Sunday, March 16, 2008

Locker-Room Lamb (Ditmars Gyro Place, 33-01 Ditmars Boulevard)

It may have been an effort to compensate, but in mid-March, the desultory Valentine's Day decorations were still hanging up in what has to be in the running for the least romantic restaurant in Astoria. Ditmars Gyro Place has all the ambiance of a locker room: the bathroom-tile walls, the bright fluorescent lighting, the muscular dudes loitering around with a vaguely menacing attitude. Even the cards with big numbers printed on them that were stuck in wire stands on each table suggested the impersonality of the gym. (The purpose of this numbering system remained entirely opaque, but maybe it helped out the waiter, who seemed responsible for all the dozen or so tables.)

But despite the antiseptic air, the place remained busy for the duration of our visit, after eight on a Sunday evening when most everywhere else in the neighborhood is dead. So they must be doing something right. And it's not like they are without competition; gyro and souvlaki places are everywhere. But in some ways, this is almost a guarantor of quality: To survive amid all the other Greek takeout places, a restaurant has to do at least a reasonably good job, and Ditmars Gyro Place clears that hurdle by a far stretch.

Gyro sandwiches are sort of Astoria's equivalent of the Philly cheesesteak. You can get gyros in just about any neighborhood, but outside of Astoria, they tend to suck, and for the same reasons cheesesteaks suck anywhere outside of the greater Philadelphia area. The bread has to be just right -- Amoroso rolls in the case of steaks; the thick, fluffy pocketless pitas for gyros -- and the meat needs to be sliced and prepared properly. It's not rocket science, but only in neighborhoods where a lot of pride is taken in the local staple will restaurateurs bother to make the cherished cuisine correctly.

Ditmars Gyro Place definitely did things right. As far as rotating meats go, they were taking no chances, with three different kinds spinning on their spits. The cubes of chicken in the souvlaki sandwich were moist without being chewy, and one could bite through them without having to wrestle with the pita and make a mess of things. The combination gyro, ordered at the suggestion of the waiter when we couldn't decide between lamb and beef, was made moist not by tzatziki but by slow, careful roasting of the meat. And to top it all off, $3 bottles of Mythos, a bargain for the not-bad Greek lager.

We know we have many gyros to come, and we expect them to all be pretty reliably satisfying. The similarity may tempt us into worrying about peripheral things -- the atmosphere, the demeanor of the cooks, whether our pronunciation of gyro gets corrected. But our experience at Ditmars Gyro Place should serve to remind us that gyros sell themselves. We need not worry about the window dressing too much with these places; instead we should think only of the meat and the pita, and enjoy the small miracle of the combination of the two.

Update (8/10/08): This restaurant may have improbably renamed itself "Aphrodite Cafe."

Price: Like other gyro places. Cheap.
Will we go again? Perhaps, but we have 487 other gyro joints to work our way through, so it'll be a while.

Tea for Two (Himalaya Teahouse, 33-17 31st Avenue)

We were both under the weather and were in the mood for maybe a restorative tea and some good hot broth. It seemed a tall order to find these both at the same restaurant, until we remembered the Himalaya Teahouse on 31st Avenue, which seems to exist to expressly cater to such a combination as we desired. Quaintly decorated outside with bamboo where you'll often find aluminum siding, the tea house inside is spare, with a few rugs hanging on the walls, which are painted a solid, soothing blue.

On the afternoon we visited, the teahouse was a two-woman operation, one cooking and one preparing the teas and waiting on the tables. This didn't make for the most efficient arrangement, but it certainly made things feel homey, and there weren't enough patrons in the restaurant for anyone to become truly neglected. The tea selection, as one would expect, is elaborate -- and the menu copy is full of inexplicable names for the teas but mercifully light on mystical mumbo jumbo.

To eat, we had thukpa, which was the yearned-for broth with what appeared to be hand-shaved noodles and boiled beef (we had ordered chicken, but alas), and momos, which are tasty Tibetan dumplings, also in broth. We may have found these a little bland under normal circumstances, but (a) the food of the Himalayas is meant to fortify, not enchant, and (b) we couldn't taste much through the late-winter cold plaguing our sinuses. What the food was lacking in pep, it made up for in delicacy, a feat considering we were eating beef with noodles and dumplings.

