Monday, April 19, 2010

Epicurean Adventures: Greek, Gyros, Grape Leaves, Good!

I have to say, with all the coupons and circulars flying around (apparently, as a renter in New Orleans, I was not an ideal recipient of these kinds of things, but as a homeowner, I'm the target audience ... go figure), it's been easier to force myself out of my comfort zones to try new restaurants and explore the neighborhoods I already love but don't know anything about even after living on the South Shore of Long Island for half a year now. However, as readers here know, I get on my kicks and tend to stay on them for some time, boring y'all with different stories about the same food on a particularly bad bender (fried shrimp po-boy homages, anyone?) until Boy pushes me out of my happy rut.

Well, a similar situation caused me to finally try a place called the Aegean Cafe (if you click, make sure the sound is off, by the way) in the picturesque village of Sayville since we found this kickass coupon for "Buy 2 Gyros, Get a Small Greek Salad Free!" So since I was craving Greek salad from rival restaurant Greek Islands in Holbrook (their vinaigrette is so light, and honestly, kind of nostalgic for me of salad I've eaten in my youth), Boy urged me to consider going somewhere new. And so we did.

After passing by the restaurant twice due to the building numbers being all the fuck over the place and being distracted by all the cute boutiques, restaurants, and shops on Main Street, I scored a sweet parking spot almost right in front of the restaurant and was delighted to find that my silly driving around made me eligible for after-6 pm parking (no one-hour limits for me!) and took a picture of the facade to the confusion and disdain of two snotty-looking women sitting in the front window.

We came in, were greeted, and seated on the right side of the restaurant, away from the snotty women with the puss-faces, and in direct view of the takeout area, with tantalizing smells wafting my way through the stacked wine bottles directly in front of me. A big sheet of oversized cuts of baklava was visible, and stacks of boxes of almond cookies for $9.95 piled on the counter. Always promising!

An older lady with a slight accent was our server, and we showed her our coupon, which we'd neglected to read the fine print on being so distracted by the large "FREE!" on it -- and realized we couldn't get the free salad since that was for takeout only (weird that this is the case, whereas Buona Fortuna was the opposite, and was less appealing of a place to eat in). However, I was delighted that I could still add a Greek salad to my meal for only a few dollars.
Anyway, we started off with some sort of chickpea salad in an onion-y vinaigrette-y type of dressing that we spooned onto our hot, fluffy pita bread. Greek Islands in Holbrook had also had this, which I am a little curious about since Zorba the Greek, one of Long Island's more long-standing Greek places on the North Shore, and any of the Mediterranean places I'd ever visited in New Orleans, had never had such a thing.  The texture of whole chickpeas, I find vaguely satisfying in the way that only whole legumes can, and the onions were sweet next to the delicious tartness of the vinaigrette.

We ordered stuffed grape leaves (dolmades) which came with a creamy Greek yogurt sauce (tzatziki) with fresh mint in it, and more hot pitas. The lemon juice on the grape leaves gave them the acidic zest you need and I love, which was nicely countered by the mild cucumber yogurt sauce and puffy pita bread. The rice and herbs within the leaves were supremely tasty, and packed firmly enough not to fall apart when you cut into each dolmade, yet not so firm as to be hard.

Gyros were ordered by the both of us, and I added a Greek salad to mine (making the $8-and-change gyro a roughly $12 platter), requesting that Boy add fries to his for the same total price. He obliged me, and I agreed to share my salad with him. All was good.

The salad came out quickly, and although the vinaigrette was not as good as Greek Island in Holbrook, our Aegean Grill in Sayville did not disappoint. A hefty handful of red onions topped off big slices of fresh tomatoes and a pile of Feta cheese, and a pepperoncini and black olives added to the overall Greek-ness of the salad (I like the associated flavors they give to the salad, but don't actually eat them other than to roll them around a lot to push some flavor onto the lettuce leaves). It was crunchy, fresh, and big - what more could you ask? I had originally been craving a grilled salmon Greek salad, but, mmm, gyro ...

