Friday, July 16, 2010

To The Ends Of The Islands

I spent two rainy days in Montauk, cursing the weather and eating my way through the Hamptons' haul. On Tuesday night, I stopped at Bostwick's, the East Hampton version of a New England chowder house. The prices were reasonable--for the Hamptons. My one-pound lobster, served cleaved in half (an insult, really), was a scant eighteen bucks. Still, the poor beast was sadly overcooked and a far less sweet version of the crustaceans I'm used to. A side of corn, gratis with the lobster, was mushy and tasteless and decidedly not from Long Island. The real winner of the evening was my appetizer of stuffed clams, which was full of texture and salt and crunch, like a clammy Thanksgiving stuffing.

I had a lobster roll the next afternoon at Gosman's, which was a fine specimen, even if the hot dog bun, grilled, lacked butter. The lobster mix itself was heavy with dill and chopped celery and decorated with only a touch of mayonnaise. The roll was approachably priced at fifteen dollars, though I will say that the true Maine version goes for loads less. In a time when lobster is overabundant (you can find them on the Maine and Massachusetts docks for $1.99 a pound), it is hard to justify paying such premium price for mediocre product.

The Hideaway, Montauk's ode to Mexican, is a far more successful establishment. I drank a Pacifico and ate grilled pork tacos and Mexican corn, my own homage to summer. Who wouldn't toss their calorie count aside for grilled corn with cayenne, mayonnaise, and cotija cheese? The Hideway's food is authentic and tasty and causes far less damage to the pocket than any of the seafood joints in town. It is a shame that the finest food in Montauk has nothing to do with ocean fare.

The stretches of Long Island led me to the stretches of ninth avenue this afternoon, where I lunched at Google for the second time in my life. The Google dining room is run by Restaurant Associates and features a grill station, a "special of the day" station, a salad bar, a raw food station, a dessert station, a soup station, a fish station, and other miscellaneous stands with other miscellaneous eats. A map on the wall near the desserts pinpoints all of the farms from which Google gets its produce. Index cards actually spell out what comes from where, right down to the melons in the chilled melon soup. It is a tirelessly modern ideal in a world where local and sustainable often comes up short against corporate interests.

We arrived at Google on the later side; the dining room closes at two every afternoon and the pickings are slim after one thirty. I had a hamburger with extra pickles, a personal favorite, as well as a fresh cucumber salad, roasted fingerling potatoes, and green beans tossed in sesame oil. B. ate swordfish with polenta and T. ate a raw butternut squash salad. Would that all workplace cafeterias offered so many options for so little dough (and by so little, I mean none).
By the time we were finished, the gelato cart had closed up shop, a near miss. We went to the snack room for fresh fig newtons and Red Jacket Orchards Fiji apple juice and plums. The snacks at Google are endless, which must be why so many young workers stay so long.

Bostwick's Chowder House
277 Pantigo Road
East Hampton, NY 11937

Gosman's Clam Bar
500 West Lake Drive
Montauk, NY 11954

The Hideaway
364 West Lake Drive
Montauk, NY 11954

Monday, July 12, 2010

They Aren't Actually Known For Their Kababs

Kabab Cafe has about eight tables (and that's an optimistic estimate). The set up behind the make-shift line more closely resembles the cluttered space of a home cook than it does the professional space of a New York restaurant. There is one chef and one assistant and the chef, donning a green apron and hulking around his tiny restaurant--he's about six foot four and well into the three hundred pound range--takes up a lot of space. When he comes to your table, he lists of a selection of items that he has special tonight. There's no menu and you might not be able to order what you see on your neighbor's plate, since plates seem in a constant rotation of unavailability. Alas, the lamb shank that table is eating is gone, gone, gone, but there are sweetbreads.

Order the sweetbreads.

We told our chef what we did want to eat (vegetables and meat) and what we didn't want to eat (fish, due to a table allergy). He brought us cold mint tea with sugar and green apples. Next, he brought a meze platter with bright hummus, fava bean dip, baba ganoush, and fried lettuce. It's as good as it sounds. Then the sweetbreads arrived. They were lamb, not veal, and carried with them the gamy sophistication of good meat. Sauteed peppers and onions and garlic decorated the plate.

