Cafe Reviews

Astor House: Stellar Sandwiches and a Laid-Back Vibe

Astor House is so easygoing it seems less a restaurant and more the home of a friend who doesn't mind the unexpected pop-in. Outside the tiny teal dwelling, a bike leans lazily against a tree. Inside, you'll find wicker-backed chairs, petite flower vases and — if you're lucky — a gracious soul offering you a bite of warm brownie "just out of the oven," its chocolatey aroma lingering in the air.

Astor House is run by architect DJ Fernandes, who also owns Tuck Shop, the adjacent Coronado neighborhood restaurant, and Vovomeena, a breakfast spot slated to open in September at Seventh Avenue and McDowell Road. Opened in April, Astor House fills in the gaps that Tuck Shop, which Fernandes started in 2009, doesn't — namely, breakfast and lunch service. And when Tuck Shop opens for dinner, Astor House becomes a place where patrons waiting for a table can have a snack and a glass of wine or cocktail.

Like Tuck Shop, the menu at Astor House is pleasantly small, well crafted, and decidedly un-chef-driven, with the Tuck's kitchen doing most of the food preparation. Its selection of comfort food ordered counter-service style reads like a culinary travelogue of influences for both Fernandes and menu co-creator Jessica Ruiz: New England, New Orleans, Portugal, and the South. Those stopping by for lunch will find nearly all of Astor House's offerings to be stellar. Breakfast and nighttime snacks aren't as much a grand slam, but there are several gems to be found nonetheless.

Like the lovely version of boxty, or traditional Irish potato pancake.

Lightly fried and topped with crunchy bits of grated apple and a large dollop of smooth and deliciously sweet mascarpone, these two perfectly sized pancakes pair wonderfully with fresh-squeezed OJ. Best on the savory side are biscuits and grillades. Astor's nod to the traditional New Orleans dish uses soft, flaky buttermilk biscuits instead of grits, covering them with a light gravy of beef, onions, and peppers. Topping it off with an egg gives the dish a morning flair.

Although I would have liked more orange mascarpone in my two fruit-filled crepes and less sour cream atop my thin, golden-tinged frittata of leeks, potatoes, and Gruyère cheese, both were satisfying in regards to flavor — more so than the red flannel hash. Served with an egg and toast, an overload of diced root vegetables — especially sweet potato — made this dish taste as uninteresting as it appeared. I was not surprised to see guests, like me, leaving most of it uneaten.

For those who desire sides with their morning entrees, or are simply in need of a small bite with a cup of Astor House's selection of coffee (including a Japanese cold-brewed version made by a glass contraption reminiscent of a junior high science project), opt for the three cinnamon popovers. The size of baseballs, they're a bit on the doughy side and could use more cinnamon, but they come with a side of staggeringly good whiskey caramel dipping sauce that could brighten even the grumpiest wrong-side-of-the-bed risers. And when it is not burned at the bottom, there is a good Portugese doughnut, a hole-less deep-fried fritter with a crunchy coat and dusting of powdered sugar. It fares better than three Cuban pastelitos de carne (meat pastries), where wonderfully golden and flaky cakes fall woefully short of a seasoned ground beef filling both in flavor and in the amount of it inside.

Given its tidy selection of unique sandwich creations and small, stellar salads, lunchtime is the best time at Astor House. You could pair a packed muffaletta or a lightly fried chunky chicken sandwich, served cold and with housemade slaw and a kick of spicy aioli, with a leafy salad touched sweetly with candied walnuts and orange vinaigrette; or take a bold (and deliciously messy) New Orleans-style roast beef po-boy, with tender, seasoned meat doused in a luscious brown gravy, tomatoes, pickles, and a wonderfully spicy remoulade between sturdy toasted bread, and put it together with a lemon-kissed grain and bean salad for a hearty noontime meal.

My favorite sandwich (for the moment) is the mouthwatering mash-up called the Mexican Gyro. Jam-packed with top-notch green chile pork — tender and with a nice, subdued burn — tomatillo, killer-fresh corn salsa, lime, and a side of crema, a warm and pillow-y soft pita acts as the sandwich's Mediterranean contribution. And saving a piece of it will assist in scooping up what's left on the plate.

The ambiance of Astor House by night, when it serves as a spot for snacks and a drink or, more likely, a waiting room before a meal at the Tuck Shop, is, like its friendly staff, just as laid-back as during the day.

Flickering tea lights and a soundtrack of alternative beats mixed with conversation makes it seem as if the little house were having a party of its own. Mix and match cocktails, craft beer, or a glass of wine can be sipped alone or along with satisfying nibbles like wedges of warm, grilled-cheese style focaccia with taleggio and truffle oil, small spinach pies baked in puff pastry with a bright marinara, and Louisiana's own Zapp's thick-cut seasoned potato chips with an onion-y dipping sauce. The less interesting Welsh meatballs and a surprisingly sloppy nosh plate are snooze-worthy, flavor-wise, and should be avoided.

Like the Tuck Shop, the interior of Astor House is homey and inviting, with enough mid-century modern décor touches — non-representational artwork, ceramics, and simple furniture — to give it its own personal flair. There's a nice patio in the back, and in the front, a small case of cheeses, snacks, and homemade baked goods.

I'm thinking a brownie to go.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld