EXO CAFE

>> 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.

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News...

>> Friday, March 25, 2011

Esparks's flame goes out.

Esparks, the microchain coffee shop on the Corner of Metropolitan and Cooper is closed.

Esparks had a lot of pros and cons. They gave you a Starbucks atmosphere with cushy chairs and free wifi, but the coffee was pretty weak and the wifi was often out. The tables were too high for the chairs and benches and they frequently played Christian rock and folk music, which I could have personally done without. Very often the staff was missing and you'd stand there in silence waiting, ever waiting for someone to come out of the back room.

But still. They were a nice place overall. They were not too far out of the way that I couldn't walk there. The area was safe enough and they had a small parking lot so that on a drive out of town I could drive up, park with my roof down without fear, grab an iced coffee or a froyo and be on my way. The area Starbuckses are in areas too congested to be able to do that.

Besides, I like options and there are no independent coffee shops here. Remember my rant from way back when? It still rings true.

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SANTA FE STEAKHOUSE

>> Thursday, March 10, 2011

SANTA FE is (finally) closed.
SANTA FE STEAKHOUSE
107-18 70th Road
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 459-4040


Uno's, TGI Friday's, Sizzler. These three chain restaurants nestle themselves comfortably in the 11375 zip code. They serve decent, if not particularly impressive food, they don't cost a ton, and they're frequently crowded. I think we can add another chain to the list, even though it's only a chain of one. A single, lonely link. The Santa Fe Steakhouse. From the staff that wears embroidered Santa Fe polos to the Southwestern kitch theme, to the generic and patently unoriginal food, it's painfully clear that this was a franchise concept that never grew past this one location.



Service-wise, Santa Fe was great. Our waitress was very nice, very pleasant, very prompt. I can't say enough nice things about the service. The decor is straight out of Outback territory. Neon beer signs, wooden booths with tall backs, murals depicting the scenic vistas of the restaurant's namesake (the state, not the Hyundai), and so on. There's even a version of the Bloomin' Onion in the appetizers. Not being the world's largest trumpeters of the glory of mall food (go to Rego Park or Elmhurst if you are), I wasn't really expecting very much. ... Uh, to be honest, that's only partly true. I'd already eaten at Santa Fe a few times and I already wasn't impressed. But it had been a few years and I was wondering if they had, like a good steak, improved with some gentle aging. This would not, I would learn, be the case.



Pike and I arrived midweek and were promptly seated. The front was rather crowded; the rear was deserted. Come the weekends, I'm sure the place fills up. We ordered a couple of sodas while we scanned the menu. Good thing we drink diet soda because what you get here is literally a liter of cola. A pitcher with a straw in it is a single serving. If they do that with their beer, I'd be in heaven. In a sense, they do, come to think of it. You can get a bucket of five Coronas for $15. That's pretty good. But I digress.



We started with some Lobster Bisque. Here's the thing. We'd literally this past weekend been to Luke's Lobster and had lobster bisque there. Luke's Lobster makes a mighty amazing soup. So how did Santa Fe's stack up? Not well. It was thin, virtually tasteless, and almost devoid of any actual lobster. There was the smell of lobster, but when you sipped, your tongue would start accusing your nose of lying to it. "Bland" was the most often used word of the evening, as our entrees, soon to come, can attest.



The dinners come with a side dish and a salad. Some form of potato, be it baked or fried, or steamed vegetables. Pike and I, by sheer coincidence, are both on a low-carb kick so we stuck with steamed vegetables. Steamed broccoli and cauliflower are tasteless almost by design. It's hard to steam them just right to retain flavor and crunch. A good chef can, Santa Fe didn't, and most people can't anyway. My point is, I'm not complaining about the blandness of the steamed cauliflower. The salad is another story. A pitiful bowl of iceberg lettuce, a single slice of onion, a single slice of tomato, and a peppering of croutons does not a salad make. Now maybe you just soak your lettuce in a soup of French dressing and don't give a shit since you can't taste anything anyway with a mouth full of sugar and mayonnaise, but I'm not like that. Salads should stand on their own. If they can't, don't serve it.



