Culturesplosion.


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Meatstravaganza at Picnic Garden!

It’s hard to believe we’re almost two months into 2012. DH and I started off our new year with a seemingly ridiculous resolution to complete a 30-day vegetarian challenge, just to see if we could do it. As a result, January went by in a whirlwind of tofu, egg, cheese, and various vegetable matter. We avoided restaurants during that month for the most part, lest we be disappointed by the various menu options which we could not consume, so perhaps we saved some money. Upon completion, however, I wasn’t sure what we really had to show for it, other than a burning desire to consume meat. Meat. MEAT.

Unsurprisingly, February has become a bit meat-centric. We marked the completion of the challenge with a victorious visit to HILL COUNTRY BARBECUE MARKET (map!) where we stuffed our faces with beef brisket (lean & moist varieties) and pork spare ribs, 1 1/2 lbs total.

Time to dig in.

The barbecue was flavored very well, but a bit too salty. The free bread that came with our meat helped balance it out, but our tongues were kind of done by the end. I would love to just have a sandwich next time.

Meanwhile, we had been eyeing another contender for our post-vegetarian stint, but decided against going right away because it was a bit far. Like, Flushing, Queens far. And so, PICNIC GARDEN (map!), home of an unbelievably glorious concept called the ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT-KOREAN-BBQ had to wait for another day…

…but that day finally arrived this past weekend! Let the hedonistic meat-consumption begin!

You could smell the meat grilling from 2 blocks away...glorious for visitors, probably terrible for the neighbors.

We first discovered the existence of all you can eat Korean barbecue joints while we were in Los Angeles (yes, in between all that healthy eating, ha!), and had resolved to find a similar experience on the east coast. Manhattan’s Koreatown does not offer this kind of deal, based on our highly scientific Googling, so the choice was to trek to either Queens or New Jersey. The Queens location was closer and more accessible by public transportation, so off we went.

And goodness, what a mess the traveling was. Attention, all ye internet readers, check the train schedules! We decided to take the LIRR (which would have arrived closer than the subway 7-train), but managed to miss BOTH the departing and return trains by 5 minutes, and they only run once an hour on the weekends. Whoops. Uh, time for some loitering around Penn Station? Once we did get on the train, it was a 20-minute ride, plus a 4-block walk in the snow to finally get to the restaurant.

But it was totally worth all the trouble.

By now, we were desperately hungry and hoping to still be able to catch the lunch price ($23 per person on weekends, something significantly higher for dinner). We were quickly seated by a very efficient hostess/waitress/meat-cutter, who turned on the grill at our table and then left us to go pick out the well-marinated animal parts which would soon be charred to deliciousness in front of us.

THE BUFFET. BUFFET OF MEAT. And other delicious things.

For what is basically a meat palace, the name “Picnic Garden” might not be the best description of the offerings available at this restaurant. It rather makes me think of laying on a checkerboard blanket and eating watercress sandwiches. That thought, however, was quickly dashed.

The big ticket items. Galbi, short-ribs, spicy pork, and other meaty glories.

I liked this setup even better than our experience in Los Angeles, where you had to ask the waiter to bring you more meat. Here, you pick and choose exactly what you want, and there is no shame in going back for seconds, I mean, fourths. There is also a variety of prepared ban-chan side dishes (mmm, good kimchi and potato-egg-apple salad), rice, and soups (the seaweed soup is out of this world, slurp slurp slurp), which I thought were terrifically tasty and just as worthy of merit as the beef/pork/chicken/seafood.

The aroma is swoon-worthy. Come on, cook faster!

The waitress kept good attention to our table and cut up our meats into bite-sized pieces as they cooked, stopping by every once in awhile to give them a little stir for even grilling. When they were done, we made our little lettuce wraps and heartily munched with satisfaction.

Just look at that. Not my fault if you lick the screen.

Several rounds later, we were pretty much stuffed to the brim. We polished everything off with some fresh orange slices, and finished just in time for the end of lunch. For about $50 total before tip, that was a great value.

Word of caution, as iterated by many voices on the internet, YOU ARE GONNA SMELL OF MEAT WHEN YOU’RE DONE. Oh yes, the smell will linger for hours, reminding you of the glory that was your meal, and causing all your friends with noses to froth with jealousy that they didn’t get to go. Or you’ll just smell like some meaty weirdo around strangers.

