Not a Mob Wife in Sight

Pageant duties this past weekend landed me, my parents and our Miss TI Allison back in Staten Island for the 2012 Miss New York workshop. This was my third visit to the fifth borough, and I feel like my parents and I are finally starting to get our bearings in this area of NYC some describe as suburban, but which seems pretty urban to a girl from Watertown.

Since our fantastic lunch at South Fin Grill last summer, I’ve been seeking out other Island gems on Urbanspoon and the like. But it was my friend Big Hungry Lisa who turned me on to Carol’s Café in the Dongan Hills neighborhood of SI. When I did a little online hunting, I found that Carol is quite famous – a cooking school teacher, media darling and Bobby Flay pal. I was hooked and primed for a an excellent meal.

So after a long day at the St. George Theater of meetings, talent reviews, clashes over white pants suits (Hillary Clinton wasn’t even there) and photos, our worn out quartet drove to the ritzy end of SI – think opulent McMansions crammed onto tiny lots with no yards and security gates – for dinner.
Our Miss TI is the tall brunette in the back row

Carol’s Café is charming on the inside, if a tad outdated. I loved the exposed brick walls, but the floral upholstery and pink napkins took me back to some unfortunate outfits I sported in the sixth grade. Then again, the smells from the kitchen and the sweets in the dessert case were so fetching, who was concentrating on the decor?

With Allie’s vegetarian palette in mind, we ordered two appetizers: the caramel shrimp and beet tart. The first thing you should know about Carol’s was evident before those plates even hit our table: the Italian notion of abondanza, or abundance, is being done proud here. The portions are massive! The caramel shrimp was an oval platter with six delicious medium to large shellfish swimming with green onions, roasted garlic and coins of spicy ginger in a pool of sweet sauce. This complex pottage no doubt contained an ample amount of sugar, but also some wonderful Asian components like soy and sesame oil. I will be googling savory caramel sauces and trying to recreate this dish sometime this week in my own kitchen. It was fabulous and would have made a delightful entrée with sticky rice or lo mein noodles.
I wanted to lick the sauce off the plate after the shrimp were gone- but I didn’t

The beet tart was served with goat cheese and a thick balsamic drizzle, which is a very classic interpretation, but was wonderful. I had honestly hoped the “tart” connotation would bring with it an actual pastry shell and some more creativity, but honestly, the flavor and satisfaction were not lacking for this simple composition. The beets were cooked perfectly and not a bit mushy or overly sweet, the tiny cannels of goat cheese were clean and tangy, and the entire dish was subtle and mild. Fantastic.

But I’ll give you this, it looks like road kill on the plate

I struggled a bit in choosing from the very appetizing menu. At one point, I was trying to narrow my choice down from five good-looking entrees. God, I’m greedy. Allison saved the day by choosing one of them: the wild mushroom rigatoni. It was fantastic – earth, rich and hearty just like you want a mushroom-centric dish to be. The pasta was perfectly al dente without having too much of a bite, which bugs me. The various mushrooms and gorgonzola created a sauce that was almost dark in flavor, velvety in the mouth and extremely comforting. This dish is a winner, even without meat.

Vegetarians, rejoice! Carol has your back!

With that pasta dish out of the running, I swayed between one of the pastas on the specials menu and the beef stroganoff. Our cheery, helpful waitress recommended the stroganoff, and I’m so glad I followed her tip. This was an entirely unique dish for a restaurant menu – shaved filet mignon, tender as can be, flamed in brandy and enrobed in a melted onion and mushroom gravy, alongside brown butter egg noodles. I found a sprig of fresh sage nestled in my noodles, and luxuriated in the deep, rich brandy sauce that coated the steak. There was very little sour cream in the dish, which relied much more on the flavor of the meat itself, plus the brandy and brown butter. This was comfort food elevated to fine dining echelons, and I loved it.

My grandma’s beef stroganoff casserole is yummy on a cold winter’s night, but can’t compare to this.

Mom’s panko shrimp with house made potato chips were perfect for her lighter side appetite. The shrimp were perfectly cooked; light and crispy, with their panko breadcrumb coating, and had a very shrimpy flavor. What I mean is, they actually tasted like shrimp are supposed to taste, of the ocean and brine, not just a vehicle for some sauce or fried breadcrumbs.

Jumbo shrimp is my favorite oxymoron
 Dad had the weakest dish of the table, although I still really liked it. Here’s the thing, Dad: you like Mom’s meatballs and Giovanni’s sauce, from Watertown. Notwithstanding the fact that Giovanni’s closed before I even had a driver’s license, it’s probably risky to order spaghetti and meatballs outside of your comfort zone. But I understand the inclination to go for something familiar and comforting after a long day, so I’ll cut him some slack. While Dad didn’t care for the non-mom-made meatballs, I thought they were delicious: light, herbaceous and fresh tasting as opposed to heavier, earthier versions that are more frequent in these northern climes. He also was disappointed by the marinara-style red sauce, as he prefers a more cooked-down, tomato paste-heavy sauce. This, again, was fresh and light and very tomato-y. While I also appreciate a more cooked-down sauce, I thought it was pretty good.

Gorgeous basil explosion
 Also, please notice on these pasta dishes: the edges of the bowls are wiped clean! Do you see that, Cortese? Fireside? It takes about half a second to run a kitchen towel around the edge of the plate, and look at the glorious, pristine result!

We also got dessert to go, and I completely forgot to photograph either my moist, spicy, divine carrot cake with pineapple, raisins and cinnamon cream cheese frosting, or Allie’s decadent, creamy, light as air oreo cheesecake. Sorry about that, guess you’ll have to go to Carol’s and see them for yourself.

I posed a score vote to my weary dining companions and we came up with nines all around. So, I’m scoring carol’s Café a nine out of 10 on the ever-precise BHS scale. Yes, you might be sitting next to a mobster or his wife at this Staten Island treasure, but with food like this, you won’t mind. Ok, maybe you wouldn’t have minded anyway. Maybe you think gangsters are gangsta? I don’t know your life!

We’ll be back in SI in June for the Miss New York Pageant, with plans to hit up more Island eateries, so if downstate strikes your fancy, stay tuned. I’ve heard Pizzeria Giove is awesome. Meantime, I’m hoping to have another pageant-centric dinner in Syracuse this weekend after our girls volunteer at an event for Shades of Orange art studio and Golisano Children’s Hospital. Hope you’ll join me as something yummy this way comes. My hunger is big, my personality is bigger!

PS - Today is Big Hungry Melinda's birthday. Melinda is my best friend, consigliere, secret-keeper, fun finder and all around gal pal. She is ridiculous, gorgeous, intelligent, hilarious and kind. I'm so glad God put her on this Earth, because we're all better off for her presence. Happy Birthday, my darling! Every year we're closer to our condo at the Good Shepard Home, where we will wear gold shoes, complain about our aches and pains, and flirt with old men every day! Fancy a day drink?

Carol's Cafe on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review, it makes me want to go there. Happy birthday Melinda!