Tuesday, April 29, 2008

More Sitting (Bangla Garden; 29-14 36th Avenue)

We were surprised to discover that this cabbie pit stop, an Indian buffet in the Little Dhaka section of Astoria on 36th Avenue, has a website. The photo is somewhat misleading: the bunch of dudes lounging at a table, looking as though they are in no particular hurry, with the TV playing the Bengali station from Canada in the background (it featured peaceful chanting and singing while we ate), seems very representative. The two women superimposed in the corners -- not so much. And it was not exactly what we would call a "party hall," though we did not investigate the basement. (A sign pointed down a narrow, precipitous stairway: "More Sitting.")

When we arrived at Bangla Garden, it was hardly a party. In fact the restaurant was hardly populated at all, and no one seemed to be working there. Eventually we had to take the initiative to just grab a plate and start piling on food from the buffet urns, which were lined up along the front window. (A man in a baseball cap, who had been sitting at a table watching the chanting, then quickly confirmed that we were doing the right thing, gesturing that we should help ourselves and sit anywhere.) On the buffet, the usual suspects were available: yellow dal, aloo saag, a mixture of green beans and okra, chicken tikka, what looked like chicken makhani, a lamb curry and a goat curry (Why is goat meat so bony? Goats have no more bones than sheep, right?). A side table also had some unappetizing salad (99 percent iceberg lettuce), what may have been rice pudding, and a pitcher of tea.

It didn't look especially appetizing, and it certainly wasn't Jackson Heights caliber, but it was quite good, when we finally settled in to eat. The spinach selections in particular were flavorful, though we wish the buffet had naan available to help us soak up the last of the sauces in the saag (and other) dishes. The most frequent complaint with Indian food is that it's oily and heavy; this was heavy enough to fill us up but skipped the layer of orange grease that came with our last order of Astoria Indian food.

For the apparent number of people from Bangladesh and India that now live in Astoria, you'd think that the neighborhood would boast better cuisine from the region -- and you would be wrong. Other place in the neighborhood are known to us as "the really bad place," "the place I will go to if pressed," etc. Bangla Garden is, if nothing else, a relief.

Price: Under $10 for all you can eat. You do the math.
Will we go again? It's among the only reasonable Indian food options in the hood. Do we have much of a choice?

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.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Mama Paparazzi (Paparazzi Cafe, 40-17 30th Avenue)

Paparazzi Cafe is case in point as to why we embarked on our mighty (dare we say noble?) mission to eat at every restaurant in Astoria. We've been conspicuously avoiding the many cafés lining 30th Avenue, expecting the wilted salads and half-hearted sandwiches meant only to stave off caffeine jitters that the denizens of these espresso hangouts undoubtedly acquire. And Paparazzi Cafe, from the outside, seemed to be the worst of the worst. It heralds itself with tacky plastic blue pop-out lettering. It's on the same block as another unpromising cafe, Vibe. It's called Paparazzi Cafe, as if you were supposed to pretend minor royalty or a Spears sister were going to wander in at any moment. We figured we'd go there for brunch (how hard is it to mess up eggs?) and cross it off the list. It couldn't be any worse than Time Cafe, right?

Once inside, we immediately knew we'd misjudged. For one, the menus read, "Paparazzi Cafe, soon to be Mama Salsa." The smiling waitress greeted us eagerly -- we were the only patrons in the place, as the other two people there were hanging out at the bar as employees waiting to go on shift frequently do -- and the brunch-time sunlight was streaming in, highlighting the geometric light on the walls and plants rooted in vases layered with what appeared to be seeds and beans. This wasn't a Greek frappe joint; this was a Colombian restaurant in a transition that we hope is less precarious than it appears.

The waitress quickly brought us two mugs of lightly frothed cafe con leche, then left us to peruse the menu. We were there for brunch, though it seems that Mama Salsa does a proper breakfast, and the dinner offerings were more extensive than the short but complete morning fare. In an effort to not meat-load as we did at Tierras Colombianas, one of us ordered the scrambled eggs with tomatoes and scallions; the other went for the full plato tipico of rice and beans, chorizo, and steak topped with the obligatory egg. Both were served with an arepa, which appeared to be formed by hand, topped with melted cheese.

And both were delicious. The red beans and rice seemed to have been prepared with a meaty stock of some sort and were seasoned with a spice melange that was unidentifiable but beautifully rounded, elevating the staple and making us wish more restaurants followed Mama's lead. The egg dish, which could have been carelessly prepared and still satisfied us, was fluffy without skimping on the veggies. The chorizo was spicy but heralded no gastronomic troubles, and when you get steak with breakfast for under $10, we're always delighted.

The improbability of the whole experience endeared the Paparazzi Cafe to us perhaps more than it would on the basis of the food alone, but the food alone certainly makes it worth a visit. Add in the absence of a crowd and a genuinely friendly service, and it becomes an excellent brunching option in a neighborhood full of them.

