Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Baklava and Burgers a la Arthur Schwartz

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My friend Rikki forwarded an interesting e-newsletter my way, written by no other than the food maven himself, Arthur Schwartz. I highlighted the relevant Astoria touchpoints below. There's a great shout-out to Art-O-Polis bakery and Harry's Water Taxi Beach. The event, that Arthur mentions below is the The Cuisine of Queens and Beyond held on May 20th at Astoria World Manor, which I attended and wrote about.

I passionately agree with Arthur about Art-O-Polis. It's a one of a kind pastry shop and their baklava is to die for. Its discreet location on 31st Street near 23rd Avenue also carries authentic Greek gear such as Greek cookbooks. Check it out, especially after a beer and sausage at the Beer Garden--it's just a short block away.

Dear Friends,

I have been so focused, so consumed with writing, cooking, writing, cooking, writing, cooking for my next book, the big southern Italian opus, due on my editor’s desk at the end of the summer, that I haven’t made time to write to you. Sorry.

Because I have barely left the house in the last month, except to go the gym and to go food shopping, that I don’t have that much to report about life and food. But as is my bad habit, I have collected next to my computer, in the messiest fashion, a small pile of business cards, menus, and notes to myself, a collection of stuff to remind me of things that I want to tell you. Where does the time go? How do thing pile up so quickly?

But let me start. Way back on May 20, I participated in a public dine-around event called The Cuisine of Queens and Beyond, sponsored by Dish Du Jour, a local restaurant magazine. You know the kind of event. In this case, 50-something restaurants, craft beer and fine wine producers—not all Queens based, some beyond—were the big attraction. I don’t remember what the admission fee was but you certainly could get more than your money’s worth wandering around the ballroom with a big appetite.

There was also a table for authors to sign their books, including me. And there was a supposedly city-wide hamburger contest, although it was hardly that. All of the judges agreed, and I was one, that some of the best burgers in town were not represented, and that, we whispered between us, New York City is in big trouble if these are the best burgers that could be found to compete.

The winner was very worthy, however. It was made by Harry Hawk of Water Taxi Beach, which is this totally cool summer place on the bank of the East River in Long Island City ( Harry serves light food there, like hamburgers. The view of Manhattan is unbeatable. They sometimes have movies and other entertainment. Harry’s burger had a slightly complicated pedigree. It was “designed” – yes, that was the word used – by the master of ceremonies of the contest itself – George Motz, who wrote a new and quite beautifully photographed and designed book called “Hamburger America, A State-by-State Guide to 100 Great Burger Joints.” I thought that was something of a conflict of interest. A contestant’s product “designed” by the emcee?! On the other hand, the judges truthfully didn’t know whose burger was whose, etc., so it was fair and square.

Harry’s “Motz Burger,” despite its pretensions to “design,” beat the others because it was nothing more (or less) than a perfectly griddled medium rare glob of unadulterated, freshly ground, well-fatted beef on a squishy white bread bun. I have always thought that the bun should not be intrusive. A white bread bun is fine with me. I prefer it to what we might call “better” bread, something you really need to chew, or at least pay attention to. The bread on a burger should, I think, be merely something to hold the burger neatly in you hand. Apparently, the other judges agreed. So did the emcee. So did Harry. So he won.

Instead of ketchup, the so-called “Motz Burger” was dressed with Harry’s “Schnack Sauce,” a mayonnaise, mustard, and chipotle pepper concoction that Harry invented for his sort-of short lived dive, Schnack, on Union Street. It had a brief vogue among the Aren’t Sliders Awesome Crowd. It is now an empty storefront in … what do we call it? … South Cobble Hill, North Red Hook. I never remember. It’s way at the end of Union St., where it practically goes into New York harbor.

Anyway, although the hamburger contest was fun, if not a definitive, the most exciting part of the Queens event was seeing, in one place (Astoria Manor, a catering hall), the incredible scope of eating possibilities in Queens, probably the most ethnically diverse of the five boroughs, maybe the most diverse place on earth.

Topping my list of discoveries was/is ARTOPOLIS, a Greek bakery and pastry shop in a new shopping center called Agora Plaza, 23-18 31st St. in Astoria; 718-728-8484.

At the show I tasted Artopolis’ baklava and it stopped me in my tracks. I allowed myself just one tiny piece, but took a few pieces home. The next day I confirmed to myself: these are, indeed, the best baklava ever.

Artopolis’ owner, Regina Katopodis, told me she imports sheep’s butter from Greece to make them. I had to respond that although I know the butter makes a difference, it is someone’s genius hands that are responsible for these. Regina had to agree. She treasures her bakers. She has another, formerly of the Plaza Hotel, who does gorgeous decorated cakes in the highest contemporary French style. I’m certain they eat as great as they look because everything I tasted at Artopolis was absolutely the tops.

I actually went to Regina’s gorgeous shop just the other day. (I needed a break from writing, cooking, writing, cooking – and all southern Italian.) That baklava was haunting me, like a Siren call, whispering my name from Astoria. I was prepared for great pastry, but not this gorgeous shop. Regina explained that everything was imported from Greece, the whole store, from the cream-colored paneled walls to the marble floors, the tiled, built-in display cases, the modern refrigerated ones, the tables, the tulle draped over the cookie and pastries to protect it from whatever might be in the air. Regina brings these things and kinds of ideas from Athens, where, although she is American (Madison High – we reminisced together), she lived for 14 years and still maintains ties.

Not so coincidentally, because Artopolis is beginning to be known as the best Greek bakery in New York, I bumped into Michael Psilakis, Manhattan’s star Greek-American chef, the partner of Donatella Arpaia in two of his restaurants. Mia Dona, which Michael likes to think is Italian, although it is really Micbael Psilakis food, and Anthos their contemporary-original Greek restaurant, one of only two Greek restaurants in the world to get a Michelin star. Michael was on a research mission with a new pastry chef. I only mention this to underscore the important influence that Regina Katopodis is becoming. She knows quality. She knows how to deliver it. She is wholesaling to some of the finest restaurants and food services in the country, not just here in New York.

It should go without saying that I was totally bad and ate too much pastry while hanging out at Artopolis – although I could have done worse. Before getting to the sweets, however, I needed something savory, a spinach-filled pastry.

Did I want it heated? the clerk asked.

“Not if it’s going in a microwave,” I said.

That’s where most things are reheated these days, all over the world, even if the zapper ruins bread and pastry. Even in souks in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco they are ruining food with microwave ovens. In Sicily, every dump that sells arancini is ruining them by zapping them. So I was thrilled to see the Artopolis clerk cringed when I used the word microwave. She put my pastry in a conventional oven to heat it through. I knew I loved this place.

I have another Queens restaurant to report on – ZUM STAMMTISCH, one of the only German restaurants left in New York City. And so many other little things. But tomorrow is another day, and this is getting long.

I promise to write more frequently.

All best,



  1. If you like Artopolis, you need to try the sweets at Laziza pastry shop up on Steinway. It's on the block with all the Egyptian hookah places. There's also an amazing, if unassuming, Lebanese restaurant called El-Rawsheh just down the street. Best humus and tabouleh in Astoria, hands down.

  2. Awesome--I'll have to give these a try. Thanks for the tip.



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