Sunday, August 10, 2008

Wanna Be Eatin' Somethin' (Locale, 33-02 34th Avenue)

We approached Locale with a hint of trepidation. Astoria seems maxed out on Mediterranean restaurants -- both the old-school tuxedoed waiter kind and the supposedly chic places with blaring music and insider attitude -- and we wondered what this new cafe-restaurant tucked away on a quiet corner of 34th Avenue would add to the mix.

What we found wasn't earth-shattering: Locale won't necessarily go on the list of Astoria must-trys. But its atmosphere and menu collide to create what Cafe Bar strives, and fails, to be: a restaurant offering Astoria's Mediterranean heritage to its influx of younger, non-European residents, without alienating the Euro crowds that populate the more established cafes on 30th Avenue.

The largely Italian menu features well-selected glimpses of personality beyond red sauce: chicken with fontina and figs, pasta with red beet mascarpone. Its standard dishes please -- we've tried a variety of salads at Locale, and the gnocchi, a dish often overcooked and made gummy even in supposedly schooled hands, was toothsome without being chewy or mushy. Vegetarian options abound on the pasta panini menu (and the salad menu too, if you're content with goat cheese, which Locale heavily relies on to bulk up the salads). We stuck with a (slightly overpriced) bottle of wine, but the cocktail list is primed to please -- pineapple mojitos and martinis abound. (We'll forgive Locale the unfortunately named "Panty Dropper.")

More than the food, though, Locale is the rare place that allows one to feel like you're out on the town without being thrust into a crowded joint with thumping music and attitude. Sure, the large-scaled images of nudes in the fetal position are a bit much, but they're not really in-your-face, and the rest of the glass-and-wrought-iron decor is low-key and classic enough to make up for it. Best of all, we could hear both our conversation and the music, which on our recent Friday night visit included the greatest hits of Michael Jackson.

Locale's website claims the restaurant reflects "the neighborhood's modern yet multicultural chic aspect, which has become a signature of present-day Astoria." We wish more places had a clear-cut mission statement, perhaps printed on their business cards -- not so much so we can evaluate them based on the description, but on how close the proprietors come to achieving their goal. In this case, it's a match.

Price: Entrees in the mid-teens.
Will we go again? Seems to suit our mood when we want to go out for a low-key night on the town.

Right Next Door to Vibe! (Gaudio's, 40-13 30th Avenue)

Though it occupies a newly rehabbed building on 30th Avenue that includes among its storefronts the now failed Paparazzi Café (soon to be Cafe Boite, not "Mama Salsa" as originally reported) and Vibe, a dubious Eurolounge of recent vintage, Gaudio's Pizza is something of a neighborhood institution, celebrating its 50th year in Astoria. The frequency with which we see empty Gaudio's boxes out on the sidewalk on recycling-pickup day is a testament to the pizzeria's popularity (though that may be an illusion furthered by the other nearby places using generic boxes without their names printed on them). The inside is newly remodeled, like the building, but still the restaurant feels deeply rooted. Queens accents were thick in the voices we overheard. There was an old Italian waitress -- perhaps the proprietor's wife -- wearing a tuxedo shirt and black vest and serving the tables toward the back, while the booths up front appeared to be reserved for people who wanted somewhere to eat their slices without any fuss. There was also a counter with stools beside the traditional pizza counter, but we couldn't imagine sitting there -- you'd likely feel too much in the way.

We got slices, about which there is little to say. They passed muster. Pizza toppings were available on every table, a touch of generosity we always appreciate. Having to put parmesan and/or garlic on a piece of pizza while under the watchful eye of the counter man or an impatient fellow customer seems an arrangement designed to discourage you from fixing your slice the way you like.

Regulars filtered in the entire time we were there; one joked with the counterman about coming in yet again. In all, it had a cozy timelessness that no amount of change outside in Astoria could disturb.

Price: $2 a slice.
Will we go again? Why not?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Dry-Erase Dining (Akti, 34-19 30th Avenue)

Astoria has many Greek seafood restaurants, and it can be hard to keep them straight. We're a bit overwhelmed by them, actually, and have been dragging our heels on trying them. How do you pick one when there are so many? Before we ate at Akti, which opened in March, we knew it as the one with a waterfall sculpture -- a thin plate of illuminated glass with water coursing through it -- positioned prominently in the front. At night, when the restaurant is closed, there is something melancholy about the waterfall; turned off, with the unlit water puddled at the bottom, the sculpture becomes just a window without a wall, a porthole onto nothingness.

Inside Akti there were more aesthetic touches -- some nautically themed objects decorated the walls, like captain's wheel and what looked like a stunted oar, as well as a stucco rectangle with a neon glow hanging up behind the bar. The architectural detail, too, demands comment. The roof is paneled with bamboo stalks and the pilasters look as if they are barnacled with small white stones. The sum effect of all these niceties is hard to articulate; the atmosphere seems vaguely elegant and distinctive though you might be embarrassed to admit you felt that way.

The most peculiar thing about Akti is its procedure for ordering. Each table receives one menu (what is it with Greek restaurants and menus? Elias Corner won't even deign to give you one) and then each diner marks what they want directly on it with a dry-erase marker. Inevitably, this leads to some discussion of sharing items and requires coming to an explicit consensus. It makes the negotiations of any meal much more definitive, which may or may not be a benefit, depending on how effective you are at getting to yes. Sipping wine and munching down grilled pita slices, we managed to to come to terms with each other.

Our waiter thoughtfully gave us advice about how much to order -- one entree and a few appetizers for both of us -- and we took his advice and got grilled swordfish, a beet salad, and a delicious grilled haloumi appetizer (a mellow cheese grilled and placed on a tomato slice and pita). Everything tasted good. The beets were earthy and the fish was fishy, etc., but nothing struck as absolutely outstanding. What was better than ordinary was the attentive and unpretentious service, which was far more down to earth than the decor would lead you to expect. Everyone seemed at ease with what they were doing. A man who seemed to be the owner came by our table several times with encouraging comments, and it never felt uncomfortable or intrusive. When we were finished, the bartender brought out slices of watermelon for dessert.

When we were through at Akti, we left wondering why we are so resistant to try such places. The experience was effortlessly pleasant, enough to make you forget the elaborate effort that went into the design. The next time we pass the sad waterfall, it will probably seem less a symbol of Akti's trying to hard and more like the corny indulgence of friend whose vainly searching for a dignified way to express his effusiveness.

Price: If you order as you should -- appetizers, shared entree, wine -- it's about $100 per couple. That's on par with the other Greek restaurants nearby, and worth it.
Will we go again? We would if there weren't so many others of its type that we need to try.