>> 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.



>> Saturday, May 23, 2015

107-02 Queens Boulevard
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 268-4400

I know it's not Halloween, but how about this time we start with curses?

In 1652, Forest Hills was a relatively small village populated primarily by English settlers branching out across Long Island sound from New England. One evening, the legend goes, the wife of a tavern keeper was unable to sleep and decided to go outside and get some air, hoping that the sounds of the night would relax her enough to help her sleep. As she sat outside of the tavern, a strange glow coming from a field in what is now MacDonald Park caught her attention. Deciding to investigate, the woman worked her way through the tall grass until she heard the sound of voices. Chanting. A ritual. She had, to her horror, discovered a coven of witches, brazenly practicing their dark arts only a stone's throw from her very home. The woman, in true Puritan panic, ran to wake the local constabulary, who, with her help, rounded up the suspect villagers and led them to the gallows.

As the story goes, not all of the coven were captured, and those that survived conjured a great curse. Because it was the wife of the tavern keeper who led to their destruction, their revenge was such that no tavern, bar, pub, restaurant, or other dining establishment, formal or casual, regardless of positive Zagat or Yelp reviews, and regardless of filing proper outdoor seating permits, shall survive and flourish from then until eternity on the location of that hallowed burial ground. Biu Bello is the latest in a long line of dining establishments built over that grave, daring the curse not to doom it to the same fate as those that came before.

Biu Bella. If you've been here as long as I have, you might remember Piu Bello, the popular gelato shop on Austin Street (where Agora Taverna is now) that closed a few years back. Every summer it was packed with people cooling off with sundaes, cones, or milkshakes. I was one of them. I don't know if this is a trademark infringement suit waiting to happen or what, but ultimately, it doesn't matter. This place is doomed. The curse has taken firm root.

Walking into Biu Bella this particular evening, it should have been, at the very least, lively. The weather was gorgeous, it was a popular day of the week to dine. Yet it was all but empty and it never got more crowded than the photo you see before you. Visions of Old Vienna Cafe danced in my head.

The smell of the pizza oven filled the dining room, yet pizza was not the central quisine of the menu. Nothing was. Biu Bella isn't Italian, like I thought it would be, and as all of the previous restaurants in this location have been, and it isn't pizza, like I smelled it would be. It has gelato, but it's in the back and not highlighted. It's kind of a diner. A cutesy diner. Paninis and cheese sticks. Hamburgers and wings. BLTs and chicken fingers. Sandwiches and a kids menu. Soda served with a flexie-straw. The closest approximation of a likeness would be Theater Cafe on Metropolitan, except that Theater Cafe has enough outside seating to be a beer garden.

Pike ordered something from the fancier looking "Wood Fired" menu, the Little Neck Clams. These, we were told, would take a while. And they did. But rather than the kitchen timing everything to come out in the proper order, everything came out at random. Everything came out in a zig zag. My appetizer, then his entree, then his appetizer then my entree. From the somewhat confused look on the waitresses face when we asked her to make sure that the courses arrived at the table together, we knew it would happen, but Pike was, nonetheless, pissed. The little neck clams, roasted in the oven and served with oregano and pecorino-romano cheese, were actually quite pleasant. This was not something to be complained about. I went decidedly lower-rent and ordered the Curly Fries because Yelpers thought that they were the bee's knees. I had to know. Were they amazing? Were they "addictive"? Well, they were fine. If you like the Ore-Ida ones from the supermarket but are just too lazy to thaw and cook a bag of frozen potato squiggles yourself, or you're looking for some Jericho Turnpike diner nostalgia, now you know where to go. 

For his entree, Pike got a Turkey Club Sandwich on whole wheat bread. The white bread sandwich he got instead was, in his words, "a turkey club sandwich on WHITE bread". And that's as far as that conversation went. I wanted to see if that wood fire oven that smells so tempting as you walk in could churn out a good pizza, so I ordered the standard Margherita Pizza, tomato sauce, basil, mozzarella, way too much olive oil, and an extremely burned, brittle crust. Nick's is under no threat.

So Biu Bella is a cuter-than-average diner with mediocre food, poor service, and an uninspiringly boring menu. Yes, there is gelato too, but until the weather is hot and the line at Martha's is too long to wait, I don't envision it being the saving grace of the joint. One Yelper touted the fantastic "parkside view" but in real life that "view" is blocked by parked cars and UPS trucks and there isn't any outside seating for hot weather dining to make up for any other shortcomings. They could have had outside seating in the rear, but someone once upon a time, in their wisdom, put up a greenhouse. They probably thought that it would be like eating outdoors in the winter, except 1.) nope, not the same, and 2.) no one ate their in the winter, either.

Unless Biu Bella loses the name, ups the service, tweaks the menu, and basically becomes something completely different than it is now to drum up business, the witches' curse shall claim another victim.

Sandwiches are about $10. My pizza was $7.50. Soda refills are an extra $1. The place is cheap, but you get what you pay for.



>> Friday, March 6, 2015

102-15 Metropolitan Avenue
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 374-3890

Yup, Metropolitan has attracted yet another eating establishment helmed by someone with experience at some of Manhattan's primo spots. I went and it's good. How good? Let's put it this way. I don't even care that it's another Italian restaurant. That's how good. 

Between Danny Brown, End of the Century Bar, Eddie's, Dee's, Il Poeta, Alberto's, Katsuno, and now Tazzina, someone might want to invest in building a parking garage. Metropolitan might wind up being a real destination block.




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