>> Monday, June 19, 2017

71-28 Austin Street
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 575-0070

If you've ever been to a bar after work in Murray Hill or Turtle Bay and said to yourself, "I wish we had a place like this here in Forest Hills", then Austin Public is for you. There's a range of mass market beer on tap, from cheap to less so (Coors Light, Goose Island, Sam Adams, etc.); there's plenty of long bar to grab a seat at with plenty of TVs playing sports; the crowd is solidly 25 to 35 years old; the music is yell-across-the-table loud; there's a fully stocked bar but no one will be requesting a cocktail other than a Jack & Coke anytime soon.

Having not eaten at Austin Public for some time, I decided to shoot on over with Pike and his wife - who for the sake of being lazy I will call Pikette - and Lutsy, for a quick bite. Indeed, since the server forgot to bring us our appetizer, it was even quicker than we anticipated. When I arrived, I sat at the crowded bar, nursed a beer, and waited until my friends showed up. By 7:30PM on a midweek night, the bar was pretty full, but the dining area was half full. Still, Austin Public is large, so there were plenty of diners. 

Everyone soon arrived and we were led to our table, given a pitcher of water, and proceeded to choose our dishes. Like I said, we had ordered an appetizer for the table to share (fried calamari), but it never showed up andm although our waitress was very polite and apologetic, we decided to forgo those calories this evening. Pike and Pikette, ever the pair, both ordered the Buttermilk Fried Chicken Sandwich, a buttermilk battered fried chicken breast with bacon, lettuce, tomato, and a paprika aioli on a roll. I ordered The Austin Smokehouse, a sandwich of smoked pork, smoked brisket, gouda cheese, and fried shallots on a brioche roll. Lutsy went with the California Chicken Sandwich, a sandwich of thin-cut grilled chicken breast, avocado, arugula, and goat cheese. 

I'll be blunt. None of these three was particularly good. The buttermilk fried chicken was both excessively greasy and dry. The smoked pork was so fatty that it drowned out most of the flavor. The California chicken sandwich was the best by virtue of tasting not-bad. "The roll was toasted too much," Lutsy opined. But at least she ate her dinner, something I didn't bother to try to do. "I think I like the food more than you," said Pike, "but it was at best mediocre." All of the sandwiches come with french fries that you will bury in ketchup and never think twice about.

I don't want to dislike Austin Public. I want to like it very much. The staff was nice despite the order screw up, the location is great and the layout is well done. I want to say "There's a lot of potential here and I hate seeing it wasted." But while I guess that I personally think that it would be nice if it was a bit less generic, but the truth is that its genericness is almost certainly a selling point. You've been there a hundred times before you've walked through the door. 

Other than to fix the mediocre food, it'd be nice if they toned the music down a teensy notch. It's crowded already. No one can hear anyone else's conversations. Everyone hates the sign out front that looks like it was stolen from a Texas megachurch, but at this point, I've accepted that it ain't going anywhere. Still, he bathroom is godawful and people outside can watch you pee. That sucked. One selling point back when it opened was that they'd have live music and trivia night, and they sure did since I've been there a few times guessing who FDR's first vice president was. Do they still do it? The website hasn't been updated in six months for some reason, so who's to say?

Seriously, update this shit. It's nearly July.

Sandwiches cost between $15 and $20, entrees cost between $15-$25. My happy hour Coors Light was $4.



>> Monday, May 8, 2017

112-04 Queens Boulevard
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 880-1478

When I first reviewed Keuka Kafe, back in 2013, they had just opened up as the neighborhood's latest, and only, wine bar. Danny Brown (now on the Upper East Side of Manhattan... no comment) and Jack & Nellie's had long since decided to eschew the wine bar schtick and go full-on restaurant, leaving quasi-snobs like me with basically no options to tipple in style. Following suit, Keuka has, too, become a restaurant, adding a whole menu with entrees and everything. That said, their size makes is a bit more acceptable to grab a table, order a cheese plate and a glass of something other than Chardonnay, and chill. 

Like I said, Keuka's small and seating is limited, though they do take reservations... but not on OpenTable yet. Occasionally, there's a wine tasting and they'll close for a few hours to do that (you can follow them online or get on their email list for that info). But more often than not, it's a place where simple yuppies can stroll in and grab a seat, and enjoy a nice bowl of mussels. Though perhaps not on a Friday.

