Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Club Med: 30th Avenue (Grand Café; 37-01 30th Avenue)

We had always been somewhat intimidated by Astoria's innumerable Euro-style cafes, where the emphasis seems to be more on supplying patrons with a table on the sidewalk at which to relax and drink iced coffee than anything having to do with food. To be sitting squinting in the sun amid bus exhaust and gawking passersby isn't our idea of an appealing way to fritter away an afternoon, and moreover, the culture at these places seemed to us insular and inhospitable. If you aren't of Mediterranean extraction, or aren't to the manner of al fresco lounging born, then you are likely to stick out and feel alienated at these cafes, waiting for some insight into their appeal that never comes.

We were so generally freaked out by the Euro cafes that we considered crafting a loophole that would exempt them from our campaign, but we decided that this would be against the spirit of the mission. After all, we would grossly distort the nature of the neighborhood if we left them out. So on the first warm day of the year, we thought we would ease into the scene with a brunch at Grand Café, a recent addition and seemingly one of the more approachable of the places. The interior was dark and vast. Behind the bar, at which little red-velvet ottomans were lined up in lieu of bar stools, was an enormous aquarium with tropical fish. The thumping music was a little nightclubby for brunchtime, but the early-afternoon baseball on the big flat-screen TVs mitigated the Euro vibe.

After a brief, disorienting moment, we were seated in a liminal space at the edge of the interior, next to a retractable wall that opened out onto the sidewalk. We were close enough to feel a breeze and believe we were part of café society, but not close enough to be choking on fumes and the stares of bystanders. To our delight, we were immediately brought water, in a corked liter bottle that the busser pulled out from his apron, and better still, mini-muffins, surprisingly moist and warm, albeit a little greasy. And different flavors too -- some were raisin bran, some were apple, some blueberry. The coffee, when it came, was served with a chocolate-filled rolled wafer, a welcome touch that left a positive impression well out of proportion with what it probably cost them.

We ordered eggs benedict -- a good brunch benchmark -- and the caprese frittata. The eggs benedict were what you'd want, well poached and not overly slathered with Hollandaise, and more important, they were brought promptly. The frittata was mostly indistinguishable from the omelet we ordered on a subsequent visit, which was indistinguishable from slightly overcooked scrambled eggs with various items thrown in. But to find an actual omelet or an actual frittata in most places (Astoria and elsewhere) is a high order -- the dish tasted good and was served with a mesclun salad that was more generous than it needed to be to please us.

So there was nothing to be afraid of after all. The truth is, the prevalence of the cafes makes them extremely competitive, meaning the service is attentive even if the food is not particularly distinctive. Sitting amid the Euros, we felt a little as though we had gone on vacation and were making the best of a resort amenity. Reclining in our semi-chaise longues, we felt like we had finally arrived.

Price: Good value for brunch, $10 per person.
Will we go again? Currently tied with Cronin & Phelan for repeat visits. We often have to remind ourselves there are other brunch options, because this place is just so easy.

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