August 4, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Sweet and Tart Smartens Up, Happy Fellow Runs Almoncello

 Exquisitely cooked grouper is crusted with Yunnan ham, bacon and sweet peppers: Photo: Elisa Herr
Exquisitely cooked grouper is crusted with Yunnan ham, bacon and sweet peppers: Photo: Elisa Herr

        Sweet and Tart, the sweet little goody-two-shoes snack shop in Flushing has emerged from a midlife crisis with a juice bar, a modest makeover and a stunning new menu.  Beyond the smashing graphics, the impressive stock the menu is printed on, the lyrical exhortations in English, there is the astonishing roll call of new dishes...a myriad of never-before encountered choices.  Windmill foie gras dumplings. Chestnut sticky rice shu-mai. Cheese-filled almond shrimp croquette. Cilantro crusted fried calamari. Pork cutlet with peach sauce and yogurt.  So many choices: Odd. Provocative. Challenging. Irresistible.

Spicy tom yum fried rice comes wrapped in a gossamer crepe.  Photo: Elisa Herr

        Midway through dinner on reopening day last Friday, as I tasted a remarkably elegant watercress dumpling and an equally
Grilled eel on butter lettuce. Photo: Elisa Herr
classy dry scallop and shrimp filled wonton in clear broth, I turned to my companion, guru of the Chinese food scene, Eddie Schoenfeld, and moaned,  “We can’t begin to do this in one night. We need to eat here at least three times to taste it all.”

        How to begin?  That’s easy enough.  Focus on the separate drink menu, seven pages of rejuvenating “mocktails” and flowering teas: Lemongrass lychee “martini.” A “cococosmo” with young coconut water.  Fresh pear juice with aloe and muddled mint. We can see the bartender across the room manning the blender, painstakingly consulting his recipes, as drinks finally begin to hit our table, one at a time – half an hour to serve eight.  By then we’re deep into dim sum. Steamed chicken and seafood with foie gras in a delicate triangle of dough. Lush radish cakes with salty XO sauce. Grilled eel on butter lettuce. Crisp-fried chicken and watercress beggar’s purses tied with a scallion. A duo of soft scallion pancakes, one with vegetable julienne, the other with mushroom and scallion.  Crusty fried fish balls show off the kitchen’s skill at frying. Rainbow rice noodles are a bland and gummy curiosity, texture food, that gets a lift from a splash of hot sauce.

Radish cakes, XO sauce, and a "fuzzy ginger," with peach pureé. Photo: Elisa Herr

        Fruity “mocktails” don’t really go with dim sum. Nothing quite goes with these marvelous milk buns, slightly sweet and filled with sweet milk custard, a must.  But then I’ve seen the Chinese drink cognac, Scotch or Fango at their banquets. It’s all culture shock to me.  Tonight’s “Saigon citron” tastes of muddled mint, basil and citron marmalade.  Beet, red apple and celery are a vitamin highball. And I’m pleased with my not-too-sweet “guava lemon fizz.”

        The elegance and flavor impact of won ton and various dumplings in clear broth is especially impressive. But then Sweet and Tart has always had fans for its dumplings. What owner Spencer Chan has brought home from mid-life crisis tasting trips with his chef in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, is the new spirit of the Chinese kitchen: a touch of Asian fusion and Japanese presentation.

        Sprucing up the vast sweep of room may not look like much of a makeover.
Crab roe sprinkled fresh tofu keeps warm in parchment on a brazier. Photo: Elisa Herr. 
It’s still traditionally bright with the same open kitchen, alongside new orange table tops, contoured wooden chairs, textured aluminum and terrazzo tiles on the walls.  The thrill is definitely on the plate. Slices of rainbow grouper, crusted with Yunnan ham, bacon, bell peppers and parsley, and exquisitely cooked.  Spicy Thai tom yum rice wrapped in a thin egg crepe.  Lemongrass-fried chicken with a lemongrass ginger mash. A wok toss of string beans with minced pork, bell peppers and olive-marinated cabbage.  And though I’m not all that wild about soft tofu chunks with crab roe in parchment delivered on a hibachi warmer, it’s definitely a show-stopper. I see half a dozen odd desserts I’m eager to try – pumpkin soup with tapioca, mochi ice cream with fruit puree, sweet peanut crunch pancake.  The spirit is willing, but all I can really handle two and a half hours into Flushing’s nouvelle Chinese cuisine is a single lychee served with ice cream in sweet sake. Delicious.

