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.