The salad gave him away. Most tellingly, no actual lettuce presented itself. Instead a bed of Lebanese stonecress, an edible plant grown upstate, filled the shallow bowl. Tossed with radish, raw slivers of Jerusalem artichoke, and toasted pine nuts, the leaves shone through with vegetal effervescence. Skilled hands set this scene, and elsewhere, more diners might have been made aware of Alfonso Zhicay, the eponymous chef of Casa del Chef (39-06 64th Street, Queens; 718-457-9000) in Woodside, Queens. That’s the serpentine effect of borough “othering,” wherein the media exoticize every borough not named Manhattan. I’m just thankful he chose to open in his backyard and ours instead of Westchester.
Now a grandfather, the 44-year-old Ecuador-born chef has cooked in New York since 1994, almost always in fine-dining kitchens. For 14 years, he worked closely with Blue Hill chef and sustainability guru Dan Barber in Manhattan, at one point running the group’s catering services. I also unknowingly had Zhicay to thank over the years when, after particularly vigorous traipses through the Rockefeller State Park Preserve in Sleepy Hollow, my family enjoyed lunches at Blue Hill Café. The casual offshoot of Barber’s formal Blue Hill restaurant at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture connects to the preserve and operates on the nonprofit farm’s grounds. I’d grown up eating picnic lunches along the park’s reservoir, but as much as I love my parents, they’d never butchered a Berkshire hog to make bacon for our BLTs. (Zhicay’s commitment to sustainability and to food as a catalyst for positive social change is no gratuitous gesture. This is, after all, a man who earlier parlayed his work at Blue Hill into a gig building nutritious menus for the city’s Department of Education.)
“My father gets all of his produce from the Jackson Heights farmers’ market,” says Sandra Zhicay, who serves as the restaurant’s sole server and hostess. She takes time to explain each dish and answer any questions. She even has a few of her own. Spying my bottle of Rioja, the only wine I could bring myself to buy at the liquor store across the street — Casa del Chef is BYO — she asked, almost accusingly, “Where did you get that?” On her recommendation, a visit to a shop farther south yielded far better results.
The salad, dressed with a bright, citrusy vinaigrette, had me pulling face-contortions of approval that would do Robert De Niro proud. Stonecress looks like a cousin of the sea bean, but its flavor is far sweeter, like an acidic cucumber mixed with alfalfa sprouts. Just as satisfying was the shot glass of sweet, spiced butternut squash soup that preceded it: Topped with a sharp Parmesan foam, it was a tempest in a jigger. (That same foam turns up to equally good effect squirted over fresh vegetable cavatelli.)
The $35 five-course menu reveals itself as an endlessly charming and affordable way to eat in modern, seasonal fashion. Scallops settle into a marsh of spinach risotto. Their briny sweetness works wonders against the creamy grains, more contradictory evidence for the naysayers who refuse to pair seafood with dairy. Main courses arrive in hearty portions, including roast chicken with pan juices, farro, and winter squash, and striped bass over an aromatic vegetable stew. À la carte, appetizers set you back no more than $9, entrées $22. Unless you’re strapped for time, the tasting seems to be the most popular course(s) of action. And should you be drawn to a particular dish, the kitchen will suit your tasting menu to…taste: Diners at a neighboring table requested the juicy pork loin set over earthy celeriac and a quivering mound of braised short rib surrounded by baby leeks and sunchokes to pair with their pinot noir. (Both will serve carnivores brilliantly.) Longer tastings are also available by request.
Local cheese plates, crème brûlée, and sorbet all make fine endings, but Zhicay does his most impressive sweet work with fruits. Poached quince gets a crunchy companion in granola, layered with another foam, this one tasting vividly of passion fruit. The chef’s signature dessert is also his best: chicha, a fermented corn beverage Casa del Chef repurposes into a white-wine-fueled fruit soup infused with lemongrass. A vibrant mix of apples, pears, peaches, and pineapple, it makes me wish Zhicay would plumb his roots with extra fervor. A summer ceviche or a take on fried plantain patacones would further distance this restaurant from the crowded New American field. And this city could use more Ecuadorian restaurants. Antique agricultural tools hang on the wall — a farm-to-table cliché, but only here can you find a ceramic vase that belonged to Sandra’s grandparents. (It holds menus for passersby.)
The quaint bistro feels coincidental, tucked away on a side street, in the shadow of the 7 train. But Zhicay made a purposeful choice to open in his home borough, and he’s only one of many chefs returning to his community intent upon inviting his neighbors over for dinner. I’ll take a seat at his table any time.