Saturday, February 28, 2009

Panino (Il Bambino; 34-08 31st Avenue)

If you're trying to convince friends from Brooklyn to move to Astoria, you would probably want to take them to Il Bambino. It's as unmistakable a sign of gentrification as you could possibly want. On a quiet, well-shaded block, it sits near a bevy of the sorts of places young bourgeois urbanites like: a vintage store, a tea shop, a wine bar, authentic-seeming upscalish ethnic restaurants and the like. Every time we've stopped there for lunch, there are white couples with babies. And its menu is made up of mainly panini, featuring a host of foodie-friendly ingredients: truffle oil, prosciutto di parma, baby arugula, sweet onion marmalade, that sort of thing. And it's delicious, too.

Despite being relatively new to the neighborhood, Il Bambino has cultivated a rustic gentility; thanks to the old furniture and somewhat rickety two-tops in the dining area, it has a faux antique feel. Painted on the wall across from the dessert case up front (Il Bambino is known for its cupcakes as well as its panini) is a giant cross-section of a pig with the cuts of meat annotated in Italian, as if the restaurant were a converted old-time butcher shop. (It's actually the old location of Martha's Country Bakery, now on Ditmars. Clearly the spot has cupcake mojo.)

We can't point to anything on the menu as being particularly outstanding, because it's all been good. The crostini take more culinary risks than the oversized panini, but with excellent results (we particularly like the crostini with truffle egg salad), and any of the panini are sure to please -- pick what you like and trust that it'll be made right. The aforementioned cupcakes are also tasty, but are so enormous as to appear clownish. Nobody really needs a cupcake with a whole Oreo on top -- but if you want it, they've got it.

Part of us wants to protest the Brooklynification of Astoria and make a principle of scorning such places at Il Bambino. But using Il Bambino as an example would make us mere curmudgeons instead of armchair watchdogs of there-goes-the-neighborhood (especially when there are restaurants listing the sound designer in the entryway, though that's less Brooklynification than just plain weird). If we can have restaurants like this nearby without the high rents or the douchey hipsters, then we are benefiting on all fronts.

Price: Extremely affordable given the consistent quality

Will we go again: Absolutely. But it seems an afternoon sort of place, though they do now have alcohol

Friday, February 27, 2009

Out in Astoria (Viva El Mariachi; 33-11 Broadway)

The Mexican restaurants along Broadway in Astoria aren’t going to win any awards for ambiance. Garishly lit, indifferently decorated, and resolutely utilitarian, they won’t transport you out of your everyday life -- even if mariachi music is playing, and even if the name of the particular restaurant you are in suggests that the place exists to celebrate such music.

But there wasn't much music happening when we visited Viva El Mariachi, just a few desultory songs from a jukebox. The restaurant's name is utterly arbitrary as far as we could tell. There was, however, a lot of energy in the restaurant, as it had been recruited to serve as the somewhat unlikely host to an Out Astoria meet-up, which was just beginning to break up when we arrived. That it would be chosen for such an event is a testimony to its perfectly nondescript nature -- the restaurant is the lair of no particular group of regulars so far as we could tell, and so it’s open to be claimed by anyone for an hour -- but no more. There are about a dozen tables, some of which are on an elevated platform behind a wooden railing. We're not sure of the purpose of this barrier arrangement -- it seems to make service a bit more awkward than it need be (and created sight lines to nothing in particular).

We ordered tacos and a steak special. The tacos were a touch better than the ones procurable at the El Rey del Taco cart on 30th Avenue, which is no small feat. They came on a plate with limes and radishes, which makes for a more pleasant dining experience than jamming them down from out of a piece of aluminum foil as you walk home from the subway. (We're eager for the taco truck's storefront to open, however.)

The special, a paillard of steak sautéed with a flavorful jalapeno sauce, tangy crema, and nachos (yes, nachos) was delicious. The sharp zest of the sauce and accompanying limes collide with the steak, which managed to stay juicy despite its thinness; the crema kept the mix from overwhelming. We've never heard of sautéing nachos, and it's probably a candidate for This is Why You're Fat, but hell, it worked. It was also enormous, serving as lunch and dinner the next day.

Assuming fresh ingredients are being used, this sort of simple, straightforward Mexican food is somewhat difficult for professionals to get horribly wrong -- not that other restaurants don’t manage to mess it up (see Taco Fresco, which happily falls outside of our rules for eating at every restaurant in Astoria). That also means it's equally hard to make it truly outstanding. But "outstanding" is not really a reasonable expectation for the utilitarian Viva El Mariachi. Instead it exudes a basic reliability that is far too easy to take for granted; it can make you delighted and satisfied with a meal even when you haven't psyched yourself up for something spectacular.