        Chan is hoping the new bar and the vast repertoire of drinks – nectars and smoothies, green teapuccino with mini marshmallows, café mocha soy milkshake plus snacks will make Sweet and Tart a neighborhood hangout for afternoon loitering. Watch out Starbucks.  Double-boiled tea with fish maw could be tough competition.

136-11 38th Avenue off Main Street, Flushing.  718 661 3380 


Same Happy Fellow Runs New Almoncello

Almoncello is a haven of good food and sane prices on the Montauk highway in Wainscott.

        It isn’t my East Hampton anymore. Too much money has seized the town. It’s grown from discreetly rich to obscenely rich. Does Ralph Lauren really need five stores on Main Street?  Doesn’t anyone have the courage to say “no” to four or five benefits and one Peggy Seigal celebrity crawl every weekend?  Well, I’m here anyway, as often as I get to be an invited guest. (Too dumb alas to buy that marvelous shack on the beach in Amagansett when it was just $330,000).  I’m not about to surrender a chance to inhale sea breezes or share a lobster roll under an umbrella overlooking the bay at Duryea’s Lobster Deck or check in with the old gang at Nick & Toni’s and Tutto Il Giorno (when we can get a table)...

        In the old days, we did fabulous pot luck dinners.  Now, it’s an occasion when friends actually cook.  Mostly, my closest pals and I search endlessly for good food at not-totally-outrageous prices. We hit back roads and places you've never heard of. We loved Almondito, the small roadhouse parked on Montauk Highway in Wainscott. Its appeal and the lure of its less expensive French bistro-like sister in Bridgehampton is not merely price sanity, it’s definitely the energy and endearing sweetness of Eric Lemonides, a host who has a way of making you feel your presence has made his day.  I’m not sure what provoked Lemonides and his executive chef partner Jason Weiner to abandon the Mexican dance for an homage to Italy. Winters in Milano and eating pilgrimages on the road to Bologna, perhaps. Anyway, this spring, Almondito morphed into Almoncello.  Not a lot of effort went into the interior.  A serape and strings of Mexican baubles came down. Some decorative wallpaper and a few Italian movie posters went up.  In a very early visit, my friends were disappointed.


A poster for La Dolce Vita and fabulous pastas say Almondito is Almnocello now.

        But now, at the end of July, with Felice Benvenuto (late of Lupa) in the kitchen and Theresa Caruso as his sous and pastry chef, the more and less Italian food is good, even very good.  I feel I’ve found my unpretentious affordable Friday night dinner (don’t know if we’ll dare try on a killer competitive Saturday).

        It’s my first visit and we’re just three. So I didn’t get to taste the octopus salad with gigante beans and broccoli rabe pesto or the chilled melon soup with Prosecco granita.  Funny I didn’t go for the three eggplant appetizer – caponata, pickled and fried – eggplant is one of my favorites.   But the salads are fine. Indeed, if the produce isn’t exceptional out here, something has to be wrong. A splendid toss of wild arugula, baby beets and spicy pecans with gorgonzola and a walnut vinaigrette is enough for two.  And the heirloom tomato special - large wheels of red and yellow beauties topped with a crumble of goat cheese and Italian yogurt is first-rate too, though $16 strikes me as pretty aggressive for four slices of tomato.

        I can’t imagine shrimp sausage at a seafood house in Viareggio, but then, we’re in the Hamptons, darling. And that’s what I’m finding in my cavatelli, along with rapini and herbed bread crumbs, but it does taste like sausage. Garganelli with proscuitto, raddichio, peas and parmesan crema is delicious too.  Juicy roast chicken sits on a hill of panzanella salad, studded with house-cured guanciale, currents and ricotta salata. My pals find the Nutella ganache with mascarpone mousse on a buttery hazelnut cookie worth the calories, though it’s too sweet for me.

        Almoncello is not quite the bargain as is Almond, its sister down the road in Bridgehampton.  With antipasti from $12 to $16, primi from $18 to $21, entrées $21 to $36 and desserts at $8, three courses with a glass of wine or a drink and bottled water might run from $65 to $80 per person before tip.

        Last week, a long time regular at Almond decided to bet that the two partners could transfer their philosophy of the neighborhood restaurant that always knows your name to a spot he leases on 22nd Street in Manhattan, where he’s flunked out with one concept after another.  In October, they say, we’ll know if Eric’s charm and following and the careful strong flavors of Jason will break a curse for Jeffrey Chodorow where Borough Food and Drink is soon to close.

290 Montauk Highway, Wainscott.  631 329 6700 . Dinner Wednesday to Monday starting at 6 pm. Closed Tuesday.  Karaoke in the bar every Saturday night starting at 10:30 pm.


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