Heeding those words, we wore easily washable clothes which we knew would go straight into the laundry once we got home, and brought a garbage bag to stuff our winter coats into. It feels a little weird to go to such lengths, but those tiny drops of meat grease will splatter, and the aroma will soak into your coats, so better to bag than having to head to the dry-cleaners.

And after you’re done, you can go across the street to this place:

PUPPIES PUPPIES PUPPIES

I like how the PUPPIES x3 are bulleted. And were there ACTUAL adorable little doggies inside? The answer is yes.

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M. Wells: Reason #2 to Take the 7 Train

As a current Manhattanite, I am pretty clueless outside of the home borough. I am figuring out Brooklyn at a respectable pace, with the various street names becoming more and more familiar as I trek out to eat new delicious foods. But Queens? Up until this point, my destination has only ever been Flushing to get choice dim sum or other good Chinese cuisine. That’s a long ride.

Thankfully, M. WELLS is just 2 stops from Grand Central! (map!)

A brilliant disguise! You'd never know they serve fois gras in there.

Hooray for Long Island City! There is no excuse for not taking the subway to this gem of a restaurant. It is probably a longer ride to Union Square from GCT, and the Hunters Point stop is right next to the restaurant for additional convenience. My aforementioned cluelessness led us to get off at the Vernon Blvd/Jackson Ave stop accidentally (oops!), so we had to walk through a semi-creepy and desolate block from the other direction, but all in all, it is really not difficult or scary to get to this place!

Once you’re inside, it’s like night and day. The retro diner decor makes you feel like you’re in a bygone era:

So many people! So much energy! So much food!

We had a bit of a wait since we were part of the mass wave of people following the footsteps of NYTimes’ Sam Sifton and the just-published Time Out New York review, but it wasn’t too bad and the hostess (who I think was the co-owner Sarah Obraitis, or least an amazingly good doppelgänger) was very nice, thanking us for our patience. I think we did ok without a reservation, but I highly recommend getting one since they only serve dinner on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays right now. Given the number of people coming through the door, it seemed tough for the restaurant to get everyone a seat at the exact reserved time, but those people were, of course, given priority once seats cleared up.

In the end, we got nice counter seats, and I actually recommend these over the booths/tables because you get to see the open kitchen action up-close. We chose a couple of cocktails, which I absolutely loved Loved LOVED. The menu descriptions are simple, but the taste and presentation were tops. High class yet casually fun.

There was the J.F.K. Harris (white rum, lemon juice, sugar, mint, red wine) in a coca-cola glass:

I'm a sucker for density-column type drinks. It's tasty science!

And the M. Gibson (gin, dry vermouth, brine, orange bitters):

If you like dirty martinis, this is the signature cocktail of your mothership.

I need to try the rest of the cocktail menu. They were created by Zachary Gelnaw-Rubin at nearby Dutch Kills, so there’s a good standard at work here.

Onto the food. Deciding what to eat was agonizingly difficult. Everything looked really good. We decided to go with their Queens Clam Chowder, which was served in a huge tureen (maybe too huge, a small baby can probably take a bath in this thing!). Luckily, it contained about 3 servings, perfect for two hungry people.

*SLURP*chew*chew*chew*

We didn’t get it with the optional fois gras (extra $10), which was for the best because the soup was quite rich already. I’m starting to think I’m some kind of salt whiner, but the flavorful broth was a tad bit too salty in my opinion. The stuff IN the soup, however, was a totally different story. As someone who constantly suffers the indignity of barely-there clam bits in most of the chowders I consume in restaurants, this dish was like winning the clam lottery. The clams were BIG, PLENTIFUL, and FRESH. Did I just see a whole piece of mussel in there too? Oh my god.

Then we had the escargot and bone marrow, which was absolutely decadent:

I wish we had 5 of these...

As we ate, the speakers piped in some choice tunes. I never thought I’d be eating a dish of this level while listening to Snoop, but somehow it just worked.

Not wanting to have to be carted home in wheelbarrows, we finished up by splitting a slice of coconut cream pie, which was absolutely the right choice.

Can you handle my coconuttiness??

Ahhhhh! It looks so simple and benign, but once you dig in, it just hooks you. Not too sweet, not too gloppy puddingy, a crust that doesn’t overwhelm the cream, and just the right amount of whipped creme.

Stomach: What are you doing taking photos? Pie in mouth now!

We left feeling quite satisfied, but before walking out the door, what did I do?

I made a reservation for next week.