The Astor Room Noshes on Nostalgia
Why do certain foods fall out of fashion? That's the question posed by the Astor Room, a new restaurant located in the former commissary of the still-active Kaufman Astoria Studios. The spot is a throwback to the moviemaker's glory days, when Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, and the Marx Brothers trolled these grounds. The menu is intriguing conceptually, and the staff is both friendly and knowledgeable (you'll undoubtedly learn that J.J. Astor became the neighborhood's namesake after investing $500 there—but never actually stepped foot in it). Unfortunately, owner Chris Vlacich fails to re-create the unbridled bliss of the Roaring '20s.
The main problem: the décor. Some natural light filters in, but the subterranean space borders on depressing. While architectural elements like the original multihued tiled walls and an early-20th-century fan add quirky charm, the office-like, exposed-grid drop ceiling and drab, patterned carpet scream hotel dining—and we're talking Ramada, not Ritz-Carlton.
Here you'll encounter classic American cuisine, but served in decidedly 21st-century portions. Some offerings, like the oysters Rockefeller ($9), make a case for totally passé eats. Three fat bivalves with gratinéed spinach, each a big, briny, broiled bite—how can you go wrong? Yet the other appetizers and salads prove unmemorable, save for a fine Caesar ($9), walloped in a zippy anchovy dressing and showered with grated Parmesan.
The Astor Room
34-12 36th Street, Queens
Some dishes reinterpret instead of replicate: A beef Stroganoff entrée ($22) arrives topped with a hearty slab of meltingly tender short ribs instead of the traditional creamy glop. Beef Wellington ($29), a special on Saturday nights, meanwhile, consists of filet mignon sitting on a puff pastry circle instead of encased in dough. Both are good bets, if not true-to-type. They're better options than a tough Coca-Cola pork chop ($22) and a cheesy farro risotto ($14), an awful plate that does nothing to help the reputation of vegetarian cuisine.
When you get to dessert, the ultimate retro sweet—baked Alaska ($9)—might entice. But this toasted-almond version with lemon meringue runs too sugary and futzes with garnish. Skip the drippy butterscotch icebox pudding ($9), too. Instead, get the carrot crunch cake with cinnamon gelato ($9).
The slightly partitioned Beaver Bar (named for the taxidermied critter standing guard, an homage to the source of Astor's fortune) makes for a livelier evening than the main dining room. Watch the black-and-white films on the television screen or listen to the piano player's ditties while you tipple the citrusy Odd McIntyre ($9) or the happily astringent Valentino ($10), blushing red from Campari. A stiff gin martini-esque Astoria ($9) certainly alleviates the day's stress, and the Fedora Punch ($10) will stir memories of the isles beyond Manhattan. An equally affordable wine list features mostly American producers. Though should you be in the mood to celebrate, check out the $58 Fort Ross 2007 Pinot Noir, a sumptuous but not heavy libation.
Given the drinks scene and hospitable service, a visit won't be a total bust. Moreover, the restaurant appears to be in transition now that Giancarlo Autenzio, formerly the sous-chef, has taken the helm. It has also recently lowered its prices and begun bolstering the menu with more mainstream offerings. Indeed, buttery and mildly seasoned foods that were trendy back in the day just don't suit today's palates, which are constantly barraged by salt and spice (so bye-bye, hunkering $38 two-pound lobster thermidor—you won't be missed). But without the proper execution of the classic dishes that remain, the Astor Room will leave you wishing that much of the fare coming from the kitchen had been left in the past.
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