Price: $20 for the whole meal, including bottled sodas and tip
Will we go again? It's in our top Mexican choices -- absolutely

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Eep Op Ork Ah Ah (S'Agapo; 34-21 34th Avenue)

Astoria's touches of glamour (Cavo aside, of course) are clustered around the film business -- location shoots, Kaufman studios, and the restaurants that serve the casts and crews down around 34th Avenue. With its proximity to the studios, S'Agapo is rumored to have quietly hosted the occasional celebrity. On our way there, we even passed through an on-location shoot for Life on Mars, a film which we know nothing about other than it seemed to require a lot of early 1970s autos.

In keeping with its subdued atmosphere, you're not going to find autographed photos of Robert DeNiro on S'Agapo's walls; you will, however, find a solid institution that has served as a template for the better grade of Astoria Greek restaurants.

It's not that the food at S'Agapo is so outstanding (the entrees are the usual grilled fish and lemon potatoes sort of deal). It's that you know the kitchen is doing things right, with a demure touch reminiscent of Agnanti, its closest kin. You can watch the cooks going about their business from most of the dining room if you wanted to, but the point is that you don't feel like you have to.

If, in warm weather, you have a chance to dine outside on the patio on S'Agapo's quiet stretch of 34th Avenue, you'll get a sense of why so many expats in the neighborhood thrive on sidewalk dining (though why anyone would sit outside at Athens Cafe when a 15-minute walk here brings a vastly more pleasant experience, we're not sure). S'Agapo's relatively small size -- relative to cavernous places like Telly's Taverna -- makes it feel more intimate than it might otherwise, and the mix of antique photographs and abstract on the art on the walls lend a note of what passes for quirk in an often characterless species of restaurant.

Try the kaltsounia, a fried dumpling with a soft farmer's cheese and mint, served with a small bowl of honey for dipping. The taramousalata is zesty-delicious as well. In general, you're best served at S'Agapo asking for the server's guidance on a variety of small dishes than going straight for the entrees -- the meats, fish, and stews are all trustworthy, but none that we've had are a must-have. While the appetizers we tried had a character of their own, the main dishes were a tad perfunctory.

Lamb, check. Fish, check. Now let's get back to the good stuff.

We've seen groups and families here enjoying full-table banquets, plates lining every available surface and retsina freely flowing. But on the Saturday night we went, the tables were full of couples, and though it wasn't Valentine's Day, the staff had embraced the red-heart theme without overdoing it. The lighting at S'Agapo can be harsh, though on the night we visited it seemed that they've learned to tone it down, with dim overheads and tabletop votives warming up the atmosphere. We hope the change is permanent, as it better suits S'Agapo's titular romantic mission -- after all, S'Agapo is Greek for I love you.

Price: Like most Greek restaurants, it seems unduly pricey.
Will we go again: Probably. It's the class of the old-school places.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Thai Life (Zabb Thai; 34-11 30th Avenue)

In Michelin's 2008 guide to New York City, you will find an entry for Zabb Queens -- a restaurant with "fantastic Thai food," a place known for "showcasing the cuisine of the Isaan region." You should not make the mistake of confusing that restaurant, which is in Jackson Heights, with Zabb Thai, a garden-variety Thai joint that has taken up residence in the former home of Thai Angel and may in fact still be Thai Angel, only renamed to seize upon the other Zabb's notoriety.

Maybe it's a snobbery born of having truly outstanding Thai restaurants nearby in Woodside and Jackson Heights that leaves us underwhlemed with the likes of Zabb Thai. Zabb Thai's success, such as it is, seems to have less to do with the food it serves but with its tasteful decor. It's dimly lit but not so dark that you need a flashlight for the menu. A leather banquette runs along one wall, and in back is a well-stuffed leather couch (purpose: unknown). There are bas reliefs of elephant-headed, multilimbed gods on gray, stucco walls, and one wall of exposed, faux-unfinished stonework. Also, toward the hostess stand in the back, are several shelves of flowers in jars full of lava-lamp goo illuminated with blue-, green- and red-colored lights. As arbitrary as that is for ornament, it looks less weird that it probably sounds. On the night we visited the music seemed a bit incongruous -- loud teen pop that made it difficult to talk. It seemed more appropriate for Charlotte Russe than a restaurant. But on the whole, judging from surface appearances alone, we could convince ourselves we weren't doing something mediocre by eating there.

As a consequence, Zabb Thai seems reasonably busy most nights, which grans diners an additional level of self-protection: You'll never go in there and be spooked by being the only customer. You won't have to ask youselves: What's wrong with us that we're eating here?

