>> Monday, March 28, 2011

70-20 Austin Street
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 261-6162

Once upon time, there was a Cajun restaurant called Mardi Gras. They served alligator. They had live jazz. One day, for no discernible reason, Mardi Gras became MG's and then MG's soon died, passing quietly to the great Austin Street in the sky, next to Wine Gallery and Rouge. Enter Exo Cafe (Cafe/Lounge/Grill). Goodbye beads, NOLA kitch and jambalaya. Hello mirrors, marble and sandwiches. Hello staff of hotties and hello best beer list in the neighborhood. Exo really could be a great place. It has the potential. But the follow-through has been weak at best. Gowing pains? Nah, that's a service issue and the service was fine. In fact, everyone there is great and my orders were never screwed up.

When I first looked at Exo's menu in their window, The Beatles were playing an apropos song on my iPod. Fun-looking and inexpensive, I was, overall, impressed. With decent-looking but admittedly girly cocktails and a list of impressive beers, this, I said to myself, might be just the kind of place Forest Hills needed to attract the crowds that might otherwise wind up in at the cocktail lounge/restaurants in Brooklyn. Sadly, Exo isn't even remotely threatening to attract young, hip, disposable income-earners on their way to Brooklyn. I kept wondering where the disco balls and strobe lights were. The music, which alternates between bubblegum-pop and techno, is oppressively loud, even at lunch. It's almost like the owners wanted to give Forest Hillians the experience of having dinner in the eastern-European charm of an Astoria nightclub.

I went to Exo with Pike the other day. The Belgian Fries we ordered as a side were somewhat soggy, plain-old french fries. They weren't terrible but were they Belgian? No. At least there should be mayo. Dipping sauces cost seventy-five cents and while they might be good, we didn't order any. The Beer Battered Onion Rings actually were pretty good (especially if you like batter more than you like onion). They were served with a not-too-bad dipping sauce that was half barbecue and half honey-mustard. Unfortunately, you get very few onion rings. Maybe a dozen or so. We ordered two sandwiches and traded halves. I got the New York Cheese Steak, not to be confused with that loud-mouthed Philly knock-off. It was okay. Strips of steak, some sauteed red bell pepper, and some but not much mozzarella with a hint of A-1 steak sauce. Pike nodded along with me. "Yeah, this is okay." He ordered the Chimichuri sandwich to split, which was far better. Garlicky steak, provolone, tomato and pesto. I recommend this one.

Since Exo devotes a healthy chunk of its menu to burgers, I returned to give their Kobe Beef Sliders a try at lunch (music thump-thump-thumping). Honestly, these were terrible. The bun had been exposed to the air long enough to begin getting stale and crumbly. The tomato slices were wilting. The burgers literally smelled bad. I never send food back, but man was I tempted. I returned once more to order their Hawaiian Hamburger, a teriyaki glazed beef patty with tomato, lettuce and a slice of pineapple. It was okay. Not amazing. The sugary glaze somewhat drowned out the taste.

Back to my dinner with Pike, we ordered coffee, which was pretty good, and skipped dessert. There was a moment of temptation when we noticed the Deep Fried Cheese Cake. I mean, if you're gonna kill yourself with food, cheesecake is one of the fastest and tastiest ways. And if cheesecake is how you've chosen to go, you might as well make it official by boiling it in oil, too. Next time.

So, in the end, what do I think? Exo could be a really cool place to go, god-awful shit sliders notwithstanding. But they should know is that, just like Common Space across the street, they aren't a club and, if they insist on calling themselves a "lounge" then there are certain rules that come with that distinction. First, lounges don't have half a dozen TVs over the bar. That glory goes to TGI-Fridays and Ruby Tuesdays. Second, part of the point of going to a lounge is to talk to your friends and that requires being able to hear them. It's not comfortable to have to scream across the table. So I advise them to nix blasting Beyonce and replace their CD collection with medium volume jazz and funk. I recommend investing in some low-vol Roy Ayers, RJD2 and Theivery Corporation. Get people's feet tapping and their heads swaying while they enjoy their sazeracs. That's a lounge. This is a lounge. If Exo could do this, I wouldn't even care about the take-it-or-leave-it food.

I'll give Exo kudos for being very reasonably priced. Especially their lunch specials, which are under ten bucks. Sandwiches and burgers float between $8 and $12. Beers are $7 per glass.


Tue78,  March 28, 2011 at 8:56 PM  

They need better more attentive bartenders. I was there Friday night with a friend sitting right at the bar and we were waiting 10 minutes for our second drink. We left and wound up at Santa Fe Steakhouse where the one bartender could tend drinks around the non-experienced chick bartenders at Exo. They were unable to handle a Friday night crowd.
Other than that once they get that straightened out it's a great place! Love Exo's vibe!

Jeff March 28, 2011 at 9:04 PM  

Haven't been in there yet, but it seems like the menu is based on burgers and fries and everything I've heard has been negative about the burgers and the fries. Sounds like a good beer list, though.

Anonymous,  March 28, 2011 at 9:04 PM  

How does it compare to Bonfire?seems to me that they are bookends on either end of Austin. I walked past yesterday, saw the menu, and although my husband wanted to go there for dinner, I nixed the idea-- quesadillas, burgers-- how original. I'd rather go to Dirty Pierre's. I'm sure it will do well with the youngsters. Have you tried the new Q yet?

Jon Parker March 29, 2011 at 3:34 PM  

Comparing Exo to Bonfire, they are night and day. Bonfire is, for lack of a better way to describe it, more mature. Bonfire actually, to their credit, removed the TV from the dining room. Bonfire's menu is more refined, not just sandwiches and bar food. Bonfire doesn't blast technopop. Bonfire isn't trying to attract a younger crowd, but oddly, the ages of their customers are similar. Late 20s-40. Perhaps this is unfair, but Bonfire's polo shirt seems more refined than Exo's Von Dutch trucker hat.

Stacey,  March 30, 2011 at 11:06 AM  

We went for a late lunch on a Saturday, and we had good fries then. My only complaint was with the math: A burger costs $10.95 and comes with fries. The sandwiches cost $8.95ish but fries have to be ordered separately for $5.95, plus the extra charge for the sauce. And it's the same size order of fries. That's a pretty ridiculous mark-up, if you ask me. That said, the beer was awesome and the sandwiches tasty. And they were very accommodating for my baby daughter's stroller.

Davidmtc April 22, 2011 at 2:36 PM  

Food is simply fantastic. Check out the story on newsblaze: Exo Cafe: Bar, Lounge and Fine-Dine.

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