Initially, Keuka Kafe was all about New York State wine, hence the name referencing one of the Finger Lakes. Over the years however, they've dropped that focus. There's still a heavy New York State wine presence on the wine list, but it's no longer an exclusive thing. There's also a small selection of craft beer for your friends who aren't wine people. No cocktails.

For my most recent couple of trips to Keuka, I've gone with either Lutsy or Bro. Lutsy and I both tend to start our meals with something light so on one such excursion, I ordered the Arugula Salad, which is a simple arugula salad with Parmesan shavings and a lemon vinaigrette. It's a thoroughly pleasant, thoroughly forgettable dish that I'd get again and recommend, because it made me feel healthy. Not everything has to win a James Beard award, after all. Lutsy ordered the Fresh Burrata, a mozzarella ball stuffed with ricotta surrounded by basil and cherry tomato and under a rich balsamic glaze. Actually, this was also a pretty light dish, despite it being cheese stuffed with more cheese. 

The most recent time that Bro came, he ordered the Richmond Hill Waffle, a gluten-free chick pea waffle covered in Chicken Tikka Masala. This is a skippable dish. The chicken tikka was fine without being better than fine and the waffle was tasteless unless it was under the sauce, whereupon it was soggy to the point of being like biting into a wet paper towel that had just been used to clean up spilled chicken tikka masala.

Mussels are where Keuka really shines the brightest. They have a small variety - Spicy Garlic Tomato, Red Thai Curry, and Chorizo White Wine - and I've tried a all of them and all are recommended, though personally, the curry ones are the standout winner. The spicy ones are a bit spicy, I won't lie, so bring a tissue. Truth be told, I look forward to the Keuka Mussels the same way I look forward to the Dirty Pierre ones and I'm a near regular for Dirty Pierre's mussel night. Keuka also does well on the Pizza front. While I wouldn't order one of their pies to take home to watch Simpsons reruns, there's something I thoroughly enjoy about slowly eating a small pizza with a glass of red. Pictured below is the simple Master & Margarita.

Keuka also has a collection of sandwiches, many of which are named after local streets like the Ascan & Burns, the Jewel Avenue, and the Slocum Crescent. But I went with a more alliterative Fig 'n' Pig, a baguette sandwich with prosciutto, fig jam, brie cheese, and arugula. If there was ever a more wine bar appropriate sandwich (cheese, bread, charcuterie, figs!) I haven't found it.

My thoughts on Keuka's expanded menu are generally positive, though I do think that there's room for edits and reductions. Or maybe they could do a separate menu for the meats and cheeses to keep the page from feeling so crowded. That said, I can't recommend the place enough. It's always pleasant, the music isn't loud and obnoxious, and the staff is super friendly. It's laid back, classy without being snobby, and not too hard on the wallet.

Wine will run you an average of about $12 per glass and food will run you an average of $14 per non-entree, non cheese board dish.



>> Friday, December 16, 2016

110-70 Queens Boulevard
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 575-0983

Just ten minutes earlier, I had been nursing a beer at a nearby bar and told the bartender that I was about to meet a friend dinner at Nine Thai and asked her if she'd ever been there. She made a good-luck-with-that-face before saying "I don't like to speak ill of other businesses." Oh geez. This does not bode well.  I left and walked over, finding Pike standing just inside an all-but-empty room. They didn't seem to know what to do with us. "I don't think they get many visitors," Pike deduced. 

Eventually, someone we assumed was a waiter gave us some menus and showed us to a very wobbly, mildly sticky table. After pointing out that the menus were for lunch, our waiter, an affable guy who seemed genuinely out of his depth even at this particular point in the kiddie pool, laughed at the error and gave us a pair of, let's call them well-loved dinner menus. As we thought about what to order for our meal, the waiter asked us if we'd like something to drink. Pike asked for a Diet Coke. They didn't have any. "It can be Diet Pepsi, I don't really care." Sweatpants explained that the only soda that they have is regular Sprite. "Sprite it is."