Price: It was a good deal.
Will we go again? We wish we could, but it's now closed, and the Mama Salsa renovation plan has given way to a French cafe.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Way to Blue (Blue Restaurant, 40-09 30th Avenue)

Since we started this project, we had been reluctant to try the Blue Restaurant (aka Blue Coffee Shop, if you go by its arrow-laden billboard on the corner of 30th Avenue and Steinway). The color blue isn't something we associate with food -- at least food that's not rotting. And most times when we've walked past, it seemed dismal inside, like the proprietors had lost hope in the notion that sprucing things up would make any difference. And we didn't believe for a second the sign in the window that claimed Blue Restaurant had "Largest selection of food in area."

But one morning, we ventured over to the Mini Star on Steinway for breakfast and it was packed. The elderly couple waiting for a table in front of us were looking at each other with dread and resignation. We knew what they were thinking, because we were thinking it too. Sure enough, we found ourselves trailing them over to Blue.

As you'd expect, much of the décor of Blue Restaurant is blue: blue walls, blue seat padding in the booths, blue plastic cups, blue-patterned plates. And it was pretty dismal: like a sad bachelor apartment that had been inhabited by the same lonely guy too long. The paint job was faded, there were splotches of spackle here and there, and the drop-ceiling tiles were still nicotine stained from the time you could smoke in restaurants. The decorations were also slightly off -- prominent were the posters of 1950s icons collaged together clumsily in generic scenes: Elvis, Marilyn, and Bogie carousing at the pool hall, for example. (What gives? Can someone's nostalgia really become so indiscriminate that they're content to lump all their memories together in one incoherent tableau?)

Most bizarre, though, was the flat-screen TV displaying a loop of digital photos of some of Blue Restaurant's offerings, randomly chosen and indifferently styled -- just plates of food photographed in bad, yellowy light: There's a gyro sandwich. There's a cheeseburger. There's some scrambled eggs. And there's a Cobb salad (Cabb Salad on the menu). The photos are weirdly mesmerizing though, and once the entire group had been cycled through, each image would then be tiled across the screen, as if to overwhelm you with their allure through sheer multiplication. You thought that tuna melt looked good? What about 32 tuna melts?

The menu, which was set entirely in Comic Sans, had some quirks; the Wraps sections featured nine options: Blue 1, Blue 2, Blue 3, etc. (Sadly, Blue 7 was not conceived as a tribute to Sonny Rollins.) But as we suspected, it was not the largest selection of food in the area. In fact, it was a lot like the selection available at any diner, but scaled back. Rumor has it that there is a secret "taco menu" available on request, and Blue's takeout menu suggests that the place also masquerades on certain occasions as a restaurant called Taqueria Mango. Why the secrecy? We can't even hazard a guess, nor have we decided if we will need to revisit Blue Restaurant in its Mexican guise.

But no matter how odd Blue Restaurant is -- and it is decidedly odd -- it remains an altogether suitable place to get breakfast. Service was prompt and friendly, and our (blue) coffee cups and (blue) water glasses were kept filled. The broccoli-bacon omelet was overcooked, but that's par for the course at any diner, barring ones that are more "eatery" than "diner." The over-easy eggs were prepared competently, the bacon crisp but not overdone, and the chunky, orangey home fries were adequate, cooked with onions, paprika, and maybe a hint of green pepper.

So there was nothing really to be afraid of, after all, which makes us wonder why Mini Star is always so crowded and Blue is consigned to its spillover. Maybe it really is all about location.

Price: Diner prices. Not as cheap as Mini Star.
Will we go again? It's not that we wouldn't. It's more, Why would we?

Paul Bunyano (Tierras Colombianas, 33-01 Broadway)

We thought we were hungry when we ventured to this Colombian restaurant late on a Saturday night, but then our food came. Keeping things simple, we ordered the first two entrees listed on the menu, the bandeja campesina (the country plate) and the bandeja montañera (the mountain plate). We were warned about the mountain plate's dried shredded beef -- not to be confused with a steak -- but we were undeterred.

For around $12 each, we got steak (shredded or solid) topped with a fried egg, rice, pinto beans, fried plantains, and a chicharrón, basically a huge hunk of fried pork -- think of it as a really thick piece of bacon, or a pork rind for Paul Bunyan. These were meals, no doubt about it, served with astounding promptness, as if they had a stack of grilled steaks in the back, waiting to be ordered. Maybe anyone with any sense who patronizes the place gets what we ordered, so it's always kept ready. (Or maybe it was because the place was about to close for the night, which we hadn't realized.)

Though everything we were brought was appetizing, there was no way we were eating it all, and hacking away at our mega-pork rinds, we wondered if overabundance was meant to be part of the experience. The shredded beef worked well, especially when the yolk spilled from the egg, binding the meat with the rice and beans in a delicious protein-packed mélange. The hammered steak of the country plate, though less exotic, was just as successful (and just as filling -- it came with an avocado wedge, which sadly went untouched in the midst of all the other food).

Tierras Colombianas tends to be mentioned by non-Astorians as being among the pantheon of neighborhood restaurants that are worth crossing the river for. And it is, don't get us wrong, but foodies seeking transporting cuisine may want to go elsewhere. The food is exactly as it should be, but don't come expecting perfect seasoning and tip-top preparation, or even the down-market ambiance that adventure eaters look for. It's not really a dive, not a place where you just sit and stuff your face, and it lacks much substance for sustaining a hearty Anglo ethnocentrism. ("My, isn't it quaint how these ethnic people eat? I believe I understand these Colombians now.") You sit yourself down at one of the pastel diner-like booths, you pick at that has come from the country and the mountain, you look around at the bustle -- whenever we've walked by, the patrons seem nearly manic with meaty delight, as opposed to stuporous after all that food -- and you eat, unadventurously but with earnest satisfaction.

Price: Cheap for what you get. Entrees are around $10.
Will we go again? We're still too full from last time, but could be persuaded.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Strip Mall Parmigiana (Porto Bello, 43-18 Ditmars Boulevard)

It likely would have taken us a lot longer to discover Porto Bello (the Pretty Door?) were it not for Leo, the diminutive Italian barber on 21st Avenue that one of us goes to now and then for a haircut. Leo has been practicing his trade in Astoria since well before either of us were born, back when the neighborhood was much more Italian than it is now. Figuring he'd be able to sort out which was the best of the many old-school Italian restaurants in the area, we asked him what his favorite Italian restaurant was. He recommended not one of the storied (and possibly mobbed up) places, but Porto Bello, a relatively new restaurant in the shopping center on Ditmars at 48th street.

It's not what we would have expected. Because it's in a strip mall and has a parking lot, Porto Bello is like something out of suburbia, the kind of run-of-the-mill pizza restaurant you'd find in any small town as a staple option. It would be easy to lump Porto Bello (Port-O-Bello on the shopping center's sign) in with those often-unimaginative places and expect mediocrity. Perhaps aware of this, though, it seems to work harder, making none of the little mistakes that can creep in when expectations are low.

Porto Bello is larger than you'd expect inside, and this helps make it seem like more than a glorified pizzeria. The uniformed waiters help too, though ours -- lumbering, bulky, and brusque, yet not at all incompetent -- seemed like a moonlighting high-school football player. We asked for recommendations, as usual, and he was a little too generous, naming so many different dishes that he may as well have used the time-honored cop-out and said, "They are all good."

But that said, everything we tried was good. How Porto Bello executed the typically humdrum chicken parmigiana was indicative. There was nothing adventurous about it; it was just well done. The dish was made not from a prebreaded cutlet but instead a chicken breast lightly coated with a fresh layer of peppery bread crumbs, supplying texture without giving the grease somewhere to collect when the meat was fried. Mozzarella cheese was not piled on indiscriminately, but was applied with a knowing artistry, to complement rather than overwhelm. The marinara sauce was rich and flavorful without being too acidic, sweet or lumpy. And the pasta was properly cooked; it wasn't limp or waterlogged, and the portion was not wasteful. All and all, an unimaginative plate of comfort food was made entirely respectable. Our pasta dish, the Rigatoni Fiorentina (Porto Bello's most popular entree), was similarly pleasing. Tender chicken, spinach, and mozzarella in a creamy pink sauce, much like a vodka sauce (we can't be sure if there was any Finlandia action happening backstage), was perfectly sweet-savory, and filling without being belly-achingly heavy.

With Astoria's depleted Italian contingent, it's easy to stick to the standbys: Trattoria l'Incontro, Piccolo Venezia, and the like. But Porto Bello shows that a restaurant doesn't have to have known the neighborhood way back when to get it right.

Price: Reasonable. Good value for quality.
Will we go again? Yes, and we'll feel smug the whole time that we're getting a good meal in a strip mall.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Mag Loading, Family Style (The Original Stamatis Restaurant, 29-12 23rd Avenue)

Where we grew up, family restaurant meant Perkins, Friendly's, Bob Evans. Parents could bring in the kids, there would be something on the menu for everyone, the tab would be reasonable, and the staff wouldn't blink twice when six-year-olds would slither under the table or toddlers would toddle into the aisles. (At least they kept their annoyance behind the swinging doors, rather.) But had we grown up Greek in Astoria, "family restaurant" would likely mean Stamatis.

