knew going in that the food would be good. What we didn't expect was the rich yet restrained ambiance. "Romantic" lighting is too often just dim, but JJ's sleek paper lanterns hit the mark. Intricate geometric wood panels adorned the terra cotta walls. The music, that night showcasing a pseudo-Björk (or maybe it was Björk; we can never tell), managed to complement, not overwhelm, the gentility of the place. And though JJ's is small and was surprisingly full for a Wednesday night, we were hardly aware of anyone else there, feeling only the comforting satisfaction that comes from having picked a popular place without any special forethought.

It's a shame that outlets like The Magazine That Shall Not Be Named fingers restaurants like JJ's just for single items; the pleasure of dining there derives from the entire experience: the service, the mood, the sake, the food. Nestled at a perfect point on the continuum between neighborhood joint and destination restaurant, this is the kind of place that makes us sigh about our every-restaurant mission. We'd love to go back to JJ's soon, but every other sushi restaurant in Astoria calls.

Price: In line with neighborhood sushi; good value but not a total bargain.
Will we go again? We wish we were more prone to sushi moods, because we're eager to go back but have a helluva lot of places to venture into first.

A Heaping Helping of Hot Coal (Layali Beirut, 25-60 Steinway Street)

No part of the neighborhood seems more foreign to us than the stretch of Steinway Street below Astoria Boulevard, where the smell of shisha fills the air, all the bodegas sell hookah pipes, and awnings implore you to read the Holy Koran. Frankly, we were intimidated by the plethora of hookah cafes as we wandered around on a weekend night trying to choose a place. It seemed hard to believe that people could eat amid all that smoke, so thick that it hung visibly in the air and cast a gray pallor over everything we could see through the windows. Perusing the menus outside many of the cafes -- in many cases translated poorly out of Arabic -- did little to put us at ease. Roast pigeon? And we weren't entirely sure women were welcome in these places. They seemed very much the domain of Egyptian men, young and old, playing backgammon with mute ferocity.

We chose Layali Beirut, in part because it was lit with green and red neon, and because, inexplicably, it had a weirdly welcoming pirate statue posted by the entrance.

Once inside, the scent of tobacco was nearly overpowering. The place was full, and just about everyone was smoking hookahs. We felt conspicuous, but it was comforting to see that female customers were present; one table even consisted entirely of women, though they were not smoking. Considering our purpose, though, it was not reassuring that few seemed to be eating. The décor was eclectic to say the least, some kind of testimony to Lebanon's reputation as a cultural crossroads. There were Christian-themed paintings, bas reliefs, Islamic carved pattern work in the moldings and doorways, a vast array of bellows hanging from the walls, and Lebanese music videos flickering through the haze from flat-screen TVs. And the sea of plastic grapes hanging from the ceiling bordered on insanity.

A table had just been vacated as we entered, so we had somewhere to sit, but it took the waitress some heavy-duty work with Windex to get it clean. The amount of mess left by the previous customers seemed astonishing until we considered that they may have been there for several hours, what with the backgammon and all. Like most of the hookah cafes, there's no booze at Layali Beirut; most customers drank tea, Turkish coffee, or fruit juice -- one of us ordered something billed on the menu as "Mango4" (we couldn't decide if this was a typo). We decided to pass on the overpriced entrées and stick to the more reasonable appetizers.

The kibbeh, miniature fried footballs of minced lamb and bulgur, were tasty. We wish the waitress had given us a hint and suggested we order a side of tahini to go along with it, as is traditional and necessary -- they screamed out for something to moisten the palate, though the meat was tender enough. We also ordered what was essentially Lebanese home fries, cubed potatoes seasoned with coriander and heaps of cilantro.

Naturally, we ordered shisha as well. Not to wax too orientalist, but smoking from a hookah always inevitably feels somewhat exotic, and in this particular setting, it was especially so. We were most taken with the employee who walked through the crowded café carrying hot coals to restoke the hookahs. With his tin basket and iron tongs, he seemed quaintly medieval, an indentured manservant to some pasha in the wings. And we can hardly imagine what sort of fire pit the coals were being extracted from. But when the coals were refreshed, one could certainly draw smoke much more copiously, and the curious ritual did much to add to the occult feel of what we were doing. It made tobacco seem exciting all over again.

We never quite felt at ease in Layali Beirut, but that may have been because we had nothing by which to gauge our expectations. But it seems that if you could acclimate yourself to the smoke and could overcome the oddity of the environment -- two big ifs -- you could settle in and enjoy yourself at the café for an unbounded stretch of time. It's hard to condemn a culture in which men devote their evenings to smoking leisurely and gathering to play venerable board games, especially when we contrasted it with the dismal milieu at McCaffrey & Burke, which we visited later. There, an inebriated man tried to hug us while slobbering about the Super Bowl, and a group of drunken twenty-somethings stumble-danced with one another to the classic rock on the jukebox while one of them tried to show off her massage skills, bracing herself for leverage and getting her elbows involved. The sad, sunken faces at the bar are best left undescribed. It was depressing to realize that while we felt so alienated at Layali Beirut, these loutish, besotted slobs were, in fact, our people.

Price: $7 for hookah; food runs the gamut -- what we ordered seemed pricey for what it was.
Will we go again? No, but through no fault of Leyali Beirut's. We just need to work on our backgammon game.