By Suzanne Parker

When you enter a new restaurant, you immediately get a certain vibe.

It’s a synthesis of sights, sounds, smells, and a general impression of both staff and fellow patrons. Sometimes it can be so powerful that you can be thrilled to be there, or motivated do an about face and leave. Usually it falls somewhere in between, but it adjusts your expectations of things to come.

If we had to use one word to describe the vibe at Casa Del Chef, a two-month old eatery in Woodside, it would be earnest. You feel like they are welcoming you with sincerity, and really want you to enjoy your meal, and that your fellow diners are appreciating what they are eating.

Casa Del Chef is tiny and unpretentious in its décor of wood, shades of beige, and miscellaneous kitchen accoutrements. Chef/owner Alfonso Zhicay grew up on a sugar plantation in Ecuador, and, besides making cane juice, worked at a local hotel with an organic farm and restaurant.

He immigrated to the United States in 1994, where he found work in the restaurant industry. He is a veteran of the Stone Barn kitchens of Dan Barber, the high priest of sustainable eating. At Casa, Zhicay’s menu reflects that seasonal, farm-to-table sensibility, yet when you ask him about foods of his native country he grows misty-eyed. He was delighted to learn that we, too, had eaten cuy (roasted guinea pig pronounced coo-ee), and rhapsodized over its deliciousness.

Before ordering, we were presented with a teensy frying pan filled a portabello mushroom confit topped by celery leaves, as cute as it was tasty. You can either order from the menu in the conventional sequence, or try the “Chef’s Tasting” for a sampling of three dishes and dessert. We recommend the latter.

The soup of the day that day was winter squash. It was a bit too sweet, but fashionably garnished by a froth of Parmesan foam. Creamy spinach risotto was a vivid green, crowned with four petite seared scallops. As advertised, the risotto was very creamy, absent any actually cream. Healthiness by stealth.

Zhicay’s must-have appetizer is the organic quinoa protein salad. It could use a more poetic name, but it makes up for it in taste. A pleasingly chewy mound of quinoa sits upon white beans and bacon surrounded by a piquant sauce made of whole grain mustard. I challenge any quinoa hater, and I know a few, not to love this dish.

While the menu is concise, the mains run the gamut of meats, poultry, fish and even a vegetarian pasta dish. The salmon was beautifully seared with a moist interior, but the zucchini pistou was a tad undercooked, and not as garlicky as “pistou” implied. Braised short ribs were offset nicely by the lightness of baby Chinese leeks and boiled potatoes with a sparkling citrus horseradish sauce. Likewise braised lamb shank enjoyed the well-chosen company of red cabbage and what we think was broccolini.

Dessert was the only course that expressed the chef’s Ecuadorian origins. Chicha a traditional Andean dessert and/or beverage was served as a fruit confit of pear pineapple and apples. It was neither too sweet or rich, (or alcoholic as chicha can sometimes be), a virtuous way to complete a meal.

The Bottom Line

Only in Queens would you find an Ecuadorian immigrant opening a restaurant serving “new American cuisine” amidst a sea of ethnic restaurants, but we’re really glad he did. The food is way above average, the prices well below, and the hospitality uncommonly warm and welcoming. We encourage you to go before everyone else finds Casa Del Chef.

Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at qnsfo‌[email protected]‌

Casa Del Chef Bistro

39-06 64th St.


Telephone: (718) 457-9000


Price Range: Apps: $6—8, Entrees: $14—21 Tasting menu: $35

Cuisine: new American seasonal

Setting: Tiny, unpretentious.

Service: Attentive, accommodating

Hours: Sunday, Tuesday to Thursday 4 pm – 10 pm; Friday and Saturday 4 pm – midnight

Closed Mondays

Reservations: Optional

Alcohol: License pending

Parking: Street

Dress: Casual

Children: Close quarters, children should be well behaved.

Music: Recorded

Takeout: Yes

Credit cards: No

Noise level: Acceptable

Handicap accessible: Yes

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