Thursday, November 17, 2011

King of Falafel and Shawarma

Frankly, I was a little afraid to try the King of Falafel and Shawarma.

It wasn't so much the fear of street-cart food poisoning, or even the big piles of greasy, greasy meat on the grill. No, I was scared I would love the falafel so much that I'd get one every damn night. I have to pass the cart on my way home from the train, and it would be only too easy.

On a recent Tuesday night, I gathered up some courage and paid my first visit to the 2010 Vendy award winner. The atmosphere around the cart, which parks itself near the C-Town on Broadway, was surprisingly festive. Four guys dressed in maroon shirts and chef pants manned the grill, and one of them handed out free falafel to waiting customers as sort of an amuse-bouche.

The King is certainly cheap: $3 got me two large falafel balls, sauce, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, and pickled vegetables wrapped in a pita. The falafel itself was crisp and spicy, but the pita was your standard (for Astoria, at least) doughy white disc. I'm pretty sure the pickled vegetables were beets, but somehow I found them tolerable. (Update: turns out they're pickled turnips. Also not my favorite, but better than beets.)

On the whole, the sandwich didn't blow me away. A little hummus and some freshly made pita would have helped. (Once you've tried Taïm in the West Village, it's hard to settle for less.) So it turns out resisting the siren call of falafel will be easy. If they open a grilled cheese cart between the subway and my apartment, however, I'm in trouble.



 King of Falafel and Shawarma
Broadway and 30th St.

Veg friendliness
 

Food quality

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rèst-âü-Ránt

Corner table on a quiet Saturday afternoon
When you get to a certain stage of life, going to a bar on a Saturday night loses its charm. I can't say exactly what it is, but it might have to do with insanely loud music, long lines for drinks, and crowds of drunk people looking to hook up. (Married people can do that at home.)

Whatever the reason, Dr. Science and I often find ourselves going to bars on weekend afternoons. They're quiet and uncrowded, and we can play Scrabble. (Do not make fun of us.) Rèst-âü-Ránt, home of the superfluous diacritical mark, has proven to be a particularly nice place to do this.




A lovable space that needs your face
We went most recently on a sunny November Saturday. Our arrival upped the total number of patrons to four, which was awesome as far as we were concerned. (I do want the joint to stay in business, however, so if you're quiet and like to play Scrabble, feel free to stop by.)

Rèst-âü-Ránt is on a corner and has large windows along two walls, so the place is filled with light – and wood. Lots of wood. The bar, tables, chairs, floor, and ceiling are all made of wood, and even the curtains are made of wooden discs.

Dr. Science ordered a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – one of eight or so beers on tap – and I had a lovely glass of Côtes du Rhône. For food, we opted for Cheese Plate 1: parmigiano reggiano, edam, and manchego, served with whole grain bread, tiny olives, and a small tub of zesty tapenade. The edam was delicious and creamy; the manchego was a bit too redolent of sheep for my taste. Parmigiano, in my opinion, is best served shaved onto pasta, but I started to enjoy eating it by the slice.

Cheese Plate 1

Veggie sliders, which come three to an order, were disappointing. Nearby 5 Napkin Burger has set the bar high in this area, and Rèst-âü-Ránt's didn't even come close. The flavor was good, and the mini brioche buns were buttery and fluffy, but the texture was way too mushy. 

Veggie sliders

The kitchen redeemed itself with one of the daily specials: a roasted mushroom and pumpkin-chipotle polenta. Chewy porcini mushrooms contrasted nicely with the soft polenta, and the chipotle gave it just a hint of heat. It was also a lovely shade of orange (my favorite color). Rèst-âü-Ránt needs to add this to the regular menu immediately.

Roasted mushroom and pumpkin-chipotle polenta

The total for two drinks and three dishes came to $63 with tax and tip.

We'll go back to Rèst-âü-Ránt for certain, possibly for the fondue. Scrabble, booze, and molten cheese? That, my friends, is a good time.


Rèst-âü-Ránt
 30-01 35th Avenue

Veg friendliness

Food quality

Vibe

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Zenon Taverna

Is Vegetarian Astoria ageist?

To date, all the restaurants I've reviewed have been relatively new additions to the neighborhood: joints that have been open for less than 10 years (and in some cases, less than 10 months). So when my pals Nick and Nora (not their real names) came to visit with a hankering for Greek food, I jumped at the chance to kick it old school at Zenon Taverna.


Detail from mural (NSFW!)



