Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Cakewalk Through Forest Hills

By Steve Tiszenkel

As a Forest Hills loyalist, I’m always looking for ways in which we trump all other neighborhoods. I continue to believe that FoHi is pound for pound the best nabe in New York, but where is our dominance indisputable? We’ve got great public transportation, pretty streets, top-notch schools, great housing stock, an eclectic collection of restaurants, shopping galore—but we’re hardly the only place around that can make those claims. Yes, Cottage Living Magazine named Forest Hills Gardens the No. 1 cottage community of 2007, and I feel fortunate every day to live right around the corner, but if you don’t actually own a cottage of your own there—to say nothing of your ability to take advantage of the enclave’s restricted parking—that distinction is as much frustration as triumph.

But seemingly out of nowhere, in the darkest depths of the Great Recession, when storefronts sit sad and empty for months — even years — at a time, Forest Hills has slowly but steadily been developing a secret weapon, an embarrassment of riches that the most precious South Brooklyn neighborhood can only hope to equal.


Yes, bakeries. Haven’t you noticed? The offerings weren’t too shabby before—over on the little block of Ascan just north of the Gardens, one of the Hills’ poshest stretches, Bonnelle has been turning out perfect fruit tarts and shortbread cookies for years, and a co-worker who grew up in the area has been begging me to pick him up a chocolate babka from Andre’s Hungarian way on the other side of town. Jay-Dee maintains one of the neighborhood’s coolest old neon signs, a true landmark on Queens Boulevard. And even with all the local culinary luminaries who set up shop at the Forest Hills Community House’s Taste of Forest Hills event a couple of years back, Metropolitan Avenue’s La Dolce Italia managed to make a huge impression on me—and probably my waistline—with its beautifully done Italian cookies and pastries.

But those places are old hat. Ever since Astoria import Martha’s Country Bakery opened a Forest Hills outpost and quickly found it had to install one of those take-a-number systems to help with crowd control, we’ve experienced a bakedgoods renaissance. Fay Da has brought good and, not unimportantly, dirt-cheap Chinese buns to the neighborhood, and Brooklyn-based newcomer Oko has given the old Queens bakery a minimalist twist. Manhattan chain Europan Café — I believe the name means “European bread café” in European — is still setting up shop on the corner of the 70th Road Restaurant Row.

What’s truly remarkable is that at a time when business owners can’t seem to catch a break, in a place whose picture Merriam-Webster Unabridged could use to illustrate “saturated market,” all these bakeries seem to be thriving. The only failure has been Broadway Bakery, but it doesn’t take Ray Kroc or Sam Walton to figure out that you don’t open a new location a block away from your old location and keep the old one open—and anyway, Broadway was always an also-ran in the bakestakes, in taste if not in inexplicable success. No matter—a new Italian bakery has moved into the space, and things look like they’re doing fine in there.

Bakeries seem like an oddly specific business to be booming right now, but it does make sense—baked goods are a relatively inexpensive luxury, and they make you feel good, at least until they make you feel very bad. It’s sort of like buying overvalued real estate with a variable-rate mortgage. I’m not complaining. Sure, it would be nice to see some more variety out there, but unlike the endless banks that proliferated in better years, at least this is something we all can enjoy—except diabetics, of course.

Giant cookies are good. And being the best at something is even better.

The writer, Steve Tiszenkel is the host of the website Log on to read more about Forest Hills and surrounding neighborhoods.

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