Winter is finally in upon us and the soup cravings have begun, so we knew that we had to order a couple bowls of piping hot soup. What could be better? Pike ordered the Tom Yum Soup, a spicy tomato-based soup with lemongrass and vegetables, while I chose the Tom Kha Soup. Pike said that his Tom Yum was decent, if a little bit spicier than he was expecting. He's had better, he's had worse, but it was not bad for what it was. After his tasting sip, Pike put the spoon down. "I'll wait until yours comes." And we waited. Eventually, I told him he didn't have to be polite anymore. "Maybe they only have one pot and have to make every bowl individually."

Before the Tom Yum soup was finished but not before it started to cool, Pike's second course came. He didn't really want an entree in the classical sense, and instead ordered the Thai Boulevard Combo plate. Just to take a step back, when the waiter initially took our order, Pike asked for the combo plate to be his main course and to please bring it out when the entree that I ordered comes to the table. "Oh yeah sure" said our waiter with a tone of voice that implied with certainty that he had absolutely no idea what was just asked of him and, no surprise, the request fell on deaf ears.

The Thai Boulevard Combo is basically an assortment of various items from the appetizer menu. Shrimp rolls, spring rolls, dumplings, and fried wontons along with three dipping sauces. Plum sauce, peanut sauce, and a black vinaigrette - whatever that is, with a hand full of carrot shreds haphazardly tossed on top for what I can only assume is an attempt at a garnish. The combo plate, as one might expect, did not come with any Tom Kha soup. Pike looked at the plate in front of him like this was somehow his fault, hesitant to accept his meal. I told him to eat. "I want to see how this plays out." 

Without beating to death each deep fried gem in the combo, one can sum up the totality of it as forgettable and generic. Pike wasn't impressed with any of them, either. Attempting to tart up an utterly tasteless spring roll up with a little bit of the black vinaigrette goop was a mistake and I nearly gagged.

Eventually, I was brought the appetizer I ordered, the Chicken Curry Puffs (still no soup). Some people order Pad Thai as a litmus test for how good a Thai restaurant is, but I prefer curry puffs. As for these, I've had better. Yeah they were okay, but they were far too greasy, far too bland, and presenting them on a bed of sad wilted lettuce didn't do them any favors in the image department. The menu said that the dish would come with a cucumber sauce (as most curry puffs do), but instead it came with some kind of sweet and sour sauce that was the consistency of ultra thick honey. These mediocre puffs were the best part of the meal.

Still no soup. But hold on, here comes the waiter. Time for some soup! Wait. No... he's putting on his coat and grabbing some bags... and now he's getting on his bicycle and pedaling away. Our waiter was also the delivery guy. "You know," Pike began as our waiter faded off to the horizon, "you might have gotten your food faster if you were still at home."

The waiter was replaced with a very apologetic woman who said "sorry" between every third word. She was far more attentive and even brought me my soup. "Would you like anything to drink?" Do you have any Diet Coke? "Sure, I'll go get some." And, credit where credit is due, she put on her coat and was about to run over to 7-Eleven to score us a six pack before Pike stopped her. As for the soup? Skip it.

Tom Kha Soup is a coconut milk soup with, in my case chicken and vegetables and normally I love it. Normally. This simply wasn't good. The broth was so sweet that it was hard to take down. It was almost a syrup. Meanwhile, the chicken was extremely tough and rubbery and the number of vegetables were a pittance. It was all but a bowl of ultra-sweet milk.

I wasn't looking forward to my entree anymore. The poor Beef Pad Kee Mow, aka drunken noodles, was following an unbroken stream of disappointment and, like its brethren, maintained that tradition to the best of its ability. The dish was gloppy and gelatinous and verged on slimy. I love spicy food, but here, it was almost as though hot peppers were the surrogates for flavor. I'm the kind of guy who gets extra hot sauce at the halal truck and this was hot even for me. The beef was practically inedible. The pieces that I had were like chewing into a Pink Pearl eraser; the chunk Pike got was literally just sinew and had to be spat out. I didn't get more than a few bites out of this.

Our grand feast, after tax and tip, cost $60. Don't ask me how. As we headed out the door, the waiter returned. Round trip delivery time: 36 minutes. 

Perhaps one could chalk up this comedy of errors to growing pains, but since this is the new location and new name of the old Thai Boulevard, that doesn't hold water. Forest Hills has a goodly sum of decent Thai restaurants to both eat at and order from and I don't predict returning in either case.



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