How lightly do I have to tread in this review? For a straight writer, reviewing a largely gay bar and restaurant owned by two gay men — called Queenshead, for God's sake — is tough to do without resorting to stereotypes and puns. Thankfully, the food is good enough to make all of that extraneous chatter moot.
The owners are British ex-pats Paul Smith and Darren Conner. Conner has experience working in the restaurant and bar scene across the world, from England to Cambodia, while Smith has a much more interesting past career as an art director for tabloids like the National Enquirer and The Daily Mirror. Queenshead's menu is more straightforward than either of those former careers might indicate.
It's largely British gastropub fare peppered by American fine-dining influence, with dishes that range from seared scallops with brussels sprouts and bacon to chicken curry with a corn fritter. And, considering that many people will see Queenshead as more of a bar and scene spot, much of the food is better than expected, Props to chef Chris Green, who worked under Domenica Macchia last year at MJ's.
Of course, Queenshead is a scene of a sort, with a slick bar that curves through the room, a cozy interior room — lined with comfy couches — tucked off to the side of the bar, and a wall of booths and tables. There's a big outdoor patio, covered thanks to the building's long lost function as a '50s-era gas station. The music is sharp, dance-mixed pop, played a notch or two louder than the average restaurant.
The food is also a notch or two above the average restaurant. Scallops come with an intensely browned, salty crust, but the insides of the big discs are sweet and moist. Better yet are the halved brussels sprouts on the side, deeply caramelized in spots and infused with rich bacon fat. It's a sizable and well-designed small meal for just $10 on the appetizer list.
Queenshead also serves one of the best bar snacks around: big bowls of crisp-fried chick peas. The exterior — doused in subtle Indian spices — bursts with a thin crunch, revealing a creamy center. You probably won't notice the subtleties, though, since the chick peas are best tossed back by the handful.
Entrees all seem to have little unique touches, a hallmark of gastropubs that try to spin each traditional dish they serve. That simple, very British-fied chicken curry comes with a giant corn fritter seasoned with cardamom. It's brown verging on black, just a second or two shy of burned, but the rich and crackling dough meshes perfectly with the mild spices and coconut milk in the curry. Together, it's a hefty dish that'll leave you too full for much more than resting on the patio with a Guinness.
Simple duck breast came a bit too rare, although the bright red juice dribbling across the plate drained from the beets instead of the bird. The julienned strands of bright red beet piled between the duck and the decadent truffled mashed potatoes are tender, sweet and incredibly tart, providing a beautiful counterpoint to duck fat and buttery mash. It's a thoughtful, surprising combination that makes for an incredible dish you'll think about for weeks.
The surprise in Queenshead's risotto — the addition of other whole grains to the mix — is less interesting, and gives the cheesy mass more texture than it needs while accentuating the earthy mushrooms past this elegant dish deserves.
Along with the dinner fare, there's a weekend brunch and an old-fashioned Sunday roast dinner. That's just the kind of event that should appeal to the new bar's clientele.
Queenshead is in Grand Central, a neighborhood that craves neighborhood joints for local bungalow dwellers. The crowd trends to groups of four or more, making the bar a meeting spot for friends. There're tables of hipster twenty-somethings drinking beer — leashed dog waiting for scraps under the table, svelte dudes in impressive duds, and comfortably pudgy couples with bottles of wine and empty dessert plates.
These are people who become regulars, the kinds of folks who would enjoy the tradition of a big family meal with their much-extended relations at Queenshead.