The food, however, was not memorable. A tofu-taro appetizer was hot and pleasingly greasy, but no particular flavor broke through. We felt we had to order the Pad Prik Sod because it was listed on the menu twice.

We figured that meant they really wanted us to order it, but it turned out to be a bit underwhelming. As you can see below, there's just not much excitement to it: just big pieces of onion and pepper.

Our other entree, tentatively recommended by our very reluctant waitress, was fried chicken nuggets in what was supposed to be a spicy sauce.

It turned out that this was hardly spicy at all, but seemed instead vaguely dumbed down for less adventuresome palates.

But then, Zabb Thai is not about adventure. It's instead catering to a certain New York City lifestyle that involves eating out almost every night and requires that there be ethnic restaurants with vaguely chic decor that are nonetheless convenient, familiar, and affordable. We, however, like Thai food enough to avoid making it a lifestyle accoutrement.

As you can see in the menu picture above, it's reasonable.
Will we go again: Not with Sri Pra Phai nearby.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Gyros That Wouldn't Grow Up (Pita Pan; 37-15 30th Avenue)

Fast food generally falls outside of the purview of this blog. Chain restaurants are excluded from our mighty call to eat at every restaurant in Astoria, and while that saves us from the monstrous Applebee's on 35th Avenue, most of the Astoria locations we're skipping are the McDonald's and Wendy's of the neighborhood. There's plenty of food that's fast in the hood -- counter-order taquerias, shawarma stands, gyro joints -- but "fast food"? We'd rather not.

Enter Pita Pan. Like Petey's Burger, this gyro/wrap/pizza/smoothie restaurant has franchise aspirations and an ambiance consciously styled to feel evoke the fast food behemoths -- logos, bright colors, efficient packaging, a crisp air of disposability. Unlike Petey's, nobody over the age of 20 would actively choose to spend more than two minutes in the place -- and nobody who had ever tasted another gyro, ever, would return.

Admittedly, in Pita Pan, we were strangers in a strange land. We're accustomed to the peculiarities of the New York labor market, which typically dictate that the people who serve us our food are usually at least out of high school. But Pita Pan exists in a little adult-free pocket of the neighborhood: When our orders were taken by a herd of chirpy teenagers, we quietly surveyed the clientele and realized we were the oldest customers by at least a decade. (We're adults, yes, but not so old that we've shunned Never-Neverland.) The table of sullen teenage boys next to us slurped Cokes (lukewarm, from the malfunctioning open-face cooler, though when we asked for a cup of ice for our own soda, the request was granted with a smile and a cheerful apology) and meted out onion rings to one another, trying to stretch their allowance for the night. The ridiculously loud music -- which continually stopped mid-song, only to switch to another blaring Hot 97-style aria -- didn't help settle us in. Nor did the bright-orange/kelly-green color combo, seemingly designed to repel us as quickly as possible.

But clearly the minds behind Pita Pan think they've found their lucky ticket. A trio of TV screens embedded in the wall beside the front counter repeatedly flashed "Franchise Opportunity!" graphics over images of the store front (though they often showed pictures of the old gray location next door, now notable for its rat poison warnings). They've invested in a computerized cash register with all sorts of buttons for the various toppings and combinations one could get on their gyro, wrap, salad, or pizza -- insurance for picky eaters who shudder at the thought of white goop soiling perfectly good meat and like to see their preferences confirmed on an order ticket. But all the gimcrackery didn't seem to speed up the food-delivery process, as it took much longer than it should have for us to get our meal, which was brought to us by yet another teen, this one gangly and diffident.

It's not that the food at Pita Pan is rotten; it's that there's no reason for it to exist. Pita Pan would make sense in the food court of suburban malls, places where "tzatziki" would be clearly defined on the menu or absent altogether, listed only as "special Pita Pan sauce" (though Astoria's Pita Pan actually already has a Pita Pan sauce -- an inexplicable ketchup-mayo mixture). Instead, the restaurant is in the center of a neighborhood that harbors the largest Greek community outside of Greece and Cyprus. Do you see Taco Bells in Mexico? Do you see Sbarro's in Italy? Do you see McDonald's in -- never mind. Pita Pan's gyro costs $3, less than you'd pay at someplace like Zorba's, but it's less than half the size, and with a fraction of the taste. The joint benefits from the inherent goodness of shaved lamb thrust inside toasty pitas -- how do you make that not good?

