TUSCAN HILLS

>> Friday, February 11, 2011

TUSCAN HILLS
115-20 Queens Boulevard
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 487-4500


So many of people wrote me emails or comments asking me to go to Tuscan Hills that I was almost afraid to for fear of not liking it and then getting stoned by an angry mob. But go I did, twice to cover more of the menu, and so here we go.



We denizens of Forest Hills are in no short supply of Italian restaurants. We are, lamentably, in dire need of some good ones. Red sauce slop can be had anywhere, but especially along Austin Street/Queens Boulevard. The last time I had good Italian in FH was at Il Poeta on Metropolitan and they finally appear to have, in my book, actual competition. Though there is some room for improvement, which I'll get into, Tuscan Hills is your best bet for Italian should Il Poeta be too inconvenient.



The interior, with its exposed brick walls, high, wood-beamed ceilings and open kitchen evoke a cooler more West Village vibe than Il Poeta's midtowny, table clothed old-fartiness. The wine list is a decent one with bottles averaging in the $30s and glasses around $7. The regular menu is nice and tight, not a voluminous tome trying to cover every range of taste and they don't have two hundred specials at a time. However, that menu is also laminated in plastic, something that feels tacky and cheap. Both times I went, Tuscan Hills was virtually deserted. This should not be. Not when Portofino is routinely filled (albeit with a very aged crowd).



As I said, I ate two meals here. One with my friend Speeds and one with my friend Lina. Speeds, ever a fan of all things calamari, ordered the Calamari Fritti, a relatively standard fried calamari dish which was very good. The breading wasn't too thick and the calamari wasn't chewy. I stole a good chunk and we both enjoyed it. I also ordered the Ribollita, a white bean soup with kale, tomato, Parmesan and an island of bread floating within. It was a nice, pleasant soup, good for a cold winter, but it was somewhat bland. Yeah, I know, it's a white bean soup. Still, a little bit of bacon would have done wonders. Upon my return with Lina, we ordered their Cozze in Tegame, mussels in a white wine and cream sauce. This was delicious and the mussels were quite large I was extremely impressed.



Speeds ordered the Pici alla Fondelli, a fettucini in a wild boar and olive meat sauce. It was okay. I like wild boar, but, and this is hard to explain, the sauce lacked much in the way of kick. It, like my soup, was somewhat vague and bland. Maybe some Parmesan would have helped, but I feel like it should be able to stand on its own. The pasta was, however, perfect and clearly freshly made, something I can't help but appreciate. I'm a huge gnocchi-lover so I chose the Gnocchi Gratinati, a potato gnocchi in a meat sauce under a big heaping of melted mozzarella. This was good, but not amazing. Hands down, the winner for best gnocchi in the area, if not the city, remains firmly in the grip of Uvarara. This version was like comfort-food gnocchi, not push-the-boundaries-of-what-gnocchi-can-be gnocchi.

When I returned with Lina, she ordered the Rigatoni Alla Norma, an eggplant, basil and mozzarella dish. Actually, she ordered the eggplant pizza but our waiter misheard her and lo came this. It may not have been what she ordered but it was actually extremely good. She especially liked the sauce, which she said tasted fresh, not like it was pizza sauce from a jar. "The thing about Italian food is the sauce. It can make or break the whole dish." She's Italian, so I'll take her word for it. My entree was the Selletta Al Pepe Verde, a skirt steak with green peppercorn and mashed potatoes under a creamy brandy sauce. This, by all rights, should have been perfect, and it could have been but for one problem. The sauce was delicious. The mashed potatoes were melt in your mouth smooth. The steak, though, was cheap, chewy and fatty. If this was a filet mignon or any other boneless cut, it would be fantastic. Alas, 'twas not.



Lina and I didn't order dessert, opting to grab some cupcakes at Martha's instead. But Speeds and I split a Tiramisu for dessert. Very good tiramisu. We were both impressed and wiped the plate clean.



While I may have made a few complaints here, I do legitimately think that Tuscan Hills is a good addition for our dining community and a good sign that Forest Hills restaurants are getting better. The food was solid, the pasta was fresh, the wine was filled to the brim in my glass, the service was good despite that one mistake and the mussels were fantastic. I've heard good things about the pizza but haven't tried it yet. I will certainly put Tuscan Hills on my short list of places that I would enjoy returning to. I just hope they swap out that flank steak by then.

Three appetizers, four entrees, five glasses of wine, two coffees and one dessert, plus tax and tip came to $168 (two meals at $93 and $75).

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KITCHEN NIGHTMARES: PJ'S STEAKHOUSE

>> Monday, February 7, 2011

Kitchen Nightmares finally recently aired their long-awaited Forest Hills episode, where Gordon Ramsay tries to turn Yellowstone Boulevard's PJ'S Steakhouse a success. Spoiler alert - he failed.


This is a Hulu embed. So, I can't control when they take it down.