And that's what came out next. Big, overstuffed pitas hit the table, veritable cornucopias of fresh, clean veggies to lighten the rich, oily aromas of the slow-roasted lamb and beef mixture. The pitas at Aegean Cafe were consistently warm thoughout the whole meal, and this was no exception. Enveloping luscious, slightly crisped 'round the edge, thick shavings of flavorful meat, this gyro was juicy, meaty, and left nothing to be desired. It was all there, baby, from the generous dollop of tzatziki sauce oozing out the middle to the celebration of lettuce and red onions popping out the top.

Main course aside, it was rather fortunate that I hadn't gotten my own fries, piggy-pig-pig that I am, since $3 and change got you a dinner-plate full of the golden brown, diner-cut goodies. They were perfectly fried, well drained of excess oil, loudly crispy on the surface, and soft and hot in the middle.

In all, aside from the fact that they don't serve baba ganoush (which, I admit, isn't an exactly fair expectation considering it's an Arab dish and not Greek ... Damn you, Lebanon's Cafe, for confusing and spoiling me for five years! *Shakes fist.*), unlike the Mediterranean place, Bayshore Mediterranean Grill, run by the sweetest sweet gentlemen in Bay Shore (who gave me a free rice pudding just for coming by on a quiet night) this meal was a win all the way around. Thumbs up - now excuse me while I think about the appalling amount of food I just ate and attempt to be appropriately sorrowful about it.

Aegean Cafe
35 Main Street
Sayville, NY 11782

Greek Islands Restaurant
315A Main Street
Holbrook, NY

Zorba the Greek
572 Jefferson Plaza
Port Jefferson Station, NY 11776

Bayshore Mediterranean Grill Restaurant
164 E. Main Street
Bay Shore, NY 11706
(631) 647-4466

Friday, April 16, 2010

Epicurean Adventures: Buona Fortuna Indeed

It's difficult on Long Island to make a name for yourself in the most stereotypical genres of food. Chinese food struggles to distinguish itself from the competitors that come in every shopping center; bagel shops work hard to keep their heads above the rest; delis are many as the hairs on my head. Italian restaurants of the pizza place variety, as quintessential as the other places just named, are no different. With one seemingly at every street corner, each of them with the same "New York pizza" crust advantage, it makes you really wonder what sets one place apart from its nearby neighbor.

Boy and I went out tonight to find out just that, armed with a coupon that's been sitting in our random drawer for a couple of months now. I was on a cooking spree for quite some time, until I went on my recent Lean Cuisine spree (I still haven't stopped hiccuburping, by the way, but it got a little better when my portions became more human-ready rather than Sasquatch-satisfying, hence the Lean Cuisine, with the convenience of pre-counted calories and portion limitations), and finally, as of last week, I've been on a local restaurant kick. That long sentence above, though, is just basically an excuse as to why I haven't been eating out, but there's no good reason, other than my laziness and the frenetic wedding activity surrounding my in-laws for Boy's brother's impending nuptials.

Anyway ... I digress, as per usual.

We had a coupon mailed to us some time ago by a place called Buona Fortuna, along with a lovely letter,  and had been holding on to it for the next time we'd felt like pizza. It was a great coupon - a free one-topping pie! Who can beat that?! The one and only catch? Must dine in. Um ... duh, no problems there!

Well, we headed on out tonight, Boy more stoked than I (I'd wanted chicken from Carrabba's - I had a coupon for that, too - lol. Home-ownership comes hand in hand with coupon clipping habits, I've found. Whatever; I'm only thismuch ashamed), to check out this Bohemia shop. At first glance, we were a wee bit wary, and curious as to why the coupon stipulations was that we eat in. A little dim shop in a nondescript and slightly depressing shopping center in a pretty residential neighborhood, it was at first appearance the typical neighborhood joint. Seemed a little run-down, with the hard little booth seating, small counter, and a wee bit cramped.

We stepped up to the counter and ordered our pizza as we pondered our additional eating choices from the folded Buona Fortuna takeout menu, since I was still determined to, at some point, eat chicken. I'd wanted Italian, damnit, and I was gonna get it! The guy behind the counter was busy, but nice and patient, and he threw our pizza into the oven while we thought. Boy and I finally settled on the Chicken Cacciatore after a heated dispute about Chicken Francaise and Chicken Parm, and were told that there'd be a twenty minute wait. Again, we wondered about the eat-in clause.

