112-04 Queens Boulevard
Forest Hills, NY 11375
A neighborhood can have too many of many things. Nail salons, dollar stores, and cell phone shops are on that list. Wine bars are not. Wine bars are one of those the-more-the-merrier types of establishments. When Keuka Kafe opened on Queens Boulevard not too long ago, I was pretty excited. Maybe it wasn't exactly near me, but after writing my Open Letter to Danny Brown, it was nice to see some momentum in the direction that I was hoping.
Keuka Kafe gets its name from an upstate New York Finger Lake and is one of the few wine bars in the city - maybe the only one - that devotes half of its wine list to New York wineries. That's a shame because New York has some very good vineyards (touristy Pindar notwithstanding). As a person who appreciates locally derived food, it was a long time coming getting here.
I took Myna the other Sunday as evening was setting in and we plonked down at one of their tables along the wall. Keuka is small. They have about a half dozen tables, a handful of window seats, and about ten spots at the bar. The large window allows for some ambient light, but even in the day Keuka is pretty dark. Come night, the candles were a necessity in seeing the menu. Our waiter, a super nice Canadian guy allowed us to sample a few wines and beers before taking our food order.
I won't get into the wines that we tried. Suffice it to say everyone has their own preference and I won't pretend to know more than I do. We liked everything that we ordered.
We were wavering on appetizers. Keuka is a rarity in the area in that it offers oysters. At the time, the price was $22 per dozen. We almost went to town right then and there, but held off. Oysters, for whatever reason, were always a daylight food for me. Our first appetizer was the Deviled Eggs. If you like deviled eggs, then you'll like these. Do they match the sriracha deviled eggs I got last summer at Barcade? No. But I wasn't complaining. Up next came the Grilled Chorizo, served with a Riesling mustard on a bed of arugula and onion. The chorizo was very good. Spicy without being too overpowering, slightly smoky, and with just the right amount of char from the grill. I almost wanted to get their chorizo sandwich after having this appetizer. Half jestingly, Myna noted the volume of green on the plates before us. "Why bother ordering a salad?"
Keuka divides its menu into hot and cold sandwiches. We chose one from each. From the hot menu, we picked the Cornell, a caprese sandwich. Melted mozarella over tomato and basil on a baguette lathered in basil pesto. It was delicious and I'd get it again without hesitation. Our cold choice was the Continential (like the sushi rolls at Sushi Akio, many of the foods are named after Forest Hills streets), applewood smoked ham, manchego, baby spinach, and mustard on a baguette. This was just okay. I can't say that it felt any different from a mass market sandwich that I'd get at Pret A Manger or Au Bon Pain and even though the baguette was the same as the one that was used on the Cornell, without being toasted and given an olive oil massage, it was extremely tough to bite through. I don't really recommend this menu choice.
The most natural comparison for a Forest Hills diner is to compare Keuka Kafe with Jack & Nellie's on Ascan so that's what I will quickly do. Jack & Nellie's is far more of a restaurant. The food there is prepared with a level of chef-like flair that one of your food snob friends from Park Slope would feel right at home. Keuka's menu is small and easy. Salads, sandwiches, a few appetizers, and naturally a meat/cheese selection. I would not go to Keuka for a full scale dinner. But Keuka is more relaxed. It's less of a scene. It's more neighborhoody, if that makes sense. If there was a way to make a wine bar the kind of place you would become a regular at the same way that you might become a regular at a sports bar or Irish pub, then Keuka pulls it off.
If you'd like to try some local wines as reconnaissance for taking a weekend exploring the lakes yourself, or if you just want to grab a glass and wind down your day, Keuka is where to go. Maybe one day the menu will mature into something slightly more inspiring (raw bar aside), but until then, I don't see it being much of a dinner spot.
Wines run $30-50 per bottle and $8-13 per glass. Meat/cheese plates run from $15-25. Appetizers average $8. Sandwiches and salads average $10.