“Say Cheese” at The Queens Kickshaw

This Memorial Day weekend, I am getting my fix of restaurants in western Queens!

After months of hearing rave reviews, I finally got myself to the Queens Kickshaw, a new establishment in Astoria that serves “fancy” grilled cheese sandwiches, craft beer, and specialty coffee.  Thanks to the power of Twitter, I organized a a casual “tweetup” with fellow Queens resident foodies @Stellaaa, @RoxWriting, and @mojoshowbiz, some of whom I met in person for the very first time.

All of the sandwiches on the menu, as seen on the website (screenshot below), sounded tasty and we arrived with a strategy.

Egg and cheese (Brioche and maple hot sauce); Cheddar and mozzarella (Brioche with tomato soup); Gruyere (Pickled and caramelized onions on rye with Napa Cabbage-caraway slaw); Manchego and Ricotta (Minted eggplant and capers on multigrain with green salad and pickled golden raisins); Gouda (Black bean hummus, guava jam, pickled jalapenos on brioche with green salad and jalapeno vinaigrette); Arahovas Feta (Ajvar roasted red pepper spread and dill open-face on focaccia with green salad and olive vinaigrette); Fontina Val d'Aosta (Marinated mushrooms and basil pesto open-face on focaccia with green salad and toasted pine nuts); Great Hill Blue (Prune jam and fresh pear on cranberry-walnut bread with green salad and pickled blueberries; Tomato soup; Napa cabbage slaw; Kitchen sink salad; Miso-mustard pickles; Curried pumpkin seeds; Lemon coriander olives

We agreed in advance to order four different sandwiches, and split them all in quarters so we could have a sample taste of each.  It was a brilliant idea and one I suggest you employ if you want to avoid the awful dilemma of have to choose just one sandwich.

After some deliberation, we decided on the Manchego & Ricotta, Gouda, Gruyere, and Fontina (clockwise, at 12 o’clock) .  All the sandwiches were delicious in their own right but it would be unlike me not to compare and contrast them.  So in order of least to most favorite based solely on personal preference, they are….drum roll please…

While I was prepared for the open-faced Fontina Val d’Aosta, my palette craved the crispiness of a two-sided, grilled cheese.  The familiar pairing of basil pesto with the soft focaccia was lovely but by sheer virtue of sandwich construction, I placed it last.

The Gruyere reminded me so much of a pastrami sandwich without the meat.  The pickled and caramelized onion, the mustard, the rye bread are the building blocks of a pastrami sandwich.  This one was a wonderful vegetarian alternative if you are craving those flavors.

In the rare instances that I see guava on a menu, I almost always order it.  The fruit, and its tarty taste, remind me so much of the Philippines.  The sweetness of the jam juxtaposed with the creaminess of the black been hummus and Gouda cheese plus the pickled jalapanos created a complexity of flavors that I really enjoyed.  The grilled brioche melted in my mouth which added a different dimension of texture to your traditional grilled cheese sandwich.

I really loved the Gouda sandwich and the Manchego & Ricotta barely eeked past it as my favorite of the four.  I think what it boiled down to was my preference today for something not sweet.  Essentially, this sandwich reminded me of an eggplant tapenade.  The smooth texture of the cheeses and the pureed eggplant with whole briny capers was a winning combination.

After taking a quarter of each sandwich, we coined our newly formed concoction the “Franken-sandwich” (with a Guatemalan pour over coffee in the background).

The place was packed at 1pm on Sunday.  Long tables in the back and a large table in the front allowed several parties to sit together, promoting a casual intimacy and sense of connection.  The place definitely gave off a Williamsburg vibe where attention to detail, decor, craftmanship, and service were top priorities.  It is quite a change from most of the establishments in the neighborhood.  At our table, we (three of Filipino & one of Italian descent) sat beside four Tibetan women speaking in their native tongue and a solitary man wearing a plaid shirt and headphones, typing away on his Macbook.  I smiled at a sudden realization.

When I think of Queens’ great asset, its ethnic diversity, I must admit that I often think of its new immigrants.  I forget that there are people who have lived in this borough all their lives, whose families have lived here for several generations.  Heck, I forget that even hipsters are a part of this great borough.  In Astoria, once a neighborhood where all my childhood Greek friends lived, all are welcome.  Our table at the Queens Kickshaw reflected just that.

Owners, Ben Sandler and Jennifer Lim, took the time to chat with us despite the restaurant’s constant incoming flow of people.  When it was time to take the obligatory group photo, the only appropriate response at the end of the countdown was of course, “Grilled Cheese!”


The Queens Kickshaw
40-17 Broadway
Astoria, NY 11103
(718) 777-0913
www.thequeenskickshaw.com

Diner & Coffee Fix in Long Island City

Before my husband and I bought our house last year, I was an Astoria resident for eight years.  Living in the western part of Queens, closest to Manhattan — Astoria and in neighboring Long Island City — was delightful.  New restaurants, stores, residential buildings popped up all the time.  For a curious explorer like me, this aspect of change was exciting.