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MINT'S THAI KITCHEN

>> Thursday, February 3, 2011

MINT'S THAI KITCHEN
70-15A Austin Street
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 268-1470


Thai Austin has passed on to the Zagat Guide in the sky and, in its place is Mint's, another Thai restaurant with a very takeout-specific name. Is it better, worse, or merely a renaming? The menu is smaller than TA's is, and that's usually a good sign, but with so many Thai restaurants within walking distance, I can't help but think to myself that unless Mint's can fulfill some niche that Thai Austin could not, that this won't be a particularly profitable venture. Mint's, it must sadly be said, does not fill a new niche. I ate at Mint's twice recently and, both times, I left thinking that they were good, but not great.



Inside Mint's, the set up is virtually identical to Thai Austin's, but not quite so low-rent. The wicker chandelier lamps evoke a subtle hint of the tropics and are a nice touch. The white roses that pepper the dining area, meanwhile, feel out of place. Flower accents should always be small, but Mint's has, like, whole vases of them. The service was very good. Attentive and chipper. They aren't very busy so you can sit pretty much wherever you want. My friend Pike and I came here together and he liked it. Hidden under the sidewalk and behind a pillar, it's cozy and comfortable and not expensive. I could almost see the gears in his head whirring as he thought to himself "my girlfriend would like this place..."

Anyway, rather than create two separate storylines in which I recount tales of hoofing through the storm and snow, I'll just give you a rundown on what I/we ate. But yes, I did hoof it through the snow.



Appetizers: I ordered Mint's Mixed Appetizers (pictured), which comes with: Shrimp Parcels, wonton wrapped shrimp moose with sesame seed and lime curd sauce. They were not to my taste. The sauce helped but not by much. If you like fishy, room temperature shrimp and wrapped in filo dough, please get this. I'll pass.; Steamed Vegetable Dumplings, which is corn, mushroom, tofu, spinach, peanut and garlic all ground into a gritty paste and wrapped in dough. Soaking them in soy sauce didn't help much, so I couldn't recommend them.; Chicken Curry Puffs, a chicken potato pastry with a sweet cucumber sauce. Anyone who remembers anything I order at just about any Thai restaurant knows I loves me my curry puffs. And these were the best of the three by far. Sadly, they were a far cry from the best and a with so much of that aforementioned competition, why would I get them here?



Soups: I tried two soups. First, the Shrimp Lemon Grass Soup (Tom Yum Kung), a spicy clear soup with lime, lemongrass, mushroom, and shrimp. Very good. Definitely something worth having on either a cold winter day, where heat always feels good, or on a hot summer day, where sweating helps cool you down. Next up, the Chicken Galangal Soup (Tom Kha Gai), a coconut broth chicken soup with tomato, cabbage and mushroom. Not bad. Not as thick and heavy as other tom kha gai soups that I've had, and that thinness meant it wasn't as flavorful as it could have been. But it wasn't bad and if you want something to warm up with without spiciness, then this option isn't a bad one.



As with all Thai restaurants, regardless of the dish you order, be it curry or rice or noodles, you can choose your protein (tofu, chicken, beef, shrimp). Pike ordered the Pad See Ew with Shrimp, a flat rice noodle dish with vegetables and egg. Very good. I was thoroughly impressed. I wanted something with a spicy kick to it, so I ordered Mint's Drunken Noodles with Beef, and was considerably less impressed. First off, too much sauce and the sauce was too salty. Second, they used round wheat noodles, something I'd never seen before and frankly hope not to see again, given that they lacked anything in the way of flavor. If this was supposed to be some sort of nod to the health conscious, then I'd expect the rest of the menu to reflect that. Instead, it just seemed like they got the recipe wrong. Mind you, Pike didn't think it was nearly as regrettable a main dish as I. So perhaps I'm just harsh. That said, I offered to trade and he said no. From now on, my I'll get my drunken noodles from Bangkok Cuisine. I returned a few days later and ordered their Beef with Ginger and Garlic. A stir fry of beef, onion, scallion and pepper. Spicy. And tasty. A vast improvement over the drunken noodles. I also ordered two sides. First, the Sticky Rice, served wrapped in a palm leaf and pressed into a firm cube, it was an essential part of sponging up the sauce of my entree. By the way, never have I encountered a sticky rice so sticky. You practically need a knife to cut though it. Next, the Spicy Potatoes, sauteed potatoes in an almost too-sweet (and not at all spicy), syrupy glaze. They were like candy coated potatoes. I liked them, but I didn't love them. They were simply too intense.



Overall, my impression of Mint's is a positive one. It has good service and a cozy atmosphere, but is marred by hit or miss dishes. I wonder how well they can really hope to do in a nabe with so much Thai competition. But here, in a nutshell is my solution: Mints has no liquor license. Or, at the least, sells no liquor. Therefore, I think that the niche they could fill would be to become Forest Hills' BYOB restaurant. I'll bet that if they let everyone bring their own bottles of wine, they'd clean up. I haven't been to a single BYOB restaurant in NYC that didn't have a line. After all, everyone likes saving a few bucks, especially in this economy.

The average Mint's rice/noodle/curry entree is $10, though they have more fancy options for $17. Sides and apps were around $5-$7. Mint's is available through Seamlessweb.

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eateryrow@gmail.com

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