December 18, 2017

Got my Sugarfreak in Astoria


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When I first stumbled upon SugarFreak, it was almost a year ago.  Hand quilted folksy curtains were covering the new floor to ceiling glass windows and an unusual cast iron art piece had just been placed above the store front.  My curiosity piqued, I ducked inside to explore.  Michelle and Al were seated at the bar and welcomed me in for a look.  Funky rolls of wallpaper were lying about.  Old metal and wood panels were going up on the ceilings. An old barn had been purchased from out west, dismantled, and packed off to Astoria and a new home.  The bar appeared to be reclaimed wood, old light fixtures were being hung and the whole place had a touch of New Orleans throughout.  You could tell a lot of love was going into this place.

Over the following year I would stop by to see how things were progressing.  Slow but sure, iffy but determined, were the vibes I got from them.  Something else was happening too.  Michelle and Al offered their friendship and we became friends.  Michelle is a native Astorian, raised down by 34th avenue and 9th street.  Her family was from New Orleans and had settled in Astoria decades earlier.  She grew up here and loved it enough to return years later with a husband and plans for a dream restaurant.  Baking is her passion and the food of New Orleans is in her blood.  They wanted to create something new, yet familiar in the heart of Astoria.

They finally opened this past Friday evening (155 covers, not bad).  I made it there for dinner Saturday night.  Seated by the bar at a high top table for two, Eddie the bartender answered my bourbon query with an offer of a Perfect Manhattan made with Whistle Pig Bourbon and Antica Formula vermouth (my favorite). He plans to eventually offer a cask  sherry instead of vermouth for a nuttier finish.   Turns out Eddie has quite the pedigree, having worked with many of the best New York City hotel bars and most recently with Marcus Samuelsson.  Joey, the other bartender was in charge of music, slinging drinks and keeping up a steady banter with guests on a range of topics.  He was always amusing and never dull.

People wandered in marveling at the charming “Big Easy” decor and Dukes of Dixieland playing in the background.  It was all so comfortable and perfect.  Michelle and Al had created something good and the neighbors knew it.

About halfway through my perfect cocktail the owners stopped by to say hello and gave me a proper welcome.  They gushed about how well the first night went; how Ran from “Why Leave Astoria” and a helpful Yelp reviewer really brought in the crowds.  They started running out of food by 10:30pm.  After a brief conversation they wandered off in different directions to make sure all was well.

Michelle is of the “Earth Mother” variety, floating about the room watching the details, checking on guests, a quiet word to a server.  Al is the devoted dotting husband.  The anchor to Michelle’s culinary flights of fancy.  The lawyer who obviously dreams of a a life outside the courtroom surrounded by gumbo, oysters and a place to call his own.  He walked around like the proud papa.

The dinner menu was short and still in the works but boy did it look good.

  • The chicken and sausage gumbo was unique to these parts.  The liquid was a dark chocolaty brown with just enough heat that you didn’t need to add any hot sauce.  That is a rare thing up North where it is usually served so mild you need to add plenty of spice and your own memory of the French Quarter to make it taste right.  The soup was so good the rice and meats were actually unnecessary.
  • An appetizer of Cajun pork sausage Boudain balls served with a Tobasco mayo.  Three perfect spheres of crispy shell around bits of sausage and pork liver mixed into the rice.  Mild and good at first and then the liver hit you with a soft mallet of depth and creaminess. Wow.
  • My entree was the Buttermilk fried chicken dinner with mac n cheese and collards.  Crispy textured crust around very tender pull apart white meat chicken.  The collards were good but not the best dish by far, I know it is still a work in progress.  The mac n cheese made me laugh at first because as I took the few first bites a memory struck me.  Kraft macaroni and cheese but somehow not.  Sort of like an amazing chef took the idea and made it right, homemade and good.  A very fine dish indeed.

Now at this point I was getting kinda of full and the second perfect Manhattan is almost done.  A blissful food coma is starting to set in.  The music and restaurant chatter is lulling me.  Al walked over and we spoke about his wife’s baking skills and all the desserts she had tested on him.  There was this one dish called “Chess pie” that made him swoon on the first try.  He was sorta misting up about the experience and an image formed of this man worshiping at his wife’s flour and sugar dusted feet.

  • Right at that point Michelle swooped in with a Ball jar.  Yep, it was a serving of Chess pie baked in a jar.  The walls and floor of the glass were coated with a lard leaf crust and this is filled with a chocolate, egg and condensed milk pudding.  Good stuff.  I couldn’t place the memory until she said people claim it tastes like a melted “Oh Henry” bar.  Yes, that was it except this one was perfect, warm and all mine.

Outstanding work here by Chef Airis Johnson formerly of Metairie, Louisiana.  You are a goddess in the kitchen.

Thank you to Neil, the third partner,  your expertise in restaurant management, menu development and vision really shines through.

The waitstaff were very friendly and professional.  If friends define the person then the employees, food and setting define the restaurant.

Sugarfreak

36-18 30th Ave
Astoria, NY 11106

Phone: (718) 726-5850

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