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


Thursday, October 20, 2011


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.

29-13 Broadway

Veg friendliness

Food quality


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.

31-18 Broadway

  Veg friendliness
Food quality


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