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Influx of High-End Restaurants Builds Queens Into a Fine Dining Destination

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska | March 29, 2013 11:32am

QUEENS — Foodies tend to associate high-end restaurants with Manhattan, while Queens is typically thought of as a place with family-style and casual eateries.

But the borough has been growing into a dining destination with many restaurants serving quality and inventive dishes on par with the finest establishments in the city.

For example, danny brown Wine Bar & Kitchen in Forest Hills, the recipient of a coveted Michelin star, serves up an eclectic mix of Spanish and French cuisines that draws diners from around the city and Long Island.

S Prime in Astoria offers steaks aged in a custom-built Himalayan rock salt aging room, which helps flavor and tenderize the meat, as well as a dizzying array of wines ranging up to $3,200 a bottle.

And Queens mainstay London Lennie’s in Rego Park, changes its menu daily depending on the seasonal products.

The critics have taken notice, with 15 Queens restaurants earning the "bib gourmand" in the 2013 Michelin guide, which recognizes eateries that are a good value (offering two courses and a glass of wine for $40 or less). That's up from 2011, when there were 11.

Zagat has also noticed an increase in quality restaurants in Queens. Five years ago the guide covered 87 eateries in the borough. But in the most recent survey, in 2012, that number increased to 117 restaurants, said Curt Gathje, Zagat NYC editor. "That's a pretty significant jump so it certainly suggests to me that it's on the rise," Gathje said of the borough.

Many of the new high-quality restaurants, Gathje said, were established in trendy neighborhoods such as Long Island City and Astoria, after there was a significant increase in the population of young people.

"People really don't want to go to Manhattan every time they want to have something to eat," Gathje said.

Here's a taste of the best Queens has to offer.

danny brown Wine Bar & Kitchen, 104-02 Metropolitan Ave., Forest Hills

Serving contemporary European cuisine, danny brown in Forest Hills is the only restaurant in the borough that earned a Michelin star in the most recent guide.

The owner and the chef, Danny Brown, is a former guitarist who initially started working in restaurants to support his musical career. Over the years, he has worked in eateries in Europe and then at SoHo’s Cub Room, before opening his own place in 2006 in the neighborhood where he grew up. Brown’s wife Audrey is the general manager at the restaurant and his mother Françoise is the wine director.

The combined restaurant and wine bar offers an eclectic dinner menu that includes influences from France, Italy and Spain, drawing crowds from the neighborhood and around the borough, Manhattan and Long Island.

Audrey Brown said her husband is “very methodical” in developing recipes, sometimes making things “15 times in a row” in search for a perfect combination of ingredients. “He also keeps reinventing things,” she said.

Among the most popular dishes are the Organic Chicken “Under a Brick” served with rosemary skillet potatoes and sautéed escarole ($25) and the Creekstone Farms grilled hanger steak and frites served with red wine shallot butter ($29). 

The restaurant also serves up many seasonal dishes, including the Duck Confit served with Yukon potatoes, Brussels sprouts and whole grain mustard sauce ($28).

The wine bar serves over 100 wines by the bottle, which is “quite extensive for Queens,” Brown said.

Most of the selections, which include vintages from California, South Africa, South America, Australia and Europe, run for between $30 and $60, a move designed to keep prices reasonable. There are also red, white and rosé tastings.  

London Lennie’s, 63-88 Woodhaven Blvd., Rego Park

After 54 years in business, London Lennie’s has become a true destination with fresh fish and seasonal dishes.

Lennie Barnes, a British native, started the eatery as a retail fish shop with one table, where he sometimes cooked fish and chips London-style. Today, the restaurant occupies half a block and is now owned by Lennie’s son, Leslie, who has been going with his father to the fish market since he was 5 years old. “My father was always dedicated to a quality seafood and when I took over at the age of 22, we just carried on that family tradition,” said Leslie Barnes.

The secret is fresh fish, he said. The restaurant doesn’t freeze the food and buys fresh products every day, mostly from the Fulton Fish Market.

“My father always said only bad fish tastes fishy,” Barnes said.

Executive chef, Jeffrey Baruch — a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who started working in Long Island restaurants when he was 14 and has appeared on the on Food Network shows "Iron Chef America" and "Chopped" — has worked there for about 8 years. Baruch has owned four different Zagat rated restaurants in Long Island, before coming to London Lennie’s, where he added sushi to the menu of goodies.