Toddlers, six-year-olds, grandparents, birthdays, nonplussed staffers, big portions were all a part of Stamatis when we visited on a recent Friday night. (Note: The official name of this place is The Original Stamatis Restaurant; apparently it is not affiliated with the Stamatis on Broadway, and it may not meet a technical requirement for "original," as it recently relocated from across the street.) We didn't feel out of place at Stamatis as adults, and neither did we feel as though our waiter had more important things to tend to (e.g. six-year-olds). If anything, we felt, for this night at least, we were part of the scene, the backdrop to somebody or other's birthday dinner. We didn't belong to the celebration, but we felt like a part of the larger community simply by sharing the vast dining-hall-like space.

The food is dining-hall-like too, which is not to say it was bad, just plain and handled well. Staight-up Greek cuisine like you find in Astoria isn't especially known for delicacy or intricacy, and Stamatis isn't out to break the mold. We started with octopus, spurred by a Harold McGee piece detailing the difficulty of preparing this cephalopod without rendering it fibrous and rubbery. Stamatis accomplished this, though the octopus managed to be mealy instead, hopscotching from one undesireable texture to another. The saganaki was saganaki -- you can't really go that wrong with fried cheese -- in this case feta. The entrees fared better: The waiter suggested the lamb chops, and we happily ordered them with no regrets. Rich, moist, meaty -- what a chop should be, with just enough crispy fat around the edges to make them worth picking up with our hands. We were surprised by the complimentary honey-drenched semolina cakes, mealy in the right way this time and serving as a perfectly weighted sweet to a full dinner, putting us to bed for sweet dreams.

Which leads us to mag loading. We'd heard that ingesting large amounts of magnesium before bedtime leads to fantastically bizarre dreams. One of us had been having a disappointing streak of "administrative dreams" (checking in with coworkers on routine matters, computer problems, etc., with nary a matter-of-fact talking cat or ascendancy on a golden rope to the palace of the gods to be found), and the other rarely remembers any dreams at all, so we decided to give it a shot. Before going to Stamatis, we took the RDA for magnesium -- 400 mg -- then took another dose during the meal, one immediately following, and two more doses before retiring, so 2,000 mg in seven hours.

We'd been hoping for more intense dreams, ones that simultaneously entertain, illuminate, and elevate us to that plane of unguarded consciousness that only seems accessible in slumber. Instead, we both had flipbook dreams -- a series of moments without any narrative, not even one as incoherent as "and then John Oates and I went target-shooting for some reason...." For those who might want to try this at home, note that magnesium induces both deep relaxation (it's a good thing the host seated the two of us at a four-top, as at one point we were practically draped over the tables) and some digestive difficulties. So we're not going to blame them entirely on Stamatis, a restaurant that we probably won't dream about either.

Price: Like many Greek places, seems more expensive than it should be. Over $15 minimum for entrees.
Will we go again? The cruel irony of us undertaking this task is that neither of us really loves Greek food. Probably not. We have to go to the other restaurants named Stamatis.

Short Ordered (Tastee Corner, 30-20 30th Avenue)

Let's just acknowledge up-front that we hate cute spellings. We hate mad skillz, kountry korners, and anything kwik. Ye olde shoppes somehow fail to impress us as quaint or nostalgic. Grrrls gets a pass, barely, because it can sound onomatopoeically fierce if pronounced gutturally, but that's about it. So the Tastee Corner was handicapped from the get-go, but we do our best to not hold poor nomenclature against food and service.

The Tastee Corner -- it hurts just to type it -- doesn't have to do much more than be serviceable to meet the expectations of its diners, though, and it did just that. It's located just below the 30th Avenue subway stop, so it's a convenient spot both for eaters catching a bite before going into the city, and for those sitting by the window to people-watch. We were there at prime breakfast/brunch time -- noon on a Saturday -- so we weren't surprised by the crowd. But we also know that Astorian diners aren't hoodwinked into patronizing substandard places merely for convenience -- the rapid succession of shoddy restaurants occupying 30th Street and 30th Avenue, just a short block away from the same subway stop, points to this. (The new 7-11 in the spot put an end to the corner's dining mediocrity, ushering in its own particular brand of unwanted crap.)

Don't get us wrong: It's not that Tastee Corner is some sort of quiet treasure, whispered about by possessive locals as the best diner in Astoria. One of us ordered bacon, eggs over easy, and toast; the other got a tuna melt. The only remarkable thing about either was the harried attempt to dress up the tuna melt with a spring of parsley, which looked ridiculous on the barren plate too big for a mere sandwich.

But you don't go to the corner diner for anything other than bacon, eggs, and a tuna melt, so who cares? The service was efficient, our water glasses never went more than half-empty, and the bill was cheap. Combine that with enough staffers to keep morning-commute crowds ankle-deep in coffee without creating a long line, and you've got yourself a corner diner worthy enough of its name, even if it's spelled ridiculously.

Price: Like other diners.
Will we go again? No compelling reason to. But everyone's really friendly there.