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.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Our Life in Bacon (La Vita Mia, 28-01 24th Avenue)

Bacon makes everything better. We made bacon baklava last year in an effort (successful, we'll add) to prove this hypothesis, and we are now at work on an ice cream involving bacon (a fellow Astorian, Ice Cream Erik, has cornered the market on sausage ice cream). Given this, we're not sure why bacon pizza is not on more pizzeria menus. It's bacon! It's pizza! You can't go wrong!

La Vita Mia ("My Life"), a typical neighborhood place on 24th Avenue, has recognized the bacon hypothesis, offering a pizza topped with strips of bacon and believing in it enough to sell it by the slice. We can't say whether it's better than any other bacon pizza in the neighborhood, as this was our first foray into the territory, but it was tasty and seemed like second nature. Maybe we're tickled because this was our first (of dozens? hundreds?) of pizzerias on our mission; perhaps we'll be yawning over bacon pizza come June. But for now, the offerings! Chicken Cheddarella! Philly Cheese Steak! The Vita Mia Special, featuring no chicken, bacon, or basil! Choose you are crust!

Unfortunately, we didn't get to sample La Vita Mia's signature slice, the Grandma, with fresh mozzarella, garlic, and organic tomato sauce ("organic" is in red type on the menu), as they had already sold out. We're guessing that the name of this pizza is not some clever marketing ploy -- La Vita Mia, which is as utilitarian as pizzerias come, didn't seem especially cognizant of such things -- but is actually named for someone's grandmother, who probably suggested the recipe.

Left to choose from the more quotidian slices, we found that the pepperoni and plain Sicilian were passable, aided by the rack of condiments thoughtfully supplied at every table. The slices had clearly been sitting for a while, but apparently if you want fresh ones after 8:30 in Astoria, you better order a whole pie.

It's not "our life", we know, but we can't help but think that this is mistake, as is closing so early. (La Vita Mia closes at 10 during the week.) The pizzeria is missing out on serious drunk traffic from the beer garden down the street, which stops serving food early, leaving patrons with a belly full of beer and nothing greasy to sop it up with. (The winner in this scenario is the Neptune diner, which is open 24 hours and attracts a decent amount of stumblers from Bohemian Hall.) We're no businesspeople, but it seems it would be a winning proposition for all involved were they to extend their hours a bit.

The staff gives the impression that they wouldn't mind dealing with a rowdy, beery bunch, either: The main counterman dealt with our queries about the absent Grandma slice with matter-of-fact bemusement, spinning paper plates for the slices we ended up having with panache and offering chocolate wafers for a bag to the (curiously) large number of assorted co-workers coming through the door. At one point, they shared a laugh with a regular customer, who they claimed was "always stoned." (Admittedly, he was wearing sunglasses, it was dark outside, and he wasn't Corey Hart.)

Don't get us wrong: La Vita Mia isn't spectacular in any area, and the slices are only what you'd expect (save the bacon! always the bacon!). But it's a handy beer garden soak-up if you finish (or begin) your drinking early enough, and there's enough quirk to make us regard it with fondness.

Price: It's pizza.
Will we go again? Yes, but mostly because the next closest food option to the Beer Garden is Number One Chinese Restaurant.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

For the Love of Fish (Tokyo, 31-05 24th Avenue)

We once ate at a vegan place in the East Village that had the best veggie burger ever. The ingredients didn't seem to be unusual, nor was the presentation -- there was something else going on that we couldn't identify. We asked the waiter what made the veggie burger so good.

"Love," he said. "If a cook comes to work angry, we send the cook home. The energy goes into the food -- food made with love tastes like love." Then he asked us if we'd like to "come upstairs for the service," and when we realized we were in a Hare Krishna den, we rama-ramaed outta there. But the lesson stuck: In our own home, we take care to prepare food with love (or at least not anger), and when a restaurant appears to do the same, we notice.

Tokyo, with its red-sheathed paper lanterns quietly heralding its location on the other side of the tracks from the Beer Garden, made us take this sort of notice. Its interior is that of a surprisingly old-school sushi restaurant -- surprising because we sort of assumed that pretty much every sushi restaurant in Astoria came about with the turn-of-the-millennium influx of Japanese students residing here. The worn posters of the Japanese landscape, the faded laminated sheets offering photos of what the different types of sushi are, the exceedingly polite waitstaff -- such things point to a restaurant that simultaneously needed to educate as much as appeal in order to survive.

Tokyo might never approach the technical levels of sushi mastery demanded at Manhattan restaurants that treat sushi as a competitive sport. Even in Astoria, Tokyo might take a technical-points silver to JJ's or Bistro 33, the latter of which boasts a minor brand-name chef. But -- jai guru dev om, everybody -- you can taste the love at Tokyo.

Which is not to say that its offerings are subpar on a technical level: They're not. The standard sushi offerings are all prepared well, but the house specials, the best of which are on the placards at every table instead of on the menu, are where the restaurant really shines (try the Jimmy roll, trust us). Even the warm sushi rolls, never our favorite, go down easy. What makes the sushi special is not the it's-swimming-in-my-mouth standard that seems to be prized by sushi lovers. It's Tokyo's creativity, care, and gentility that sets the restaurant apart.

And, yes, the love. One of us was to meet a friend for dinner once, and confusion about what "my sushi place" versus "your sushi place" (then the dearly departed Shima on Broadway) ensued. Our friend ran from Broadway to 24th Avenue in the February chill to meet us, arriving drenched in cold-weather sweat. Wordlessly, the waiter brought over a warm, damp washcloth for him to wipe his brow. It was a small gesture, but one that leaves a lasting impression.

Price In line with sushi; special rolls about $8.
Would we go again? Happily. We've never thought of sushi as comfort food until now.

Under Ditmars (Frankie's Pizza; 22-56 31st Street)

The location of this pizzeria is not the most opportune. It's right between the stairwells coming down from the Ditmars Boulevard station platform, so if you're getting off at that stop, it's never on your way, despite being right there. And something in the mind rebels at the notion of eating right there, where the elevated tracks assure the sun can't shine, where so many trains are idling, where so many transients congregate.

That being said, once you are inside Frankie's, you enter a different time -- the early 1960s perhaps. You are back in that era when tables equipped with bright orange bucket-style seats instead of benches -- that dining-room innovation specific to the fast-food-restaurant revolution that post-war suburbia engendered -- seemed somehow of the future rather than simply inconvenient. Frankie's is very much of that period and hasn't been substantially remodeled since, though in the past year, they did expand their counter into a L-shape that now extends toward the front entrance. This was not warranted by their having more goods to display; perhaps it's meant to make the space more inviting. If that's so, they might also consider taking the "Absolutely no outside food and drink" sign down. Not only does the bluster seem petty and off-putting, they don't even try to enforce it. We came in for a couple slices after a run carrying a few water bottles we bought at the deli, and no one at Frankie's said a word about it.

As for the pizza, we can say with confidence that we prefer it to Pizza Palace, which is up the street, and Alba's, which is nearby. But it bears no comparison with the neighborhood's finest.

Price: Average for a pizzeria.
Will we go again? Probably, but not from any special desire to return.