A couple of years ago, I was at a cocktail party in Jackson Heights. Not the Jackson Heights of momo carts, taquerias, and a lively international panorama under the 7 tracks, but a staid middle class enclave several blocks north near Northern Boulevard. I was in a multi-building apartment complex called the Chateau, chatting with a gay married couple in their 50s who lived there. “We love Jackson Heights, we could afford such a nice apartment here.”
Then the other chimed in, “But we’re thinking of moving back to Manhattan.” Why? He replied, “There’s no place around here to get a proper cocktail, where you can sit and snack while you unwind from work.” I knew just what he was talking about. A clash of cultures found these semi-luxury apartment complexes surrounded by dozens upon dozens of great eating establishments, none of which quite fit the idea of the modern upscale restaurant as found in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Well, the couple never left, and a few months ago they got their wish. In June, the Queensboro opened at the corner of 80th Street and Northern Boulevard, one block north of the Chateau.
The storefront telegraphs its difference from the mainly South American restaurants in the vicinity with a spare brick façade, stenciled whitewash signage, and planters hedging big picture windows. Inside, a pair of deep dining rooms are separated by a salvaged wood divider, and comfortable banquettes curlicue around the premises. There’s a big open kitchen too, with a wood burning oven as its focus.
The chef is Tony Liu, who previously worked Manhattan restaurants like Babbo and Keith McNally restaurants, including Morandi and Pulino’s Bar and Pizzeria. He is joined by additional co-owners Dudley Stewart and Michael Fuquay, all three of them first time restaurateurs and Jackson Heights residents who imagined a demand for a modern American restaurant in the neighborhood. I sat down with a friend on a recent Monday evening, expecting the food to be predictable and derivative — which would not be a bad move for a restaurant that seeks to serve a middle class enclave in Jackson Heights. The food turned out to be more ambitious than that.
The menu is divided into six sections (snacks, pastas, salads and vegetables, pizza, mains, and desserts), and we resolved to test the place by ordering one dish from each one. The bill of fare seemed calculated to satisfy every type of customer, from tipplers and snackers to pizza eaters to those with big appetites and deep pockets. We dug into a watercress salad ($10) that spread across the plate, dotted with sesame seeds and sporting a chile-lime dressing that coated every leaf and stem. Good, but difficult to eat.
The best thing we ate that evening — really, quite amazing — was a dish described as garlic clam bread ($7), a small loaf sluiced with butter and parmesan dancing with minced clams, briny and sharply flavored. It was as good as the clam pie at a great pizzeria. Speaking of pizzas, this is an area where the chef is particularly adventuresome. One featured eggplant, currants, and cocoa; another pineapple, bacon, and ham, perhaps in a tip of the hat to the Latin pizza parlors in the neighborhood, which dote on the Hawaiian pie.
We tried the pizza called melon ($15), a white pie laden with arugula, prosciutto, and cantaloupe, the final three ingredients added at the last minute, with the melon providing a welcome touch of sweetness counteracting the ham’s saltiness. Also good was a bowl of garganelli ($16) with bacon, corn, and mushrooms in a buttery sauce with plenty of cheese. Next to the clam bread, it was the best part of our meal.
The meal so far had been lustrous, but our entree stumbled. In line with modern restaurant praxis, there were only four main courses, with much larger sections devoted to vegetables and snacks. The fish of the day was a good sized hunk of local bluefish in a thin fumet jumbled with veggies seemingly chosen at random. It seemed too much like health food, and the recipe didn’t exploit the fish’s dark, distinctive flavor. We finished up with a chocolate pudding crowned with whipped cream and sprinkled with what tasted like cayenne powder. Not bad, but the garnishes distracted from the chocolate flavor.
But in general, we admired the food at the Queensboro. It was considerably more daring than we’d expected — in a good way. Is the restaurant a harbinger of creeping gentrification in the neighborhood? Well, not really, when you consider that this upper middle class neighborhood has been in place at least since the 1920s, when the Chateau was built. Instead, consider the Queensboro a vestige of creeping culinary modernism.