I ordered the Rib Eye Steak, medium rare. It came medium rare but I don't know if I'd call it "steak". See, "steak" has flavor. This was more like a protein-delivery vehicle. One day, when robots make steak, they will make this steak. Soulless and artless, un-seasoned, un-crusted, perfectly designed to get 14 ounces of cow matter from a kitchen to a stomach with as little energy as possible. Santa Fe probably figures that their average customer is just going to slop a jar's worth of ketchup all over it anyway, so why bother. In that case, Santa Fe is forgiven and I shake my finger in shame at the customers. Tsk tsk. Pike ordered the Sagebrush Chicken, which Santa Fe describes as a "flame-broiled chicken breast smothered in mushrooms, bacon and jack and cheddar cheese". This is a bit of an exaggeration. Here's what it should have said: "a grilled chicken breast with two strips of bacon on top, with a few slices of Cracker Barrel melted on top. Then we take some mushrooms and put them next to it." This was marginally better than my steak, if for no reason other than because my steak didn't have bacon and melted cheese hugging it like a down jacket. Still, it was bland and somewhat pitiful to look at.

Calling Santa Fe a steakhouse when it's menu has all of six kinds of steak is a stretch. It's menu is a pretty good size with chicken dishes like the one we tried and burgers and fajitas and bar food and ribs. I imagine that it's great to take kids to since kids like theme restaurants and messy fingers and it's probably not bad if you're with some friends looking for a burger or nachos or the kind of food people in the suburbs like to be washed down with a bucket of beer or a pitcher of cola. But Santa Fe does call itself a steakhouse and it certainly isn't one. In fact, other than the sign outside, if my meal is any indication, I'd say it hardly even tries to be, save the price. My steak cost $24 and you can see what that got me.

2 sodas, 2 soups, 2 entrees, plus tax and tip came to $82. Yes. Eighty two dollars.

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CHIKURIN

>> Tuesday, March 1, 2011

CHIKURIN
110-72 Queens Boulevard
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 263-9888


I'm not going to beat this review to death with flowery prose and lots of photos. Long story short, Pike and I went here for dinner. It stunk. If you want me to expound, read on.



Chikurin is a Japanese restaurant on Queens Boulevard and it was because it was so close to where my friend Pike lives that we decided to go here. (That and the mission of this blog is to go everywhere in the neighborhood.) The interior is plain but bright. The customers were all very young. College age. This is understandable. One of my memories of college include tipping the pizza guy in cigarettes because we ran out of money. At $3 or so a roll and plenty of inexpensive entrees, Chikurin is probably the flat-out cheapest place in the zip code to get sushi.

We were pointed to a table and we sat down. To call our waitress, a woman in her 40s-50s, temperamental would be kind. She was pissed. "Am I giving this woman an attitude and don't realize it?" Pike asked when we told her we needed a couple of more minutes to pick out what we wanted. "It's not you." I told him. "It's her. She's acting like a meanie." Though whether I called her a meanie or something else is hard to recall. My memory's fuzzy on the subject.

Pike ordered the Sashimi Regular, a plate of tuna, salmon and yellowtail. "This isn't good." He told me and left half of the plate untouched. Frankly, that half the plate was eaten was because he gave me some. I agreed. I may not have thought that it was spoiled, but it was tasteless and the pieces were so huge that one might legitimately wonder if they were trying to get rid of it. I ordered three rolls: The Philadelphia Roll, which I typically love but here was not good at all. Funky tasting; The Eel Cucumber Roll, which I also typically love but here was mediocre and boring; The Sweet Potato Roll, which was actually very good. Interesting that it was fishless... Speaking of fishless, we both ordered Miso Soup, which was also good. I guess the moral of the story here is that Chikurin is the sushi restaurant you shouldn't order fish in.

I intended to make this a two-trip review. But truth be told though, there are plenty of good Japanese/sushi places around and this meal was so disappointing that I decided not to spend the money. Let me know how your meals there have been. I'm curious about whether my experience is a common one.

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