Monday, July 14, 2008

The Mystery of Merguez (Little Morocco; 24-39 Steinway Street)

We hadn't taken much notice of this takeout counter at the north end of the hookah-smoking district of Astoria until recently, probably because it has no indoor seating and therefore doesn't meet our ground rules. But come summer, they set up ad hoc outdoor seating (plastic tables and chairs), put in place a maître' d/waiter (a genial teenage boy with a questionable grasp of English), and re-create themselves as a sit-down restaurant.

Further piquing our interest in Little Morocco was its sign proclaiming that the New York Times had declared that the place has the best merguez sandwich in the city. It didn't matter that neither of us knew what merguez was. We had to try it. So on a Saturday night we braved the shisha smoke and made a visit. We enjoyed a pot of Moroccan mint tea, calmly deflected the stares of the gaggle of men sitting with us at the café out on the 25th Avenue sidewalk, and we waited in the cool summer evening to have the mystery of merguez solved for us.

We ordered the merguez platter, which came with salad and rice (rather than couscous, which might make more sense), and the sandwich, which was basically the platter, minus the rice, served on a soft Italian roll. It turns out that merguez is a kind of long, skinny sausage, not all that unlike the cevapi served at the Balkan places, but spiced somewhat differently and with a more granular mouth feel. Instead of ajvar to dress it, there is harissa, an unbelievably delicious hot sauce. According to the Times article, both the merguez and the harissa are made fresh on the premises by the chef-owner, who was born in Casablanca and emigrated to America in 1985.

The merguez was nothing special until we got the harissa involved, which the teenager brought over almost as an afterthought. As far as we're concerned, the merguez is merely a pretense for the harissa, which would enliven any dish, though it does complement the sausage well. The platter wasn't worth the extra expense, and we probably would have gotten more out of the sandwich if it didn't come with the salad rolled into it, so you could opt to have the sandwich without, say, the salad dressing or cucumbers. But it was still satisfying and worth having again, and it left us wondering: Why don’t the halal-chicken stands around the neighborhood add merguez (and harissa!) to their repertoire?

Price: Under $10. Cheap.
Will we go again? Probably for takeout. But worth sitting down outside for the tea.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Conjuring a Neighborhood (Stove; 45-17 28th Avenue)

We didn't expect to find a restaurant like Stove back in the highly residential, mostly ignored part of Astoria -- east on 28th Avenue, out toward Boulevard Gardens. We went for brunch and found it surprisingly busy but not overwhelmingly so, and pleasingly peaceful. We were delighted; nothing can ruin brunch like noise or waiting. A few tables were occupied in the backyard garden, and a smattering of couples were inside with us among the sparsely decorated white walls and the white-linen-bedecked tables. Up front was a small fully-stocked bar, with a few beer taps and stools that seemed mostly for show (or for the staff when business is slow). The restaurant is somewhat narrow, no wider than the storefront, and it can get a little cramped at the two-tops along the right side, where we were seated, especially considering how big the plates were when they were brought out. There was barely room to lift up our coffee cups from the saucers amid the toast basket and the juice glasses and the side plates and the entree plates. We did, however, like that that the table was set with a spreader utensil along with knife and fork.

The offerings on the set brunch menu were the usual suspects -- Eggs Benedict, omelets, et cetera -- along with some vaguely Irish-pub-themed options. The dinner menu, too, is partially publike, though the interior design of Stove seems purposely contrived to negate the suspicion that the restaurant might be a pub in disguise. It's spare, with vaguely Japanese ink drawings framed and hanging on the wall. The music, on Sunday morning at least, is a nonstop stream of 1960s pop hits -- "Lazy Day," "Summer in the City," "Groovin'," etc. The contrast between the setting and the menu's eclecticism has the happy effect of annulling any potential pretentiousness; it seems like the chef is just making what he or she feels like making.

We bypassed the shepherd's pie and went for corned beef hash and eggs, poached eggs royale, and a chicken Caesar salad. The serving of corned beef hash was ample to the point of absurdity but had us wishing we could actually finish it. The poached eggs royale (smoked salmon makes it royale, apparently) perhaps fit best with the ethos of the restaurant: prepared simply and cleanly, but with solid character and a deft touch. The same was true of the chicken Caesar salad, though it was the most generic of all the dishes we tried.

The restaurant is entirely out of character with what one might think is happening in Queens neighborhoods, especially away from the subway line. We have a hard time imagining who its patrons are, despite being among them. It would make no impact in a well-off corner of gentrified Brooklyn, but here it seems a radical innovation, almost unthinkable -- a place confident enough in its approach to refrain from selling it too hard, as so many of the would-be scene-y, date-y places in Astoria do. (The place's website, though, is a different story.) Still, Stove seems to exist to serve the neighborhood, not perhaps as it is but as it should be, full of the sort of people who appreciate basic food, well-prepared and served in a quietly dignified atmosphere. Rather than try to compete for the attention reserved for flashier bistros in more accessible locales, the restaurant adheres to a palpable, near impossible modesty. If only Stove could succeed in calling into being a neighborhood in its own image.

Price: Under $20 for entrees; brunch is about $12 per person.
Will we go again? Totally. We plan on becoming regulars.