we need coffee bars...

>> Monday, August 31, 2009

we need coffee bars...

If you're a coffee person, as I pretend to be, then Forest Hills is severely lacking. The pickings are slim, folks. Coffee, in it's most Sanka form, can be had anywhere. But there's a difference between a restaurant that sells coffee and a real coffee bar. And sure, I can always grab a cup of joe to go at a diner but that's just giving up.

Sadly, as of my writing this, there is no independent coffee bar in Forest Hills. Not that I know of. No place like THIS, where you can go in and sit for hours and read the paper, chat with friends, listen to Asobi Seksu playing dimly overhead, and being able to relax and forget the stress of the day. Park Slope has 'em. Williamsburg has 'em. But we don't? It shouldn't be the kind of thing to royally piss me off. And yet...

Coffee bars rarely open here, and when they do, bad luck or a bad follow-through seems to bring them down. When I first moved in, there was a shmancy and impressive place with dozens of loose teas, coffees, desserts and truly horrid service called Modus. Then came Munch; more casual, free wifi, a loyal fanbase, cushy chairs and, apparently, a landlord they fought with all the time. The latest was Sonoma Coffee Cafe, a chain with locations in 12 states. It opened last year on Queens Boulevard and was so underwhelming that that I wasn't surprised in the slightest when they shuttered this year.

Starbucks is the closest thing we've got, and I'm not Starbucks-hater. I just really really really like variety. We have four and it's not enough. The one on Continental is so small that someone should put an "express" sign under the logo. You can forget about trying to get a seat at the others. Say a prayer, cross yourself, burn some incense; only God himself can grant you one if you aren't willing to wait a half hour. I even went so far as to email the district manager of Queens asking her why the seats and tables that have been taken away aren't being replaced. The Austin Street one loses a table every four or five months, it seems. She very pleasantly told that there are a lot of bureaucratic loops to go through that have to be considered... of course there are. How silly of me.

Further away is the Seattle's Best Cafe (which is owned by Starbucks) at the Borders at Atlas Park, or Esparks on the corner of Metropolitan and Cooper. But they're quite a shlep by anyone's standards unless you drive, which you shouldn't have to do.

Some people might be thinking right now "what about Dunkin Donuts?" Well, that coffee is awful. America only runs on Dunkin because it's probably half diesel fuel. As for those of you about to suggest McDonalds, I want you to sit in the corner and think about that in silence. Shame on you.

So what are we gonna do? Well, I'm going to write a letter to Caribou Coffee and tell them that their first NY location should be us. And if any of you were thinking of opening a real coffee bar, with hipster baristas, custom espressos, good music (better yet, no music), old sofas, local artwork for sale on the wall, and a menu that doesn't overextend itself by going beyond offering cakes, muffins and cookies, then please please please do so. You have at least one guaranteed customer.



>> Friday, August 21, 2009

109-32 Ascan Avenue
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 261-1239

I love eating out and getting a meal so perfectly prepared that I actually feel sad when it's over. If you'd like to read about such a meal, then click here for my recent review of Gradisca, in the West Village. It was what Italian restaurants should be. Portofino, on the other hand... well, heh heh, that's a whole other story.

Portofino appeals to people who don't want to stray beyond their comfort zone and who are, ironically, willing to suffer for that comfort. Portofino's interior, with its high ceilings, a nursery's worth of fake floral arrangements, heavily cushioned aluminum chairs and more pastel than a Bermuda condo is like a cross between an expensive diner and a cheap banquet hall. Proudly displaying their desserts and Sutter Home white zinfandel collection in a tall glass fridge right by the entrance way, it's leaning towards diner. Yet despite this, Portofino is one of the most expensive restaurant options available. Three out of five meat entrees are priced over $20 and almost all of the rest are priced over $17. Sure, $20 isn't really bad if the food happens to be really good, but alas, as we were to learn, that was not to be.