A roasted beet salad wasn't exactly my jam, but I loved the sweet roasted apple that came with them, as well as all the garlic. Lamb chops didn't disappoint, either. We were told to use our hands for the chops and I happily obliged. The potatoes and onions and peppers had been cooked in lamb fat and were dark brown and slick with a pomegranate sauce.

It was late, so we weren't offered baklava and Egyptian coffee (basically the same as Turkish coffee: short, concentrated, served black and unfiltered with sugar in the brew), but we drooled over a neighboring table's good fortune. Their baklava looked flaky and delicious.

Kabab Cafe
25-12 Steinway Street
Astoria, NY 11103

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Queens Tweet

I was invited to a Queens tweet-up last night at Dutch Kills, the bar that mimics its sister and brother bars in the city: Milk and Honey and Little Branch. In keeping with the Prohibition-era theme of these Manhattan bars, Dutch Kills is dark and wooden with mustachioed barkeeps in suspenders. In the bar's rear, the floor is covered in sawdust like the butcher shops I remember from my youth.

Cocktails are slightly less pricey than in the city at ten bucks a pop and you should order one for the aesthetic alone. The bar produces four separate kinds of ice: chunky granules of even shape and size; smooth cubes; one large block for scotches and other brown spirits; and crushed ice for shaking and muddling. My Marie Antoinette resembled a pretty little sno-cone and came topped with a chilly raspberry. The drink itself, in fading shades of red and pink, was a sweet and tart combination of crushed berries, creme de cacao, and light rum. Regrettably, I kept forgetting that Dutch Kills serves its libations with metal spoons and more than once found my teeth clicking against the straw.

As a follow up to our Queens tipple, we headed over to Sweet Afton, which really looks like the type of place you would find in Brooklyn, not Queens. There is exposed brick and all the food and drink is local and the hipsters seem to have invaded from Williamsburg. The Brooklyn vibe doesn't change the fact that Queens is clearly the borough of choice for ethnic food, but it is nice to feel like Astoria is getting some locavore chops. Finally.

The fried pickles are McClure's, of course, and come with a mayonnaise-based dipping sauce. They erred a bit too far on the side of doughy, but I'll take my pickles any way I can get them, which is why I doused my spicy hot pickle bites with a McClure's pickle martini, one of the house cocktails. Next arrived a truly transcendent grilled cheese sandwich. You can choose your cheese and we chose muenster. We also chose to add to our sando caramelized onions and chewy, smoky bacon. The sandwich's strongest asset is the tasty whole-grain mustard and side of pickles (yes, I'm obsessed).

The French fries that came with our perfect burger were an unnecessary addition to an already-full meal. But that burger... mid-sized patty on white bread with lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickle, and cheese. No mayonnaise, but I can live without. The burger had the oniony seasoning I love. I'll be back for the Irish sausage next time: sausages wrapped in puff pastry and baked until brown. Sounds right up my alley.

Dutch Kills
27-24 Jackson Avenue
Long Island City, NY 11101

Sweet Afton
30-09 34th Street
Astoria, NY 11103

Friday, July 9, 2010

Meat To Beat The Heat

Counterintuitive, isn't it? But then, steakhouses are always well air-conditioned, so steak it was this past Wednesday evening. I had read Alex Witchel's rave reviews of the old school joint Frankie and Johnnie's in the Times a few months back, so it seemed the perfect place to dig into a dry-aged rib-eye. Also, I find an unusual and somewhat secret comfort in traditional steakhouses. I love the leather and the white linen and the dim lights and the booming voices of fat businessmen. This must make me an American.

Pine Island oysters, hailing from Oyster Bay on Long Island, were buttery and fat specimens, even if they came sparsely adorned with lemon, horseradish, and cocktail sauce. I'm a mignonette girl myself, but I'll pardon the omission because the oysters were clean and substantial. A crab cake duo surprised us with a crunch of potato. The outer layer of the cake, generally breaded in something like panko, was sheathed in a mini potato hash brown that was all snap but still yielded to the fork. Okay, the crab itself--the real deal--didn't have enough binding to it and fell apart into shreds of crab and crunch, but I'll forgive that misstep, too.