The current owner has been operating the place since 1988, and doesn't seem to have updated it at all. But hey, who doesn't love a little Reagan-era Queens kitsch? Witness this close-up from one of the many murals of Greece painted on the restaurant walls.






In an effort to cram in as much variety as possible, Dr. Science and I ordered the Nistisimi Mezedes, or Vegetarian Mezes: an assortment of 14 different dishes. Zenon, it turns out, is one of those places that considers fish to be a vegetable. But you know what? We were kind of OK with that. I've been holding off on disclosing this, at the risk of losing all veggie cred, but Dr. Science and I dabble in the disgustingly trendy eating style known as flexitarianism. We don't eat meat at home or in restaurants, but if we go to your house and you're serving pork chops, we don't make a big deal out of it. We also eat some fish, especially if it gets the green light from Seafood Watch.

Anyway, about those Nistisimi Mezedes: the cold ones came first. Here they are, in rank order:
Funky cold mezedes
  • Skordalia (a garlicky cold mashed potato dip). Perhaps the best I've ever had.
  • Potato salad. Perfectly cooked wedges of potato mixed with sliced onions and peppers in a tasty vinaigrette.
  • Seafood salad. Mostly squid, but not at all rubbery, as these things can often be.
  • Cypriot salad. Lettuce, olives, feta. Nice enough
  • Tahini. Imagine hummus minus the chickpeas. Yeah. A little went a long way.
  • Taramosalata (fish roe and potato dip). If I'm going to cheat on vegetarianism, it has to be more rewarding than this. It lacked the salty tang that I normally love in this dish.
  • Beet salad. (Shuddering.) Nora was happy to take this off my hands.

Per our server's instructions, we gave her the high sign when we were midway through the cold dishes. A few minutes later she arrived with the hot stuff. Again, in rank order:

Grilled halloumi

  • Grilled halloumi. Really well prepared. This Greek cheese sometimes has the texture of a flip-flop, but not here.
  • Lemon potatoes. Again, some of the best I've had: slightly chewy on the outside, completely soft inside, and, of course, lemony.
  • Fried calamari. Tender and only slightly greasy (which is fine in my book).
  • Grilled zucchini and yellow squash. I found these bland, but Dr. Science enjoyed them.
  • Unidentified steamed greens. With a little squeeze of lemon, these were all right. You really don't want to see photos, though.
  • Roasted mushrooms and olives. Olives are always a pleasure; the mushrooms, however, were utterly flavorless.
  • Vegetable keftedes (fritters). As Homer Simpson once said after eating a rice cake, "Hello, taste? Where are you?" I could detect only oil.

Nora ordered the night's vegetarian special, a generous portion of eggplant stuffed with peppers, olives, mushrooms and tomatoes. It was probably the hit of the entire meal. Nick went all carnivorous on us and ordered the lamb meatballs. 

Stuffed eggplant (photo credit: Nora)
After sampling so many dishes, we were all too stuffed for dessert. That's a shame, because they looked delicious; I've got my eye on the spongecake for our next visit. Dinner for four with wine and a beer came to $120 including tax and tip.

While some dishes stood out – mmm, halloumi – I found Zenon largely underwhelming. I feel bad about disrespecting what seems to be a neighborhood institution, but it probably won't become part of my regular dining circuit.


Zenon Taverna
34-10 31st Avenue

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Vibe

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Basil Brick Oven Pizza

There are many reasons why I could never leave New York. I hate driving, for one, and people everywhere else talk funny. But really, the main thing that keeps me here is the pizza. New York has the absolute best pizza in the world (I will entertain no arguments on this). And I'm happy to report that Astoria's Basil Brick Oven is keeping the bar high.

My pal the Upstater and I paid a visit to the tiny storefront on a sunny October Saturday. There are items on the menu besides pizza, of course – some salads and pasta – but we were on a mission.

Before I get into the toppings, let me say this: Basil Brick Oven's crust is perfect. You heard me, people: perfect. It's thin, not too salty, and neither too crisp nor too chewy.

I ordered the Pera (pear) & Gorgonzola because I will eat pretty much anything if you put blue cheese on it. If I had any gripes about this pie, it's that the pizzaiolo had a bit of a heavy hand with the fresh mozzarella. Amazingly, there is such a thing as too much cheese.

Pera & Gorgonzola

The Upstater, an admitted pesto fiend, had the Tricolore, which also featured tomato sauce, Buffalo mozzarella, and a dash of heavy cream. Again, the toppings were tasty, but perhaps too generous.