E and J met up with me just outside Portofino's portcullis. We were warmly greeted, shown to our table, given our laminated, glossy spiral menus and presented with a 20 piece bucket of garlic bread. It was like KFC. After a solid twenty minutes of pouring over each plastic page, nothing really stood out, so the three of us chose to split a sampler-style appetizer. The Hot Antipasto starter was our choice. After telling our waiter that we'd split it, he asked us if we'd like the appetizer "for two". Not realizing that the size was optional, we agreed. Apparently "for two" means two of them. The dish came with eggplant rollatine, which wasn't bad, but which looked basically a giant cheese-covered blob. Atop it sat perched a single lonely shrimp. The stuffed mushrooms were essentially a single mushroom with a crouton where the stem used to be. The clams and mussels were decidedly fishy-tasting and had more than their fair share of sand. I'd show you a photo of the dish, but every pic just looked like vomit from a different angle.

When our dinners arrived, improvement was relative. J ordered the Grilled Salmon con Verdura, a grilled salmon fillet with grilled vegetables and some undercooked potatoes nestled inside of a iceberg lettuce leaf. The first thing J said was "well, this is pretty oily." The oil aside, the fish was... poor. "I'm repulsed" was E's critique when she tried it. E's dish was the restaurant's namesake chicken dish, the Chicken alla Portofino, and was significantly better than the salmon. It was, supposed to be a chicken breast under a tomato scallion garlic sauce, but was in fact essentially, a huge chicken finger under a cold mild salsa. In keeping with the decorating theme, the undercooked potatoes and iceberg lettuce made their appearance. A bowl of spaghetti accompanied the chicken as a side and was pushed aside after one bite. Still, chicken fingers are always yummy, even if they cost eighteen bucks. If J's dinner was bad and E's dinner was mediocre, my entree sat somewhere in between in the at-least-it's-edible zone: the Farfalle alla Portofino, bow tie pasta with broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes and chunks of filet mignon in a garlic sauce. The pasta was cooked well, but nothing, not even the filet mignon, had an ounce of flavor.

We decided to order dessert, if for no reason other than to gild the lily. It was probably the best part of the meal, with not one offensive dish! But they didn't make the desserts, so maybe our surprise was unwarranted. Still, they gave us sporks to eat with!!! SPORKS!!! Hilarity was had by all. Anyway, J ordered the Apple Torte (apple pie), E ordered the Fruitto di Bosco (berry cream pie) and I tried the Vanilla Mousse (pictured below). All were served with a little dash of Redi-Whip and all were sporktacular.

Okay, so if the guy in the kitchen here is so... in need of help... why is Portofino always bustling? The staff, I can say without hesitation, was very nice. You could not ask for a more smiling group of people. No complaints there. But other than that, what keeps people coming in all the time? Well, the clientele is noticeably older and the elderly knows what they likes and they aren't about to go to some whippersnapper place down the block. Portofino's been around for a long time and their regulars know it. It's comfortable and it probably hasn't changed an iota since 1975. But here's the thing: Forest Hills is getting younger, and younger diners are far more culinarily worldly than their parents and grandparents and thus, less forgiving. With the exception of its service. Portofino failed on almost every level (price, decor, presentation, food) and I, for one, don't envision myself ever eating dinner here again.

Two appetizers, three entrees, three desserts, and two cups of coffee totaled $132 including tax and tip. Sure, the whole experience was... disappointing. On the plus side, I don't think I've laughed at dinner quite so much as I did then.

It should also be noted that I have eaten at their pizza section and had their Chicken Roll, which was massive and surprisingly good. If the marinara sauce it was served with was better it could have been the best in the area. On the downside, the pizza place has table service, so you have to tip, making this the most expensive chicken roll I can remember having.



>> Sunday, August 16, 2009

112-20 Queens Boulevard
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 275-2828

There is, across much of the city, a Peruvian mini-chain called Pio Pio which cranks out dirt cheap, incredible chicken. In fact, there's one right nearby in Rego Park on Woodhaven. Now, they have a clone and that clone has opened up shop here in Forest Hills, on Queens Boulevard.