I can't really forgive the distracted waiter who brought my warm half-bottle of Sauvignon Blanc twenty minutes after I had ordered it, but even he is a distant memory in the face of the massive cut of beef that appeared before me. Frankie and Johnnie's makes their own steak sauce, but there's no need; the fatty dickle and salty crust provided all the condiment this steak required. I prefer my rib-eyes bone-in and this baby was no disappointment. Garlic mashed potatoes were pedestrian, at best, and the mint jelly served with my co-eater's lamb jobs was just gross. But the asparagus, shaved expertly at the ends and sauteed in hot oil with slices of brown garlic, more than fulfilled our quest for a decent green vegetable.

But Frankie and Johnnie's was closing all around us, even though it was just ten o'clock, so we decamped for Keens Steakhouse, home to over 250 single-malt and blended scotches. Laphroaig 10 with a hand-cut ice cube was my particular brand of poison, but the bartender could have pointed me in any direction at all. "Drink what you like," he said. "That's what I tell people all the time."

The morning after, in need of more meat to sop up that lingering Laphroaig, I headed to the end of my street, where there's a Bosnian restaurant that I have, embarrassingly, never visited in my five years living in Astoria. The place is called Old Bridge Restaurant and serves "traditional" Bosnian cuisine, which, nearest I can tell, is a combination of meat, meat, and more meat. I started with a Cockta soda, made with real sugar and "natural plant extracts" (for what it's worth) and no caffeine or phosphoric acid. It tasted like a marriage between Moxie and Coke, and I'm sure it isn't for everyone.

You can forgive the modest decor and scattered waitservice when you come upon your very own cevapi, ten grilled beef sausages served in something resembling muffaletta bread and served with chopped onions, cheese, and a roasted red pepper paste. The sandwich is roughly the size of a dinner plate. So, too, is the pljeskavica, a thin beef burger on that same bread with more chopped onions. As in Croatia, where every meal I ate was accompanied by a slim salad of cucumber, tomato, and vinegar, our meal came with a crisp little ode to summer: cucumber, tomato, iceberg lettuce, and mozzarella cheese with white vinegar and oil. It was crunchy and salty, like most of the food at Old Bridge. I should have eaten there years ago.

Frankie and Johnnie's
32 West 37th Street
New York, NY 10018

Keens Steakhouse
72 West 36th Street
New York, NY 10018

Old Bridge Restaurant
28-51 42nd Street
Astoria, NY 11103

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fort Defiant

If Fort Defiance, in Brooklyn's newly-gentrified Red Hook, were a little more ambitious and on-point, it would be a great concept. Plates are small and inexpensive. One could order every item on the menu for under $150. Cocktails have that Prohibition-era twang.

If only.

The restaurant is unbearably cute, with fine touches here and there. I loved the brass leaf-shaped chandeliers and the lacquered tables that were covered in what best resembled shelf lining or summer picnic tablecloths. The restaurant has the spirit of eclectic Brooklyn bohemian chic down to a science. But the food--however cheap--couldn't stand up to the cuteness of the decor.

First, my drink, billed as "punch," was really just rum with simple syrup and a paltry squeeze of lime. When I asked my overburdened waiter for more lime juice, he took my glass and returned with a drink that tasted exactly the same as it had minutes earlier. Chicken liver pate, smooth and sweet, matched well with tiny slivers of baguette crostini, but deviled eggs lacked the requisite punch. Yes, they were smoky and salty, but where was the heat?

Pimento cheese on Ritz crackers would have been difficult to mess up, but the corn soup was a substantial disappointment, lacking texture and taste. Corn isn't sweet enough yet, maybe, but the dish was undersalted and overblended. I missed the subtle crunch of early season corn.

And then: pork chops. We ordered two. The meat itself was fatty and rich, but our chops, bone-in, were, sadly, overcooked. A side of grits was a little sticky for my taste and the side of squash reminded me of wan vegetable sides in bad pubs. But our side of asparagus, lightly blanched and served with a salty, creamy version of hollandaise, redeemed those soggy squash. Hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, slick with butter and woodier with thyme, almost made us forget those overcooked chops. Almost.

Fort Defiance
365 Van Brunt Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231