The restaurant, which has been attracting generations of Queens families, serves classics like Fish & Chips made with fresh "day boat" cod ($21) and jumbo fried shrimp in beer batter ($24). But it also serves market specials like Alaskan King crab (overnighted from Alaska; $55 per pound; steamed); and Mako shark scallopini served with cremini mushrooms, asparagus, prosciutto, plum tomatoes and lemon ($25).

The seafood palace is also known for organizing crab and oyster festivals and will host its first crawfish festival in April.
S Prime, 35-15 36th St., Long Island City

This boutique steakhouse in Long Island City, which opened ast June, is a haven for meat and wine lovers.

Customers can enjoy the S Prime’s signature steak — a 28-oz. 60-day dry-aged rib eye for $65 — or an enormous 48-oz. 28 day porterhouse steak for two for $93. A 24-oz. 35 day New York Strip costs $53.

All steaks are aged in a custom-built dry aging room with a wall lined with Himalayan rock salt that helps season the meat.

There is also a raw bar offering oysters from the East and West coasts ($18), lobster cocktail ($22) and a fish selection that includes coriander crusted tuna ($36) and organic Scottish salmon ($32).

The chic, two-story restaurant, features booths and three private, sound-proof dining rooms.

“There is nothing like it in Queens,” said Joel Reiss, 44, executive chef at S Prime who calls eating at the restaurant “a great dining experience.”

Reiss grew up in the Bayside-Whitestone area, and has been cooking since he was 15. During his career he has worked beside well-known chefs like David Burke and Terrance Brennan, and recently worked as executive chef at another steakhouse — The Post House in Manhattan.

Patrons can also sip on a variety of wines kept in a glass cellar that contains about 2,200 bottles. The collection, from Bordeaux, the Rhone Valley, the Andes, California and Tuscany, includes vintages ranging from $36 to $3,200 a bottle.
Biang!, 41-10 Main St., Flushing

With modern brick walls décor and food from the Xi’an region of China, including wide hand-ripped noodles, Biang! provides a unique dining experience.

The restaurant, part of a small chain called Xi’an Famous Foods, is named after the sound that the noodles make when "banged against the work surface as it's being pulled into shape," according to chef Jason Wang.

“Our recipes are adapted from my family recipes passed down through my family,” Wang said. His father started the first Xi'an Famous Foods back in 2005. They have since expanded into various parts of NYC.

Signature dishes include Spicy Cumin Lamb Biang Biang Noodles ($7.50 — sautéed spicy cumin lamb served with onions, long horn peppers, scallions, garlic and wide hand-ripped noodles); Liang Pi Cold-skin Noodles ($5) — wheat-based cold and chewy ribbon-like noodles with blanched mung-bean sprouts, cucumber and cilantro; Stewed Pork Burgers ($5), which is a minced stewed pork belly served in homemade flatbread buns and all sorts of charcoal-barbecued skewers.

“Dishes are mostly spicy but we do accommodate,” Wang said.

The venue, which earned a bib gourmand recommendation from the Michelin Guide, “went viral after Anthony Bourdain declared his lamb buns were amazing,” according to Wang.

The restaurant also serves soju (distilled rice liquor), Woodchuck hard cider and a variety of beers, including Sapporo, Brooklyn Lager and PEAK Organic IPA.
Alobar, 46-42 Vernon Blvd., Long Island City

Alobar opened in the neighborhood a little over a year ago, but it is already popular for its house-cured charcuterie, pickles and New American cuisine.

Owner Jeff Blath says that aspects of traditional American comfort food and of traditional European cooking are also important. The chef, Ian Kapitan, grew up in rural Canada and is “a strong butcher,” Blath said, but he also uses “hints of French and Italian techniques.”

The restaurant where Mayor Michael Bloomberg once dined with his girlfriend Diana Taylor, has been focused on locally grown and seasonal products. “Local is more important (to us) than organic,” Blath said.

Wild Mushroom Toast ($11) — crusty peasant bread served with smoked ricotta, sunny side up eggs, roasted garlic, red wine onions and wild mushrooms — is one of the signature dishes at Alobar.

