A Passion for the Grape in Queens
Keuka Kafe in Forest Hills brings a new wine culture to Queens Blvd… Yes, Queens Blvd.
Before Astoria became trendy… before Long Island City had its first high-rise luxury condominium, Forest Hills was the go-to place in Queens for the finest restaurants, watering holes and nightlife in the borough. The focal point of Forest Hills culinary culture is traditionally along Austin St. in the vicinity of the LIRR and subway stations, though Metropolitan Ave. has also seen an upsurge of restaurants replacing ancient storefronts once housing antique dealers, insurance companies and furniture upholstery shops. Queens Blvd. has never been much of a social destination, being known more as a major traffic artery than anything else. Nonetheless, the boulevard now boasts a small wine bar that has seen increased popularity with the locals since opening its doors, bottles and taps over a year and a half ago.
Keuka Kafe opened in February 2013, filling a local absence that owner, Ollie Sakhno noticed, having lived in the neighborhood for several years. “Before we opened, this stretch of Queens Blvd. had no legitimate ‘watering holes’ for several blocks,” he explains. “People don’t want to walk long distances to get to the neighborhood bar, and before Keuka Kafe, they really had to.”
Of course, establishing a neighborhood bar was only a small part of Ollie’s endeavor. The concept of Keuka Kafe introduces other features that were not only lacking in Forest Hills, but in all of Queens. “My wife and I fell in love with the wines of the Finger Lakes region during a visit to Lake Placid a few years ago,” he explains. “These wines are underrepresented in Queens, and I wanted to introduce them to Forest Hills when I opened Keuka Kafe.”
He’s right. Finger Lakes wines are hard, if not impossible to find anywhere in the borough apart from Keuka Kafe, where approximately 40 percent of the wine stock is from New York State (primarily Finger Lakes with some Long Island representation as well). So pronounced is the Finger Lakes vibe here that the name of the wine bar itself comes from Keuka Lake upstate. Apart from New York wines, the other 60 percent of the bar’s stock is international and domestic, driven by quality over regional representation.
“I choose wines based on value and quality,” says Ollie. “The Finger Lakes wines represent an incredible selection, but I’m very selective in my choice of wines. They have to be the highest quality for me to serve them here.” Keuka Kafe hosts wine tastings once a month on average complete with cheese and meat spreads. Most often the featured wines are in keeping with the bar’s emphasis on New York State vineyards, though other wines are occasionally brought in.
Keuka Kafe is more than just a Wine Bar. The menu of small plates, meats, cheeses, oysters, etc. is what Ollie characterizes as “wine bar fare.” What he means by that is that the food served at the bar is chosen as a compliment to the wine, though he acknowledges customer demand in the shaping of the menu and wine selection. “For example, when we first opened, we had no port wines,” he reflects. “People kept asking us if we carried port. Now we have four kinds of port wines available.”
Although the focus is primarily on wine, Keuka Kafe has a selection of bottled and tap beers as well. “We regularly rotate our tap beer selection every ten days or so,” Ollie adds. Most featured brews represent NYC and regional breweries following the bar’s emphasis on local business and quality product. When one featured beer runs out, it’s replaced by a new beer, rather than simply replenished. “Our beer following is always fresh,” he smiles.
Though the bar isn’t very large, it’s not uncomfortably small either and is very inviting. The atmosphere, according to Ollie is “old school charm, meets new world design.” The evening crowd is dotted with regulars and newcomers alike, but it’s always busy. Apart from wine tastings, Keuka Kafe doesn’t have many designated special events like karaoke or trivia nights to draw in clientele. It’s a neighborhood place, and people come in from the neighborhood. “We’re not busy because we have a karaoke night,” says Ollie’s wife, Olga. “We’re busy because we’re open.”
That’s not to say that the bar doesn’t have a following. Keuka Kafe has received a number of favorable reviews in the press including Edible Queens, the Daily News, the Wall Street Journal and even the NYC Board of Tourism, among others.
The local bar aspect is accentuated by its proximity to the 75th Ave. subway station (E and F trains) only a few steps away from Keuka Kafe. Locals come in from their jobs or other activities in Manhattan and stop in for some wine or beer and a bite to eat.
If you ever find yourself in Forest Hills, away from the centers of attraction at Continental Ave., Austin St. or Metropolitan Ave. take a stroll over to Keuka Kafe on Queens Blvd. The bar is located at 112-04 Queens Blvd, Forest Hills, NY 11375. Ph: (718) 880-1478 or on line at: www.keukakafe.com