There's something reassuring about dining in a market setting like Astoria. Just feet from where one sits are coolers, bins and shelves filled with gourmet food products from around the globe. More than just show, those very items form the backbone of the lunch and dinner menu. What diners may or may not know is that behind the wall sits an additional 25,000 square feet of warehouse space crammed with even more high-quality foodstuffs.
"It's like a playground for me," says chef de cuisine Cory Kobrinski. "I can go back there and pick and choose whatever I want. The sky's the limit."
On a recent Saturday night Astoria was buzzing with activity. On the retail market side, customers popped in to purchase bottles of wine, tubs of mixed olives, cheeses by the pound, thin-sliced imported meats, and whatever else they needed to survive an oncoming blizzard. Over in the cafe, nearly every seat in the bar and dining room was filled with guests who chose to leave the cooking to the pros. In stark contrast to the dark, cold and sinkhole-plagued scene just outside the front door, the interior was bright, merry and active.
For almost a decade, owners Steven Daniels and George Kantzios have run Agora Foods International, a direct importer of Mediterranean specialty items that make their way to markets, groceries and restaurants all over town. That operation began in Ohio City but now resides in the enormous back portion of Astoria Market and Cafe. For the kitchen staff, it's like the pantry that keeps on giving.
As if the city's largest walk-in cooler isn't enough, chef Kobrinski also has at his disposal a sleek, equipment-rich open kitchen that features a chef's counter that bleeds right into the bar. For the past five years, the chef worked alongside David Russo at Russo's in Peninsula.
One of most uncomplicated ways to enjoy the fruits and charms of Astoria is to grab seats at the bar, order a glass of wine, and dig into some cheese and charcuterie. The kitchen prepares small and large cheese boards ($9, $17) and small and large meat boards ($9, $17), but for some reason offers no combination of the two. The boards are outfitted with the good stuff, like prosciutto, mortadella and soppressata, sliced to order behind the counter, and fragrant Stilton, nutty aged Manchego and rich, buttery Fromage D'Affinois.
The beauty of Astoria's small plate-heavy menu is that it's easy to keep the train rolling. Disregard the "tapas" designation — these are more like sharable appetizers — and start firing. An order of souvlaki ($11) nets a pair of expertly grilled skewers of marinated chicken breast. The charred and juicy meat is served with refreshing tzatziki, a mini Greek salad and a portion of hot, savory rice. Crispy fried oysters ($12) are arranged on baguette toasts with roasted red peppers and a sliver of melted brie. We could have done without the bread-and-breading combo, but the oysters arrived hot, crisp and luscious.
If you like octopus — or if you think you do not — the version ($14) sold here likely will win you over. As beautiful as it is delicious, the braised, grilled and sliced tentacles are artfully arranged on a plate, with each delectable coin of lean meat kissed, in turn, by the grill, lemon, olive oil and fresh oregano. Other starters of note include airy veal and ricotta meatballs ($12), decadent bechamel-enriched arancini ($11), and a classic mussels ($10) steamed in white wine presentation.
Also listed as a tapas, the lamb lollipops ($18) would be considered a main course at many restaurants. After sending them back to the grill for some much-needed cook time, the four bone-in chops returned hot, medium-rare and as sweet as lollipops. They are paired with quinoa tabbouleh and a napoleon of goat cheese and grilled vegetables.
Each of Astoria's half-dozen pizzas ($12-$14) can be made with red sauce or white sauce, a savory, garlicky base. The doughs are light and crisp, and the toppings are hand-picked from that same selection of top-notch meats, cheeses and gourmet goods.
At both lunch and dinner, those same ingredients find their way into sandwiches like the Italian baguette ($11), which is layered with prosciutto, pepperoni, soppressata, provolone, roasted peppers and vinaigrette. If you can't decide between a salad and a sandwich, the Greek salad sandwich ($8) combines the two, filling a warm pita with greens, feta, cucumber, onion, tomato and tzatziki.
One of the things that impressed us most during each of two visits was the staff. Regardless where in the space one happened to be — over at the olive counter or seated at the bar — a friendly, helpful staffer always seemed to be close at hand. Pair that service with the selection and you've got the makings of a solid neighborhood asset. Astoria Market and Cafe
5417 Detroit Ave. | 216-266-0834