The restaurant is also famous for its pork dishes, including Porchetta di Testa ($6) made from pig’s head. Also very popular is the Roasted Bone Marrow, served with tomato jam and herb salad ($14).
Cavo, 42-18 31st Ave., Astoria

Founded in 1999, Cavo has been Astoria’s high-end spot for modern Greek cuisine, featuring large indoor and outdoor spaces with extravagant chandeliers and DJ parties. Executive chef Rory O’Farrell has worked at Tavern on the Green and Water Edge, was also the executive chef for the Guggenheim Museum and appeared on TV shows such as “Chopped” and “The Restaurant” with Rocco DiSpirito.

O’Farrell has transformed Greek classics into modern fare by introducing many tweaks and adjustments. “I also listen to our customers’ feedback,” he said.

One of the dishes is a Greek version of Chilean Sea Bass en Papillote ($29), Cavo’s signature dish. “I use French technique to cook it but inside I use olives, asparagus and some Greek white wine,” he said.

The menu also includes Greek mainstays like Moussaka ($18.50), Keftedes ($10), Greek-style meatballs that O’Farrell serves with mint, kefalograviera cheese and tomato sauce and Kolokithakia Tiganita ($12), which are paper thin zucchini with lightly fried saganaki cheese and tzatziki.

Among other popular dishes at Cavo is Phyllo Shrimp ($12) served with phyllo dough, fresh basil and Dijon honey drizzle; and Branzino ($26), shipped daily from Greece, and served with charred tomato, caper and red onion relish.
M. Wells Dinette, 22-25 Jackson Ave., Long Island City

M. Wells Dinette, located at MoMA PS1, is the state of the art when it comes to adventurous food. The restaurant, owned by the French-Canadian chef Hugue Dufour and his wife, Sarah Obraitis, serves dishes inspired by French and Japanese cuisines.  The cafeteria-style restaurant, which opened in September last year, has a modest décor, resembling a classroom with green chalk boards — which list a rotating menu — and student tables, to honor the building's schoolhouse past.

Dufour said the menu changes every day, because he does not want to bore his regular customers — or himself. He said his patrons have “learned to trust me.”

“They come for our food but they don’t know what they gonna have,” he added.

Every day, Dufour said, he and his chef de cuisine, Aidan O’Neill, look at the supplies and come up with ideas.  “Most of the time it’s driven by what we have left,” Dufour said.

On a recent day, the menu featured Bone Marrow Tart with escargot and porcini mushrooms ($14), Potato and Bluefish with yuzu and sabayon ($16), and Foie Gras with oatmeal ($16), which Dufour says has been very popular.

Other popular dishes include Octopus served with polenta ($21) and a Chestnut financier dessert ($10).

The restaurant also offers extensive list of wines and sake.

The owners, who ran their previous restaurant, M. Wells, in Long Island City until it closed in 2011, are planning to open a steakhouse in April, Dufour said.
Trattoria L’incontro, 21-76 31st Ave., Astoria

Trattoria L’incontro, helmed by chef Rocco Sacramone, has been considered to be among the best Italian restaurants in Queens for many years.  

Sacramone, born in Orsonga, a small town in the Abruzzo region of Italy, started working in restaurants when he was 14. In 1985, he started a pizzeria in Astoria called Rizzo’s Italian Village, and in 1999 he opened Trattoria L’incontro at 21-76 31st Avenue.

Sacramone, who came up with many dishes on the menu himself or with his mother, who still helps him out, says the key to success is “consistency.”

One of his signature dishes is Mezza Luna ($19), which consists of half moon shaped ravioli stuffed with mascarpone cheese and pesto with asparagus, brandy and walnut sauce.

Other popular items on the menu are Rigatoni al Ragu di Vitello ($18), homemade pasta with ground veal and pancetta with tomato sauce; Fettuccine Rocco ($20) with shrimp, mascarpone cheese and leeks; and Risotto Cone Pere E Gorgonzola ($24) which consists of arborio rice with diced pear, gorgonzola cheese and arugula.

Among numerous the numerous Italian classics that are served, customers will find Tagliarini Pomodoro ($13) — homemade style pasta with fresh tomatoes, basil and garlic; Lasagna ($18); and Eggplant Parmigiana ($17).

The restaurant is also known for a variety of specials which include dishes made from buffalo, rabbit and halibut.