Magasin Wells Diner, more colloquially known as “M. Wells”,  opened a few months after I left the area.  Hearing all the great reviews about this place, I knew it would be a matter of time before I visited.  But weeks became months and months became a year.  I was embarrassed that even visitors to NYC (like this awesome foodie couple from California) even got here before I did!  They live 3,000 miles away from the restaurant.  Me?  10 miles away. What was wrong with this picture?  So I corrected the problem TODAY.

The food at M. Wells has been described as “Quebecois-American”.  The owners are a married couple, and the husband was a former chef at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal.  I hit the jackpot by arriving on this Friday morning before Memorial Day.  I was seated right away and as I looked around, I noticed there were still some empty seats to spare.  My waitress said this occurrence was unusual and we agreed it was probably a function of the long holiday weekend.

While reviews rave of the offal dishes, I was in the mood to trying something else since it was only 10:30 am and my stomach was not ready for foie gras, tongue, or veal brains.  All right, I’ll be honest. I don’t think my stomach will ever be ready for veal brains…  Gasp! Will you still respect me and view me as a “foodie”?

Instead, I opted for the egg and potato hash because the bacon and fiddleheads in the dish appealed to me.  I was disappointed to learn that the hash had been altered to include crab meat, asparagus, and peas. I still chose it anyway since I was in the mood for potato hash and a soft egg.  While the dish was tasty, it would’ve been SURELY out of this world had it been made with the salty, savory bacon paired with the earthy fiddleheads.

My husband opted for the Cubano sandwich, which was pressed flat allowing the meat edges poking outside of the bread to become crisp.

I’ll be sure to come back here again.  I know I was spoiled today since the place was relaxed and calm with no wait.  Perhaps I’ll check out the dinner scene and stop by one of three weeknights they are open in the evening.  I’m sure by that time, I’ll be in the mood for this.

I only drank water at M. Wells because I knew I would head to Sweetleaf next, just two blocks away.  A charming coffee shop with baked goods made on the premises, the place was warm and flooded with natural light thanks to several large windows in the storefront.  As my senses adjusted to the place, it took less than a few minutes to encounter this amusing sign.

Co-owner Rich Nieto was behind the counter.  Without knowing what to order, I asked him to suggest something for me.  Since it was a hot day, he suggested the “Iced Rocket Fuel”, an iced coffee, cold brewed with chicory and maple syrup.  But I also wanted a hot coffee so he suggested a “pour over” coffee made with Stumptown coffee beans of his choice.

We followed him to the back and settled by the pour-over “bar”.  It was hard to stay seated on the bar stools because I curiously wanted to watch each preparation step.   It was mesmerizing.  Rich reminded me of a scientist in the lab sans the white medical coat.  To brew this individual cup, he sought accuracy and precision with various tools: thermometer, measuring cup, and scale.  In this age of mass commercialization and high production, making one 12-ounce cup of coffee took time, patience, and dare I say, love?  It was a nice change of pace from the usual way I ordered coffee.  It gave me the chance to get to know the man behind the counter and find out how this fellow Queens native, who always loved coffee, went from being the owner of a telecommunications company to the owner of a coffee house.  He decided to follow his coffee bliss after his good friend started Sweetleaf.  “Even though I’ve been to Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, I’ve never been to a coffee farm in any of these countries.  But people always think I have.  I was more likely to connect you if you ever called these places,” he laughed as he recalled his former life.

I was thankful for his leap of faith. For in a few minutes I sipped on a Stumptown Finco El Injerto Bourbon from Guatemala, which was bold but smooth with absolutely zero acerbity. It was one of the best cups of coffee I had because I managed to taste the complexity and combination of flavors free of milk and sugar. I always believed that excellent coffee should be drunk black so as to truly taste it. I couldn’t discern my coffee’s “fragrance of jasmine” but I was able to pick up the super subtle hint of chocolate. The Iced Rocket Fuel, surprisingly didn’t have any acerbity either and it finished with the sweet smoothness of maple syrup.

While I didn’t get a chance to sample the baked goodies, I did manage to sneak behind the counter!  As a totally inexperienced barista, I may have freaked out this disturbingly obsessed coffee geek. I’ll spare him the heart attack so that we can all continue to benefit from his talent and passion.  I shall gladly return to my rightful place on the other side of the bar, sipping a delicious cup o’ joe…or two.

M. Wells Diner
21-17 49th Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 425-6917
7 Train to Hunters Point Avenue
www.mwellsdiner.com

Sweetleaf
10-93 Jackson Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11101
(917) 832-6726
7 Train to Vernon Boulevard/Jackson Avenue