The Tricolore

Each 12-inch pie was cut into four slices; the Upstater and I were full after eating two. (Yay, leftovers!)

The place seats about 10 people, tops, but it's cute and bright and the service is fast and friendly. Danielle, the Italy-born chef, graciously stepped to the side so I could photograph his pizza oven in all its glory.

I was so impressed by Basil Brick Oven that I had a few pies delivered for a small shindig the next day. Unsurprisingly, the pizza wasn't as good as it was fresh out of the oven – things got a bit soggy in transit – but it was still quite delicious. We particularly enjoyed the Veggie Italiana, a vegan-friendly pie topped with slices of grilled eggplant, zucchini and roasted red peppers. And then there was the Pizzucca – oh, the Pizzucca. If you hold the pancetta, it's an autumnal vegetarian delight: that fabulous crust topped with a savory walnut-pumpkin purée and parmigiano reggiano. The memory of this pizza has been haunting me for days.

Pizza in general will keep me in New York. Basil Brick Oven just might keep me from fleeing to Brooklyn.

Basil Brick Oven Pizza
28-17 Astoria Boulevard

  Veg friendliness
 
Food quality

Vibe


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Linn

Can two vegetarians find love at a sushi joint? Dr. Science and I headed to Astoria's Little Tokyo one recent Friday to find out.

OK, calling it Little Tokyo might be overstating the case. But there's a stretch of Broadway between Crescent and 30th Street that has no fewer than three Japanese restaurants and one Japanese grocery store (the fabulous Family Market). We decided to eat at Linn, as it seemed the least conventional of the choices.

Things at Linn are just a little odd. Take, for example, the strangely placed wall at the entrance, which prevents passersby from seeing inside. And then there's the live entertainment – a Japanese smooth-jazz duo with a cute female singer and a guy on electric keyboard. While this would be unspeakably cheesy at, say, an Applebee's, at Linn it somehow works. Call it the Lost in Translation effect: it feels just weird enough to be cool. Same goes for the black-and-white samurai movie that screened on the back of the strangely placed wall. Also odd, but less successful: the uncomfortable wire chairs.

As for the food, vegetarians can do well at Linn by making a meal of several small plates. Dr. Science and I started with the outstanding tofu sesame miso – two silky squares topped with a sweet, salty paste. I could easily have scarfed down several servings on my own.

Tofu sesame miso

We also shared the delightfully crisp and colorful seaweed salad, served with a white miso dressing on the side.
 
Seaweed salad

Linn offers a variety of vegetable rolls. Dr. Science and I both liked the oshinko (pickled yellow radish), which had an almost astonishing crunch. It was a split decision, however, on the ume shisoku (cucumber, plum paste and mint) – he enjoyed it; I thought it tasted like aftershave.

Ume shisoku and oshinko rolls

Perhaps appropriately, the sushi menu proper has just a couple of non-fish options. We opted for the shiitake mushroom, which tasted faintly of dirt and looked like... well, you be the judge.

Mushroom sushi

We also split an order of zaru soba: cold buckwheat noodles served on what looked like a tiny bamboo badminton racket with wasabi, sliced scallions and a soy sauce-infused broth on the side. Eating it was a challenge – do you pour the broth over the noodles or dip the noodles in the broth? When do you mix in the wasabi? And how do you twirl the noodles on the chopsticks without flinging sauce all over the place? The flavors were great, though. (Sadly, I can offer no pictures of this dish, as they were deleted in a tragic iPhoto accident.)

Green tea flan, topped with fresh berries and a dollop of whipped cream, tasted surprisingly light and capped off the meal nicely. With three refreshing Sapporo drafts, dinner came to $74 including tax and tip.

Green tea flan

While love is too strong a word, we certainly liked Linn enough to go out with it again. We'll just skip the mushrooms next time.

Linn
29-13 Broadway

Veg friendliness

Food quality

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mundo (closed)

Imagine if aliens landed in Astoria and demanded to know what it was all about. (Hey, it could happen.) What would you do?

Easy: you'd take 'em to Mundo.

Mundo is everything great about the 'hood in one little restaurant. The owners are from Turkey and Argentina, the staff is a mini League of Nations, and the menu features the comestibles of many lands. It's all served up in a space the size of a living room, with frequently changing artwork and a soundtrack of sexy international pop. The crowd of locals ranges from young people on first dates to middle-aged married couples to small gangs of birthday revelers.

