>> Sunday, September 27, 2015

Brunch Report
113-09 Queens Boulevard
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 268-1668

Dim sum brunch, the Chinese tradition of eating various forms of filled dough churrascaria style, was something that I had, until just now, never before tried. Shameful, I admit. Now that I have, I'm all but certain to do it again.

For the uninitiated, the dim sum brunch is nothing at all like the Euro/American brunch you're used to. There are no mimosas, no eggs benedict, no reading the Sunday Times while slowly nursing your sixth coffee. Instead you sip tea as an endless stream of carts are wheeled to your table, their pushers offering you random buns, dumplings, chicken feet, and rice bowls. The place was packed when we arrived around 11:30. We waited about fifteen to twenty minutes for our number to be called. By the time we left, the line to get in had people waiting on the sidewalk. My guess would be that by 1pm, you should expect a wait of forty-five minutes or more.

My ex-girlfriend used to say "I want all of the food! Because food!" That pretty much encapsulates the experience. The sheer quantity and variety of what got wheeled up to our table was astounding. No sooner would a cart lady give us a dish than another one would show up. There's no menu. What are these things? Who knows? You don't speak Chinese and they don't speak English. Just point and take. Also, loosen your belt a notch (you'll thank me later).

I'm not going to even attempt to tell you what the names of any of this stuff is, and the photos are not 100% of what we ordered. Suffice it to say, there's a lot of pork, a lot of shrimp, and more carbs than you can imagine. Kosher celiacs on Atkins, this place ain't for you. On the whole, it was delicious. There were a few misses (Pike liked the sticky fried rice and the shrimp wrapped in egg and I didn't. I liked the fried tofu; he took one bite and pushed it aside), but in the end, we ate so much that those few little kerfuffles barely mattered.

There's pork in there.

Dough soaked in chicken broth. Like a matzo ball. Kinda.
(I've been told that this was a fish broth. Maybe everything really does taste like chicken)

Fried dough, wrapped in a noodle, buried under a sweet sesame and peanut sauce. Get this.

A soft bun stuffed with guess what? Did you guess pork?

Another kind of pork bun, this one with a glossy sweet glaze.
Plus fried tofu and steamed shrimp wrapped in fried egg.

Custard filled. There's the one with a pink dot and one with a yellow dot. The pink dot was better.

We ate so much. It just kept coming and we just kept saying "yeah okay, we'll get that too." Pike's girlfriend, who joined us, pointed at one final dish and as soon as it hit the table said, "I don't know why I did that. I'm on autopilot." Still, the whole thing only cost $22 per person with tip. That's less than just about anywhere. 

On the whole, this was awesome. On days when you want a lazy, traditional brunch with bacon, coffee, and a strong bloody mary to kill last night's hangover, this would be a poor choice. But if you want a diversion from the norm, you don't have to get on the subway for it.



>> Friday, September 18, 2015

110-72 Queens Boulevard
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 880-1602

Not too long ago, this quaint little corner on bucolic Queens Boulevard was home to a sushi place.  I forget the name, or if it even had one, but we all knew it as the 50% Off Sushi sushi spot. "FIFTY PERCENT OFF???" Samantha asked herself before spending the next six hours on her knees hunched over her toilet. "How can I go wrong?" Yes, it was amazing food, but its time, apparently, had come. Replacing it is Matiz, a Latin restaurant whose direct competitor would be the ever popular, ever crowded Cabana on 70th Road. If you've been craving Latin, trendy, and good, and the wait at Cabana is too long, or the prices too high, you won't be kicking yourself heading a little off the beaten path and coming here.

I went here with Pike on a midweek evening and sat at one of the window seats. It gets pretty dark in the back. Not good for photos. Initially, we were the only of a handful of diners, but it started filling up eventually. Service was very polite, if a tad slow. We barely noticed. There is a liquor license, but, at the moment, it's only for beer and wine, so no cutesy parasol-laden cocktails are on the menu just yet. (The bartender at Keuka Kafe says that the sangria is supposed to be very good)

Pike and I, wanting the same appetizers, split them. They arrived on a convenient common plate. The Arepitas, small open faced corn cake sandwiches, came as a trio of flavors: chicken, beef, and pork (although the menu only mentions beef and chicken) all richly spiced and delicious. The only downside was that there weren't more. I'd love for them to start selling these full sized. Likewise, our other appetizer, the Patacones, a tostone dish, came with three options for piling onto your fried plantain slice: chicken, beef, and hogao, a vegetarian salsa-like dish.

For an entrée, Pike ordered the Paella Matiz. Paella is, for all intents and purposes, a seafood risotto. They're typically rich and creamy and loaded with various sea creatures. If you're lucky, someone puts a lobster on top of it. There was no lobster, but there were mussels, clams, shrimp, calamari, and scallops. "Don't forget to tell people that they put an ice cold salad on this." There was a cold salad, which Matiz calls their "summer vegetable hash" and it was, in our opinions, a big mistake. The hash didn't work. Underneath, however, the paella was delicious. Take our advice and ask for the paella without the hash. I chose the Churrasco, a grilled skirt steak that came with sautéed spinach and a cheese papa rellena (a mashed potato ball with a cheese center). The steak was delicious. This was definitely a win. The papa rellena was fine for being a mashed potato ball, but you couldn't taste the cheese at all. There was also an olive oil and pesto sauce on the side that one could ladle over the meat, but it didn't add anything. Indeed, with the steak already perfectly seasoned, it was actually a detraction from the taste.