El Pollo Inka, right down to the color paint and walking chicken logo, is just like Pio Pio. First, if the chicken dishes got any cheaper, they'd be giving them away; second, customers order sangria by the bucket; third, they doll out massive volumes of comida; fourth, it's almost the same exact size as the Rego Park one (very small).

Bro and I first noticed El Pollo Inka yesterday as we drove by and went that night. Arriving at 8 on a Saturday, they had a few tables, amazingly. A Pio Pio wait would have been well over a half hour. We were led to our seat, asked for some South American soda and an order of Anticuchos (cow's heart served shish-ka-bob style with a spicy dipping sauce) and annoyed other customers with my camera. For those who haven't had heart before, let me say that this is not just some organ. No, heart's muscle, so it's like eating a tender, fatless and boneless cut of beef. Much like filet mignon, but more dense. For those who are squeamish, trust me, it's good.

For dinner we ordered the Number 2 Combo. Basically, this is an entire roast chicken, a side rice, a side of Maduros (fried sweet plantains), a side of Salchipapas (french fries with sliced up hot dogs...) and a large salad. The whole combo was $22 and we ate half. In other words, four people could have a filling meal here for $5.50 each. That's crazy cheap. So what was it like? Okay, the chicken was very very good, but not quite up to Pio Pio standards. It was a bit too dry and didn't have quite the amount of glazing that you'd get there. The salad was huge and good, so if you like salads, you'll have a nice little start to your meal. french fries with hot dogs are an acquired taste which I have yet to acquire. But the fries themselves were good. The maduros were incredible. If I ordered anything else instead of the chicken combo, I definitely get this as an additional side. The only thing that you didn't get much of was the rice, oddly enough, since that's the cheapest item of all.

El Pollo Inka has Peruvian entrees other than the chicken that average about $14 each, and when I return (not if), I'm going to try one of them... with some maduros.

The whole meal with tax and tip was $42.



>> Tuesday, August 11, 2009

96-05 Metropolitan Avenue
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 261-3483

Having eaten two meals at Megumi, I strongly doubt I will bother with a third one. Megumi is one of a seemingly endless supply of small mediocre Japanese restaurants that have cropped up in the past few years and it doesn't stray far from the herd. It rests on the industrial, car wash end of Metropolitan between a nail salon and diner that I don't think is open anymore. I plan to eat a lot more on Metropolitan Avenue in the coming months, as people have described Metropolitan Avenue as Forest Hills' new dining district, but I think that such a statement is an exaggeration, at best. Especially between Continental and Woodhaven.

Walking inside, you immediately notice the blandness of the place. No passion seems to have gone into it. Even the air conditioner, a necessity in this sweltering heat, seemed to have given up. It was very stuffy inside. Maybe that's why almost all of the lights were off and I ate in the dark (I intentionally overexposed the photo). Maybe that's why I was the only one eating here instead of having take out.

The Miso Soup, a mainstay of any Japanese restaurant, was pretty good, but it was all broth. Not one cube of tofu, not one scallion, accompanied the few, lonely shards of seaweed, floating at the bottom as though hiding from my cheap plastic spoon. The Sushi meal, which consisted of a Spicy Tuna Roll and six pieces of sushi was actually warm. The fish itself was good if not varied, but someone needs to invest in a bag of ice. I also tried the Beef Teriyake, which came with a salad and sat on a bed of barely cooked onion. I can't say anything much about this except that I wouldn't order it. It was boring and tasteless and the salad, admittedly never the most impressive part of any Japanese meal, appeared to have more dressing than lettuce.

Each dish was pretty cheap at under $10. I feel like there could be room for improvement if they cranked up the AC, turned on the lights, took the cheap paper signs down from the window and put more energy into their chow.

Oh... and I got a fortune cookie???




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