Where Himalaya Teahouse shines, unsurprisingly, is the teas. One of us was further along in our shared viral infection than the other, prompting one order of the Black Velvet, a mint-licorice tea that's supposed to encourage recuperation; the sicker one between us went with Fellini's Folly, a rooibos-mint blend designed for those in the thick of a cold. Andrew Weill and the FDA can battle it out as to whether the teas actually helped us recuperate, but they tasted good regardless of their health benefits. (What the "Really Goethe" lemon myrtle-jasmine-gunpowder blend is supposed to do, we have no idea, but we're not up on our Sturm und Drang.)

We've seen the restaurant floated on Astoria message boards as a late-night hangout, as they serve a handful of international beers and wines. We understand the impulse to have a beer in a setting other than a bar, but we can't imagine coming here to kick back a brewski. Forgive us for painting the Himalaya Teahouse in shades of Orientalism, but we prefer to come here for a sense of calm, a pot of Fellini's Folly, and the best momos in town.

Price: Under $12 for food. Around $5 for pots of tea.
Will we go again? Where else would we get our momo fix? Yes, especially when befallen with illness.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Dining With Client Nine (Arcos Churasqueira, 33-05 Broadway)

The ambiance of Arcos (the only Portuguese restaurant in Astoria we know of, so we are rooting for its success) is a bit of a puzzle. The white-linen tablecloths and relatively subdued lighting suggest austere formality, an impression our gracious waiter -- an elderly man with halting English -- quaintly reinforced. But at the same time, the television above the bar was flickering with the latest updates of the Spitzer scandal on CNN. Fortunately, we were too pleasantly engrossed with the delicious bread (Portuguese rolls with an herbed olive oil to dip them in) and the wine -- from the list of mostly Portuguese wines -- to have our meal spoiled by prostitution and hypocrisy.

The waiter wished he could recommend his favorite entree, porco à alentejana (pork cubes and clams), but it wasn't available, so we ordered the comparable dish that subbed in shrimp instead, along with steak prepared the Portuguese way -- with a slice of ham and a fried egg on top, all covered with a rich brown gravy. Both dishes came with some strips of carrot and broccoli florets, and fresh-made thin-sliced potato chips, which were right in the sweet spot between too crisp (which would have made them into Utz) and undercooked (which would have made them into scalloped potatoes).

The steak was everything we hoped for, a decadent protein bomb with a megaton of meaty flavor. The pork-shrimp dish, with chunks of meat suspended in a delectable herbed sauce (we have no idea what was in it, and didn't need to), was nearly stew-like in its hearty simplicity.

Plenty of places in Astoria offer a sort of charmed slice of the old country -- which country that is depends on which street you're on. We've happily dined at many of these restaurants and will again. But the overload of, say, Greek and Italian establishments means that, while their overall quality is high thanks to the intensity of competition, it can also be difficult to find a true standout. For every person who swears by the joint on Ditmars, there's someone on 28th claiming that his little Greek place is the best in the neighborhood. Maybe our naivete concerning the food of Portugal means that we've been snookered by a restaurant that would be considered mediocre at best were there more competition. We don't think that's the case -- but if it were, would it matter?

Arcos' owner-chef made it to our table to make a personal greeting, which was sweet, if slightly awkward. You can't help but feel slightly on the spot, and in a restaurant that seems unjustifiably empty far too often, the temptation is strong to want to go overboard with reassurances. We couldn't help but be wildly effusive in our praise, but we were sincere in almost everything we told him.

Price: $15 to $25 for entree. Well worth it.
Will we go again? One of our most delightful discoveries. Looking forward to repeat visits.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mighty Marinara (Sac's Place, 25-41 Broadway)

There are at least a dozen restaurants in Astoria that likely qualify as somebody's neighborhood Italian restaurant. Sac's became that for us. We would go in biweekly for a slice at the attached pizzeria that peeks into the main dining room, and for actual dinners, on special occasions. (Sac's is reasonably priced, with most entrees in the upper teens, but felt less so in our younger, more cash-strapped days.) We'd never met either of the Sacramonte brothers, the proprietors of the establishment, but when we brought our non-New Yorker family in for a taste of "real New York Italian," one of them came over to greet us, saying it was a pleasure to see a pizza regular come in for a real meal. During the blackout of 2003, Sac's became everybody's neighborhood Italian restaurant -- it was the only place around that served food not powered by electricity -- and we joined the line ringing the block to get a slice from the coal-fired oven.

Still, we do our best to not let our fond personal memories stand in the way of the culinary truth, so bearing the sanctity of our mission in mind, we entered Sac's with a clean slate -- and the restaurant made it easy for us to stay true. The staff was low-key, accommodating, and efficient; the lighting appropriate for both a date and family night; the grapevine mural decorating the walls corny but appealing. The bread basket, which could easily have been filled with a perfunctory ciabatta, contained instead what appeared to be the yeasty, olive-oil-based focaccia that serves as a base for their delicious Sicilian slice. That's less a perfunctory gesture than a pre-meal meal.

For our money Sac's pizza is the best in the neighborhood, though we're open to changing that depending on what the every-restaurant-in-Astoria mission yields. But as we've pretty much exhausted the pizza menu, on this night, we ordered entrees. (Note also that ordering pizza by the pie is pricier than it should be.) Sac's is rightfully known for its medium-bodied, flavorful marinara -- reportedly seasoned with herbs grown on the owners' rooftops -- and the spinach ravioli showcases it well. Stuffed with fluffy ricotta, the ravioli, with its stripes of spinach dough, managed to be both light and substantial. The pollo rollatini was another success, with spinach and mozzarella carefully tucked into moist, tender chicken rolled into a dense and delicious cylindrical package.

Everything we ate was a success, actually, and Sac's can easily veer into excellence. We admit, though, that we sometimes wish there were more quirk at play. We'd love for them to surprise us with a wild choice on the menu, for the staff to show a bit more personality, for the Monday-night jazz trio to veer away from standards.

But asking for this would be like asking your grocery store to pipe in John Zorn instead of E.L.O. just to suit your taste: Unconventional is not what Sac's is after, nor should it be. A neighborhood place depends on reliability, not caprice. So we'll bask in Sac's success, marinara-dipped slice in hand, and be thankful.

Price: A little expensive relative to other Italian places for entrees and pies; slices are competitive with others.
Will we go again? It was our regular pizzeria before beginning this mission, and there's no reason to change that.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

At the Lost Table (Time Cafe, 44-18 Broadway)

Sometimes it happens: You become the Lost Table. You don't get menus; you don't get water; your beverage order isn't taken. Patrons who came in after you are served promptly while you languish, forgotten. Surrounding tables get water and coffee refills while you stare into space, dehydrated, wondering what you did to piss everybody off. Does the waiter not know you're there? Did the hostess neglect to inform the staff of your presence? Does every server assume another staffer is responsible for you? Whatever the reason for the neglect, once you're finally noticed, your server realizes she has no incentive to rectify the wrongs already perpetrated. In her mind, the tip cannot be salvaged, so she continues to ignore you, giving her attention to the Favored Tables.

At Time Cafe, we were the Lost Table. We went in for brunch, expecting a pleasant experience, based on this errant post from the usually reliable Joey in Astoria. The smooth jazz -- playing not over the radio but through a digital cable music-on-demand channel -- was the first sign of trouble, but we persevered. And waited.

And waited.

We're easy customers. Actually, on the walk over to Time Cafe, one of us mused aloud whether we were too easily pleased -- of all the restaurants we've visited on our mission to eat at every restaurant in Astoria, there's only one we've given a blatant thumbs-down (El Olivo). Were we not discriminating enough? Were we passive diners, willing to excuse lackadaisical service and mediocre food to allow for a cheerful experience? Are we too pleasant for our own good?

At Time Cafe, our easygoing disposition was exposed for the liability it can be. We continued to be ignored while the tables around us were getting the mini-muffins promised on the brunch menu (not that we found out about this perk until later -- it took 15 minutes for us to get menus, which only happened after we flagged down the waitress). But codependent diners that we were, rather than get indignant, we wondered what we had done to deserve this.

When we finally did order, it took an unreasonable amount of time for the food to arrive -- by this time we were resigned to our fate -- and when it did come it was clear it had been sitting a while under the heat lamp. The mushroom-pepper-fontina frittata was serviceable, in the way that anything coated with a layer of cheese would be. But the only thing scrambled in the sausage and egg "skillet scramble" was a wasteful pile of at least a half-dozen eggs, served alongside three brown-and-serve sausage links. And nary a mini-muffin in sight.

Time Cafe helped us break the cycle: At just the point when we wondered if our enjoyable dining experiences in Astoria were authentic, Time Cafe stepped in to show us that it's not us, it's them. We entered this relationship with the restaurants of Astoria not out of a desire to inhale food mindlessly, but because, by and large, our local establishments are pretty good.

Time Cafe is not.

Price: Can't put a price tag on awful.
Will we go again? Answering this dignifies the question.

Among the Autopaparazzi (Koliba, 31-11 23rd Avenue)

We had all but given up. We were actually walking away from the restaurant down 23rd Avenue when we heard the stern Germanic voice of the hostess call out to us: "You, you." She had run out into the cold February night to retrieve us. "You want to eat." It was more a command than a question, and we felt that we had no choice but to go back inside, even though it was crowded and chaotic in the Czech restaurant and, given our problems with the service in the past (they can be slow to get to the non-Czechs and non-Slovaks), we had no reason to expect we'd ever be waited on once we were seated.

We were glad we went back in though. Yes, Koliba, which features a vaguely chalet-like décor that's highly suitable for wintry nights, was packed full, with a curious mix of Eastern European locals -- the sort who were glued to the hockey game on the TV -- and a rowdy bunch of autopaparazzi theatricals gathered for a birthday party, who took more pictures of themselves that evening than we had on a weeklong vacation by an exponential margin. And we were seated mere centimeters away at a two-top next to a group of out-of-towners, two couples who seemed very Long Islandish. During one rare lull in the hullaballoo inside, one man asked the other, "So how's the car running?"

None of this spoiled what turned out to be an excellent, extremely filling meal. Quickly, we were brought drinks -- Czech beers on tap; Krušovice, BrouCzech. When we asked our waitress what she recommended among the entrees, she looked puzzled and said, "It is all good." We have a general policy of asking servers this question and have found that generalized answers ("It's all good," "Depends on what you like," or simply reciting half the menu) yield lesser meals than places when the server has a ready answer. But this wasn't the case here. We could tell she honestly didn't get why we'd bother asking when everything they had was delicious.

After some coaxing, she finally made some specific suggestions: the roast duck on a bed of red cabbage, plus pork schnitzel with potato-pancake batter. The duck was flavorful and incredibly moist and tender without being too fatty, as duck can be. Neither of us are fans of cabbage, but we still managed to down most of the mound piled on the plate -- no idea what they did to make it taste good, but it worked. Our schnitzel was as hearty as one would expect, but more important, it was done right. Schnitzel in this country can easily be disappointing, relying on the fail-safe of frying to make it taste good. Koliba's version was done with knowledgeable care. Both entrees were accompanied by knedliky, the quintessentially Czech sponge-bread dumplings. (For those eager to play at home, advertised in the foyer was a factory in Chicago from which one could order knedliky. "This is for everyone. Do not remove" was handwritten across the ad, which was printed off of a website.)

Koliba is more than a match for its cross-neighborhood rival, Zlata Praha. Rumor has it that Koliba was formed by a rogue breakaway chef from Zlata Praha, sort of the way Roger Williams founded Rhode Island after being exiled from the Massachusetts colony. The restaurants offer rival venison feasts in early February; sadly we missed them at both venues.

We dined with a miniature sheepskin rug hanging at eye level next to our table, and the ersatz brauhaus roof over the bar was littered with an array of giant stuffed Easter bunnies. Frankly, we're suckers for a eccentric ambiance, and the bunnies alone would have been enough to bring us back. But what we especially appreciated about Koliba was that this sort of thing wasn't odd at all to the its regulars, and this lent the restaurant a quaint familiarity even to those of us who are clearly outsiders. Koliba's patrons come for the food. And so will we.

Price:Between $15 and $20 for entrees.
Will we go again? We're already looking forward to the dueling Venison Fest with Zlata Praha. Otherwise, for deep comfort-food needs only.