I, for one was pleased overall. The seating is a bit tight, but that's a function more of space than poor design. As an alternative to Cabana, Matiz did pretty well. If you live nearby, or don't mind the walk, or just don't want to wait on a long line, you now don't have to. I actually prefer the more subdued atmosphere of Matiz to the more crazy and loud party atmosphere that Cabana sometimes has.

The whole meal, two appetizers, two entrees, two sodas, tax, and tip with no dessert and no liquor was about $110. Appetizers average $11 and entrées average $22.




>> Wednesday, August 12, 2015

69-12 Austin Street
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 544-6444

When I first moved to Forest Hills, there were precious few decent restaurants, but a Thai restaurant hidden between the shopping district on the one side of Austin Street and the police station on the other was one of them, Bann Thai. I went there quite a bit. They always seemed to have customers, the food was good, and it had class. The restaurant even made it into the Grand Theft Auto IV video game. Then, for some reason Bann Thai became The Old Siam. Nothing seems changed but the awning and the tables. They're not fancy, but they're still upscale. The food's not expensive. But now, when you walk by, they're always empty. In fact, when the rest of Austin Street is teeming with the concert crowds, and other restaurants are filled to capacity, Old Siam is all but abandoned. Why? Did they plummet so much in quality that they can't pay people to eat there? Turns out, no.

When I first suggested to Pike that we go here, his response was one of trepidation. A perpetually deserted restaurant on an empty stretch of zeroesville does not much confidence breed. Sure enough, when we showed up, we sat alone but for one other table. When we left, the door closed with the echo of an empty room. I can only guess that it's a combination of location and competition. The dining options for Forest Hills has improved exponentially in the last decade, Thai food's heyday was 2009, there are three other Thai restaurants within walking distance, and they're all good. But Old Siam isn't bad. I think it needs to find a niche. I'll get to that at the end.

The Old Siam isn't expensive so we ordered appetizers and soup to start, figuring that this way we could try more of the menu. I started with a Lettuce Wrap because it sounded healthy. Shrimp and Chicken, ground and cooked in a peanut sauce with scallions. I didn't know that you'd wrap the filling yourself, but they don't skimp. Flavor-wise, I was impressed. On the plate, it looked like a low-rent attempt at being fancy, and maybe it was, but it was actually very, very good. Sweet and peanuty, but light and moist. Pike chose the Shrimp Roll, whole dough-wrapped shrimp, deep fried with a sweet dipping sauce. Again, very very good. "The food here isn't bad enough to justify why this place is deserted" he softly said across the table. We followed that up with Tom Yum Soup, a spicy lemongrass heavy soup. He ordered the chicken one, and I ordered the vegetarian one. In this instance, we differed. Pike liked the soup way more than I did. I thought it was not better than fine. He thought that it was far better than fine.

For entrees, Pike ordered the Garlic Seafood. Shrimps, scallops, mussels, squid, and (imitation) crab - at least they're honest - with steamed mixed vegetables under a garlic black pepper sauce. He liked it, and so did I. The sauce was rich and tangy and the seafood was tender. His one complaint, which he tempered with an "and this seems to always happen" was that they really need more seafood. Not just two mussels, not just a few scallops. Also, lose the imitation crab. It feels cheap. I ordered the Honolulu Stripper because how do you not order something with that name? It's mixed vegetables, chicken, scallops, and pineapple in a chili sauce. This entree was very sweet, the vegetables had a nice crunch, and the chicken was well cooked and not dried to a crisp, but I'd have liked it to be spicier than it was, especially because it had a chili pepper drawn net to it on the menu. Still, taste-wise no complaints.

The whole thing came to $35 per person plus tip, which these days is pretty cheap. I returned alone later to try the one thing that everyone who eats Thai food in the States has on their short list, the Pad Thai. I got mine with chicken and, like everything else, it wasn't bad. I would have preferred a firmer noodle, but I'd recommend it. Sweet, a little spicy but not by much, and with a squeeze of lime, perfect. For $12 you can stuff yourself.

The Old Siam needs to differentiate itself from the competition. For starters, it's not cheaper than Thai Pot on Queens Boulevard or Hive on Yellowstone, so it's not going to grab the strictly budget diners. It's not as trendy as Jade, so it's not going to get the people who want a reflecting pool with their meal. It's not as convenient to shopping as Bangkok Cuisine. So it needs to become the kind of place that people will go out of their way to go. It has to be the kind of place that, when you're walking down Austin and reach Eddie Bauer, you don't just turn around.
There are two ways to become a destination. The first is to have a celebrity chef or celebrity customers. The second is to be better and more interesting than everyone else. No more imitation crab. No more lychee martinis. Don't swamp people with a ten page menu that takes half an hour to wade through. Cut it down to seven appetizers and ten entrees that the other restaurants don't have. Keep the pad Thai, it's a popular dish that everyone wants on a menu and, like roast chicken on an American menu. Cute names are fun, but twelve different sauces with mixed vegetables and your choice of shrimp, tofu, or chicken is the been-there-done-that plan of every other Thai restaurant in the galaxy and a tropical stir fry is a tropical stir fry is a tropical stir fry. Make me want to go eat at The Old Siam because they have a dish that I literally cannot get anywhere else. I'll pay for it if it's good and I'll tell other people to pay for it. Dim the lights. Toss some tea lights on the table. Call a beer distributor and get a variety of Thai beer. Get a cocktail book at Barnes & Noble down the block and shake up some tropical cocktails that aren't just sugar and rum. The interior isn't trendy and modern, so own that old-school vintage vibe. Make me feel like I'm eating in a kind of 1960s Bangkok hot spot.

Of course, if The Old Siam makes a fortune on take-out, then they can ignore everything I said because it doesn't matter at all.



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