2015-02-11 / Restaurant of the Week

The Thirsty Koala

You know when you stumble upon one of those restaurants that changes everything you thought you knew about great food in Astoria? Such was my experience at The Thirsty Koala (35-12 Ditmars). I had heard good, actually exceptional, things about it, but people exaggerate, right? In this case not at all. I loved this place from the moment I walked in. The décor is light, casual, in pale greens, tans, and wood, with fanciful drawings by a local artist on one wall, and big, bold, almost primitive paintings of Australian beaches by Aussie artist Jennifer Baird on the other. Oh, because, did I mention that The Thirsty Koala features Australian-inspired and indigenous foods? Or maybe you figured that out from the name. Artifacts like a didgeridoo and a spear grace one alcove of the space, and amber, blown-glass hanging lamps provide subtle lighting, while an ample bar beckons at the back. The whole place has a kind of beachy feel, like you just stumbled in from a day at the shore; yet there’s a quiet elegance happening here too.

Two of the three owners greeted us, Chef Katherine Fuchs, a born and bred Astorian, and Aussie business woman, Christine Chellos. I was dying to know the story of how this enterprise came about, especially unusual because you don’t often see two women at the helm of an Astoria eatery. Katherine explained to me that she comes from a long line of restaurant people on her mom’s side of the family. Having been raised in the business, this lady learned to cook. Christine, on the other hand, works in finance during the day, and opened the restaurant as a hobby. Her acumen for business, and her knowledge and love of Australian food brought her, Katherine, and Alex Styponias, the operations guru of the team, together. The three of them bring a dedication to authentic and local foods to The Thirsty Koala, witnessed in the form of grass fed and grass finished, antibiotic and hormone free Australian beef and lamb, free range chicken, local, natural and organic produce, breads, pastry, eggs and dairy, homemade goat and farmer’s cheeses and freshly caught seafood sourced from the New Fulton Fish market. The menu is seasonal, with specials that change every day, and there is an impressive array of vegetarian, vegan and gluten free choices at all times so diners can make healthful choices while enjoying the truly remarkable cuisine.

I learned a new word on the night my dining companion and I feasted at The Thirsty Koala, and that work is “bushtucker,” meaning: indigenous to Australia. Many of the herbs and spices used in the various dishes at the restaurant are bushtucker: exotic and wonderful new flavors with names like wattleseed and akudjura while others are familiar to Astorians in the form of the Greek influence of the neighborhood. Our laid back but super-efficient waiter, Joshua, served us up appetizers spiced with an assortment of these flavors, starting with Thea’s Meatballs made up of grass-fed beef, garlic, onions, potato, tomato, and spices, so fluffy you’ll want to pop one after another in your mouth. Presented with a luscious mound of field greens with bushtucker garnish, I could have made a meal out of it. We also tried the Australian sausage roll, delicious pork and beef sausage in light-as-air puff-pastry comfort food at its best, served, as required Down-Under, with ketchup. Most self-respecting Astoria restaurants have fried calamari on the menu, but not like you’ll find here. The batter is gluten-free, though you’d never know it by the spectacular crunch it provides. Super tender and delectable, it’s served with two sauces: garlicky Thai basil, and sweet chili, which, combined with the freshness of the squid, made my companion declare, “This is what I always want calamari to taste like!”

Another scrumptious starter was the Burrata, homemade ricotta in a shell of fresh mozzarella with seasonal fruit and pesto that absolutely knocked us out, alongside warm, crispy, bread with a sun-dried tomato tapenade that we had to force ourselves not to devour in order to save room for what was to come. And we were glad we did because next up was a gorgeously smokey grilled octopus on a bed of tomato and feta.

Next, we were on to the main courses. We sampled the Lamb-Lollies grass fed and finished Australian lamb chops with lemon myrtle macadamia pesto, caramelized pumpkin, and arugula peppered with pomegranate seeds. I swear you could taste the care and love that went into raising the lamb by the fantastic flavor and texture of the meat. And I’ve never had caramelized pumpkin before but I vow to learn to make it at home-it was extraordinary. The Barramundi Amandine came next, Australian Sea Bass with a lemon beurre blanc, capers, shallots and fresh herbs. The citrusy, buttery fish melted in my mouth and the lemon myrtle rice I had as the accompaniment was perfect. We were also treated to one of the specials of the day, smoked slices of brisket with garlic mashed potatoes. To-die-for.

There’s so much to try here that you could come back over and over and be delighted and surprised every time. For casual dining there are “Boomerang” tacos: vegan, steak, chorizo, fish, or octopus; beef, chicken or kangaroo (yes, kangaroo) burgers; Aussie sandwiches called Jaffles; and main course salads; all ranging from about eleven to seventeen dollars. Add to that the draught beers and ales from Australia and around the world, as well as fruity ciders from California and Vermont and the picture is complete. For a more special night out, the higher-end meat and fish entrees, as well as the fabulous wine list (with no wines over $28.00) will impress that certain someone without a doubt. As a matter of fact, the Valentines Day menu, which can be found online at: www.thethirstykoala.com, is a $40 per person prix fixe meal which includes starter, entrée and dessert.

And speaking of dessert, you must try the Pavlova, a famous Australian whipped meringue cake, decadent, yet light as a feather, and the Vegan Key Lime Mousse, avocado whipped with fresh key lime juice and sugar on a raw walnut cinnamon crust. I could not get enough of it.

I’m already planning my next visit to The Thirsty Koala, with the sense that I have truly discovered a new treasure in Astoria. Move over, Manhattan, you’re going to have to work hard to top this one.

35-12 Ditmars Boulevard
Astoria  718.626.5430

www.thethirstykoala.com  Follow them on Facebook and Twitter

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