We wandered around Buona Fortuna's mini shopping center (not much to see ... a laundromat with outdated machines; Handy Pantry; and a bar that boasted live music on Fridays, which could be exciting) and circled back and picked a table and proceeded to wait for our food, like good boys and girls. By this time, it was getting packed since 7 pm is a kickass time to have dinner. Families were being served all over the place, and Boy and I began to hope that this was one of those beloved neighborhood holes in the wall (although the inside was given much greater care than the out, with newer stone walls - which unfortunately darkened the place - clean, new ceiling tile, quartz dining tables, and spotless mirrored walls).

Evidently, it was, and a fantastic value to boot. The salad they served with the dinner (which we opted for rather than the ziti or spaghetti) was sizeable and came with a big dose of balsamic vinaigrette on the side. Shredded mozzarella cheese, peperoncinis, black olives, crunchy romaine lettuce, bite-sized tomatoes and cucumbers, and roasted red peppers topped the salad, which also was accompanied by sweet, crusty Italian sesame-seeded bread and a big hunk of restaurant butter. It crunched satisfyingly, as a light, sweetly scented steam arose, and was fa-fricking-boosh with the tart vinaigrette and refreshing vegetables.

The chicken came out shortly thereafter, and it was no f-ing joke. Three and a half large, thin-cut chicken breasts came in a deep, sauce-covered plate that was roughly the size of this MacBook I'm typing on. Tender, juicy, and just brimming with the flavor absorbed from the rich, somewhat greasy (but in a good way) sauce that was chock-full of softened green peppers, carmelized onions, stewed whole tomatoes, Parmesan and mozzarella cheese, and generous chunks of baby portabella mushrooms, this was a dish worth fighting over. Which is, of course, what we did, with Boy making vague promises of each bite being "the last one" as he stuffed his remaining pieces of bread with chunks of chicken and vegetables. Fortunately, the veggies were plentiful (I had a piece of pepper and mushroom for every bite until the very end!), as was the sauce and chicken, and I nearly called it quits with one chicken breast in my belly.

We were half done with the whole thing, when out comes who seems to be the owner (Mario, I think his name was) with a plate of garlic knots for the family of five sitting diagonally from us who had ordered two pies. I eyed them covetously, so golden and glistening were they, and this jolly fellow seemed to read my mind and brought out a plate for both me and Boy and the couple (a normal lady, and a very dramatic gentleman who was obviously showing off his pizza connection to his date as he flounced around in a floor-length, women's cut leather trenchcoat ...) across the way from us. I was appeased, and the soft, doughy garlic knots, fresh, light, and sweet (garlic notwithstanding) were delicious and a pleasant change from the overcooked, thrice-baked garlic knots I'm used to getting when I try new places.

We'd almost forgotten about the meatball pizza we'd ordered until Boy mentioned it at the counter. This Mario fellow hadn't realized that it was ours, and hastened to bring it to us with his apologies. We were far from hungry at this point, and pushed ourselves to do just one slice each. Victory!

The sauce was good, but the crust was a little doughy. The meatballs were good in a gyro-esque way, with a tantalizing seasoning blend, and well distributed over the gooey cheese. A few minutes in the toaster oven, and we're sure this pizza will be kickass for breakfast tomorrow morning. (Ahh, the college diet ... good times!)

We finally go up to pay Mario, who'd been keeping busy just giving his customers free food and wine and other happy sundries, and presented him with the pizza coupon. He took it, but instead, charged us for the pizza (which was in the $14 range) and gave us our dinner (salad, chicken, bread, garlic knots, soda) for free. Free! So Boy did the right thing and gave him a 30-spot for the service and all the goodies, which these guys so rightly deserved. After all, the meal was only $16 for the whole thing anyway, so we still made out.

Needless to say, the dinner was really awesome - the flavors were great, the portions ginormous, and the ingredients so obviously fresh - and we'll be visiting the locally-owned, neighborhood spot Buona Fortuna in Bohemia again soon. Mario did mention that he makes a really great Francaise sauce, and the Chicken Marsala that couple was eating definitely looked like a plateful of happy. Don't you love when you find a new place and it's good, and staffed with good people? It really can brighten a day. Power to the mom and pops, and small businesses of the world!

Buona Fortuna Pizza 
 876 Church Street
Bohemia, NY 11716-5025 
(631) 567-9600