As far as counter-service-restaurant concepts go, the Queens Kickshaw’s is pretty unique. The two-month-old Astoria shop serves what the married owners call “fancy grilled cheese sandwiches,” “specialty coffee,” and, coming soon, “craft beer,” and that’s about it. So how does a couple like former Nobu Fifty Seven captain Ben Sandler and AP photo archivist Jennifer Lim get into the grilled-cheese-coffee-bar racket? Three years ago, they moved to Astoria and quickly surmised that while there was certainly good coffee to be found, great coffee was another matter. So Sandler, as restaurant captains are trained to do, sprung into action. He took classes and went on coffee tours. He read books and talked to baristas. He did Internet research. Then he bought a coveted La Marzocco Strada espresso machine and some Hario V60 pour-over drip cones. Soon enough, he was ready to introduce the undercaffeinated populace to the sort of coffee it had been deprived of for so long. But something was missing from this business plan, and at a certain point one imagines the following conversation between husband and wife:
Wife: “We can’t just serve specialty coffee, can we? What if the customers get hungry?”
Husband: “You’re right. How do you feel about fancy grilled cheese sandwiches?”
Wife: “I love fancy grilled cheese sandwiches!”
Thus was born the Queens Kickshaw, and despite the fact that to some it might sound like the brainchild of a first-round loser on America’s Next Great Restaurant, the concept works. The Westchester-roasted pour-over coffee is terrific, the cortado and Americano equally delicious. The room is a long and narrow study in reclamation chic, with a laptop-friendly communal table in back, a sun-splashed window ledge and butcher-block square up front, and a long counter connecting the two, the whole premises patrolled by perky baristas who cheerfully ferry orders and top off glasses of seltzer. In short, it’s as pleasant and exacting a coffee bar as any you’d find in Manhattan or Brooklyn, if not more so.
And then there are those grilled cheese sandwiches, assembled on Balthazar Bakery bread by chefs so intently focused on their mise en place you’d think they were auditioning for Thomas Keller. One look at the menu tells you this is not the work of a moonlighting hash-slinger from Eisenberg’s. Take, for instance, the Gouda sandwich. It mingles guava jam and pickled jalapeños with a dollop of black-bean hummus. Not to be outdone, the Great Hill Blue on cranberry-walnut brings to the party sliced pear and prune jam and a side salad containing pickled blueberries. These two might strike a Kraft Singles traditionalist as the worst thing to happen to grilled cheese since the East Village kiosk Bamn! sold the iconic sandwich out of a vending machine, but they’re actually pretty great. By comparison, the Cheddar-and-mozzarella on brioche is relatively old school. It’s light and fluffy, crisp and gooey, relentlessly buttery, and a little greasy—everything a grilled cheese sandwich ought to be. Textural contrast comes via a crunchy Gruyère frico, tucked into a winning breakfast egg-and-cheese or jauntily perched atop the Gruyère on rye.
Outré ingredients are well and good, but with grilled cheese, as with omelettes and roast chicken, technique is key. The cardinal sin of the grilled-cheese cook is insufficient melt. The Queens Kickshaw technicians overcome this obstacle by giving the sandwiches a head start in the oven and then a butter-lubricated finish on the griddle.
If there’s a weak spot in the repertoire, it might be the open-faced variations served on thick focaccia. These inherently throw the bread-to-cheese ratio out of whack and are a little reminiscent of Stouffer’s French-bread pizzas. And though the U.G. applauds the notion of balancing cheesy gut bombs with zingily dressed side salads and the like, the tomato soup fell a little flat, and even pickle fanatics might find the pickle pot a bit too pungent, with baby fennel rendered as chewy as sugarcane. Still, these are mere quibbles. Who comes to a coffee bar for pickles, anyway? Grilled cheese sandwiches, though—that’s another story.