Pita Pan is always busy when we pass by, and the counter was doing a brisk (seemingly endless, even) takeout business while we ate. But we can't be totally alone in our distaste for the place -- everybody there, even the lingering teenagers, ate with their coats on, perhaps unwilling to admit to themselves that they'd found their activity for the night. Unlike other places in Astoria that we concede are good but just not our style, we can't concede to give Pita Pan the same pass.

Price: It's cheap, we'll give it that.
Will we go again? Only if Captain Hook threatens us with a plank-walk.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Za'atars in Our Eyes (Mombar; 25-22 Steinway Street)

The elaborate exterior of Mombar, a tiny Egyptian restaurant set amid the hookah smoke on Steinway Street, would probably seem annoying if it were a concept calculated to allure adventure diners. You're greeted by a giant eye, classically kohl-rimmed; a vaguely cannabis-shaped design over the entrance; a series of tiny geometric windows, a nod to Islamic architecture, and a snaking path of mosaic work. The homely, eclectic design, which is taken even further inside, is clearly not a marketing approach but an artistic commitment, with none of the pretense usually associated with such commitment. Instead, creativity seems casual, natural, inevitable. Why not decoupage all the tables and hang children's drawings on the walls alongside your own paintings? Why not embed teacups in the wall?

As much a folk artist as a restaurateur, Moustafa El Sayed, the proprietor and chef, has turned Mombar's space into an unconventional yet entirely comfortable place to take in a leisurely meal. Pleasingly ramshackle and seemingly ad hoc, the kitchen's set-up is as far from the common conception of a professional kitchen as can be imagined. Befitting the artist's-studio vibe, the kitchen is in open view, as is the refrigerator -- a fridge that looks more like the one you have at home than the industrial coolers in most restaurants -- which sits in the corner and naturally has drawings stuck on it with magnets. Ingredients and utensils seem to be scattered about in weathered and possibly homemade cabinets with dozens of card-catalog-style drawers, an organizational scheme as idiosyncratic and imbued with artistic vision as anything else in Mombar -- and one that probably makes it virtually impossible for anyone but El Sayed to cook there.

The close dining quarters -- a few freestanding tables, some of which are aligned in front of a banquette that runs the length of the wall -- and the controlled chaos of the décor make it feel genuinely cozy, as does the slightly garrulous maitre d'-waiter, who was entirely at ease in discussing the menu and making recommendations. Clearly confident in the uniqueness of the Mombar experience, he could be exuberantly attentive without being oppressive. He managed to maintain a conversation with a neighboring table of Armenians about the similarities between various Middle Eastern cuisines without ever seeming to disrupt them. His warmth made us all feel a little like we were guests at a quirky cosmopolitan dinner party.

None of which is to say that the food was not of professional quality. It is, and it's the sort of meal that makes you wonder when "tastes like homemade" became less of a compliment than "tastes just like what I bought the other day." The waiter started us off with pleasantly oily squares of Egyptian bread -- think what phyllo squares would be like if slightly leavened and more moist -- and a dish of za'atar, an oil-sesame-herb mix that he poured from a pitcher. It was so good that the first thing we did upon returning home was Google "how to make za'atar," despite our stretched, groaning bellies. Our fava bean appetizer was tasty enough to please even the anti-fava-bean half of our duo, thanks to the caramelized onions resting atop the putty-colored mixture.

When our waiter was helping us order, he asked if we liked lamb. "We have lamb tajine, lamb chops, lamb shank, and lamb stuffed with more lamb." (As if there were a choice for the lamb lover.) We chose the lamb and beef mixed together inside lamb chops and topped with a spinach-chickpea mix, and a rabbit tajine. The lamb special was satisfying -- it's hard to mess up lamb chops, especially when you put them inside more lamb -- but didn't live up to the glorious, gluttonous description.

It would have, if it had the complexity of the rabbit dish, which was served still-bubbling in the clay tajine pot it was cooked in.

Plump sultanas and vegetables soaked up the juices from the rabbit, and every bite offered the delicate balance of sweet and savory that such a dish promises. The pyramid of fruit-studded couscous served alongside each entree was nifty, if unnecessary in such a casual setting. We finished with Egyptian-style dessert: date-walnut baklava and a thick sludge of cardamom-spiced coffee.

It's impossible not to treat this as a destination restaurant since it's so one-of-a-kind. But an evening spent there feels so comfortable, so natural, that you want it to be a regular hangout. It's not, though, which makes us wonder what sort of spot we would fashion into "our place," if not a place with Mombar's qualities. We might be too on-the-go, too fascinated with the restaurant's exotic qualities to leisurely spend every Friday night at Mombar. That's our loss.

Price: Entrees average around $19. It's not a bargain, but it's worth the money.
Will we go again? Yes, if not as frequently as we should.