Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What's Ponzu? (Bistro 33, 19-33 Ditmars Boulevard)

On a trip to Paris several years ago, one of us struck an acquaintance with a Frenchman who said he knew just the place to go. We wound up eating hamburgers and drinking Cokes from paper cups in an "American diner," replete with lithographs of Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart on the wall -- Johnny Rockets, essentially, priced in francs. It wasn't that he thought the place had the best food in town; it was that he thought we'd be comfortable there. So when two Guest Diners -- seasoned Brooklynites who follow the dining beat and who have guided us through delectable meals in places like Momofuku Noodle Bar -- joined us on our mission, we followed the Frenchman's cue and swept them away to an approximation of what one might find in, say, Park Slope or Carroll Gardens.

And in that regard, Bistro 33 didn't disappoint. It's out of the way, on a stretch of 21st Street that's a bit of a walk from the subway and other stops on the Astoria scene, but this allows its sidewalk dining to be truly pleasant. (What the attraction is to dining outside on 30th Avenue, breathing in bus exhaust and being ogled by passersby, we're unsure.) Its airy space and mood, combined with its chic, compact design and pleasant service matched point for point the attraction of downtown eateries that are never too crowded and always a good experience.

The lure of chef Gary Anza, formerly of the highly regarded sushi restaurant Bond Street, didn't hurt either. Our neighborhood doesn't have a deficit of good sushi -- JJ's Fusion and Tokyo continually satisfy -- but neither does it have an enormous array of choices. Bistro 33 serves French-Asian fare, and the French Culinary Institute pedigree of its cooks promised to please.

So we drank our way through the well-selected beer and wine list, nibbled our way through pork shoulder, tuna tataki, crab cakes, and a variety of sushi, and came to the conclusion that Astoria may have found its best sushi -- but it is either still seeking a good French-whatever restaurant or just doesn't need one. Both the simpler rolls (we tried the tuna and yellowtail) and more imaginative offerings (most notably the fuzzy tuna roll, with mango, spicy tuna, and crunchy strips) were expertly done. Other Asian-themed offerings matched the sushi's quality: The pan-fried pork dumplings were lightly crisped and delicately flavored, with a thin garlic-citrus sauce ("garlic ponzu sauce," to be exact) that offset the moist pork without clashing.

Other items on the menu left us wondering why reviewers have been giving unanimously good reviews to Bistro 33. Not that they were...bad...but the pork shoulder was paltry in taste and overcooked, even making us wonder if someone in the kitchen had forgotten to drizzle a sauce of some sort over it. Other entrees prompted nothing but a faint "this is nice" from all diners.

Bistro 33 is a far cry from the diner in Paris: It's not bad food; it's low-key; it's taking a stab at the "new Astoria" demographic and not falling too far from the mark. But just as the Frenchman didn't show his guest what his city does best, we wonder why we fell prey to the idea that as unwitting members of the new Astoria demographic, this is what we want after all. We've found a handful of places in the neighborhood that feel like a culinary home, and none of them had brand-name chefs, triangular plates, or ponzu anywhere on the menu. (Nor were they spotted by Ugly Betty's locations team -- an episode of the sitcom was filmed there in July, and we're curious to know if it will be posed as a Manhattan eatery or if the writers are daring to show Betty's native Queens as a borough that has food other than sausage heroes.) Astoria has room for Bistro 33 alongside its older establishments, and we wish it well -- but we don't want it to have too much company.

Price: Not crazy, not cheap. Between $15 and $25 for entrees.
Will we go again? We have no intention of returning, but wouldn't outright refuse if others invited us there.


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