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


Thursday, November 10, 2011


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.

 30-01 35th Avenue

Veg friendliness

Food quality


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

Veg friendliness

Food quality