Mundo's signature dish (it says so on the menu) is a concoction called Red Sonja. It's sort of a red lentil pâté, served at room temperature, and I've never had anything quite like it. You squeeze lemon on it, wrap it up in a lettuce leaf and eat it like a taco. It is outstanding. And it's vegan, people. Vegan.

Red Sonja


The lovely Peruvian Causa




Also free of animal products: the Peruvian Causa. I was slightly afraid to order it because it contained beets. Happily, the evil purple root did not overwhelm the other flavors in this beautiful tower of layered veggies.





When Mundo first opened, many of the menu items had embarrassing names. Thank goodness they rethought this (for the most part; there's still Red Sonja), because now I can order the carrot dip — the appetizer formerly known as Bunny's Fever — without mortification. It's one of my favorite dishes in all of Astoria: carrots grilled to the point of sweetness, mixed with garlic, olive oil and yogurt. If I have one gripe, it's that the pita always runs out before the dip.

Carrot dip (e Bunny's Fever)


Ottoman dumplings, vegetarian style

Dr. Science and I generally order a bunch of small plates, but on a recent visit we tried one of the entrées. While I give Mundo props for offering a vegetarian version of its Ottoman dumplings, the filling was a bit too spinach-y for my taste. Dipping them in the yogurt sauce helped smooth out the flavors.




Mundo's uniqueness extends to its dessert menu. My favorite is the semolina helva, a dome of warm, nutty cake that conceals a small mound of vanilla ice cream.

Semolina helva (with secret ice cream center)

As if good food weren't enough, the staff at Mundo helps to create the feeling of a relaxed dinner party. Willy, the adorable Argentinian host, goes out of his way to make sure everyone is enjoying themselves. 

Prices are quite reasonable; the bill for all of the dishes above, plus three glasses of wine, came to $84. So go ahead, take your evil alien overlords to dinner and span the culinary globe.

Mundo
31-18 Broadway

  Veg friendliness
 
Food quality

Vibe


Thursday, October 6, 2011

5 Napkin Burger


What is it about blogging that makes people reveal their most shameful secrets? 

That's right, Internet: I'm about to spill.

Secret No. 1:  I'm a bit of a tightwad. Sure, I love Astoria for its diversity, but I actually moved here because it's cheap.

Secret No. 2: I like to eat dinner at 6 pm. If I got out of work earlier, I'd eat it at 5:30. 

 
In short: I'm going to make one hell of an old person. Perhaps that's why I'm so enamored of the Slider Happy Hour at 5 Napkin Burger.

Every day from 4 pm - 7 pm, the bar at 5 Napkin busts out the best deal in town. I know what you're thinking: sliders? Those greasy little squares of meat that Harold and Kumar went on a quest to find? Well, yeah. Only these are veggie sliders. And they are fabulous. (If you've got carnivorous friends, bring 'em along: 5 Napkin serves beef and turkey versions, too.)

$6 worth of sliders!

For two bucks a pop, you get miniburgers made mostly of lentils, carrots, and red cabbage, which has the interesting effect of turning the sliders purple. (At first I thought this was due to the presence of beets, but this is, thank God, not the case.) Unlike so many veggie burgers, they're the perfect texture, neither mushy nor dry. 5 Napkin tops them with dill pickle slices and an aioli that's sort of a classier version of McDonald's special sauce (yes, I used to eat Big Macs. Consider that Secret No. 3). Dr. Science and I have found that two burgers = dinner (though we occasionally go crazy and order the fantastic sweet potato fries).

The bar (tattoo not pictured)


Sitting at the bar is more enjoyable than it might sound. You get to stare at glowing bottles of Maker's Mark and the text tattoo on the bartender's arm. (He has waited on me at least four times but I still haven't figured out what it says.)





Nut Brown Lager (with condiments)


Not only are the burgers cheap during Happy Hour, draft beers – including the excellent Nut Brown Lager, the house brew – are a mere $4. A penny-pinching couple can split four burgers and two beers and get out for just over a Jackson, including tax and tip.



Perhaps best of all, you can finish your meal in time to catch a 7 pm screening across the street at the Museum of the Moving Image. Cheap dinner, a movie, and bed by 10:30 pm? That, friends, is my kind of night. Promise you won't tell a soul.


5 Napkin Burger
35-01 36th Street

Veg friendliness

Food quality

Vibe