Barracuda of Bay Ridge
Earlier this year I helped my younger brother apply to grad school by editing his essays. Since college, he'd cooked a whole lot, but hadn't done much writing. His first drafts had no commas. Somehow, a Kerouackian approach didn't seem right for the ed/psych doctoral path. We discussed this, and he overcorrected, turning in statements of purpose that might have shattered the very monocles of Harvard's and Berkeley's admissions officers. They'll never know how narrowly they averted that unnatural barrage of punctuation.
We had a telephone meeting to nail down the rules about commas. Once his memory about dependent adverbial clauses was refreshed, though, a problem arose. Plenty of commas are optional. I found myself saying things like, "A newspaper wouldn't use a comma there, but you probably want to for this."
I knew my brother was getting it when he told me, "You're saying that commas are like salt. You can't cook without it, and sometimes you really need it, but if you use too much you're screwed. Other than that it's up to you." Also, we agreed, if you're not cooking or writing just for yourself, you'd better take your audience's preferences into account.
The pickled sardine appetizer at Barracuda is a prime example of the link between saline and style. An elusive sort of food poetry is at work in the dish. Its blinding saltiness would translate to a five-page incantation of a sentence. You're not inspired to contemplate nature or analyze the mechanics behind its creation?you either get it and feel it or else spit it out.
Personally, I'd be willing to sign?no, start?a petition to have pickled fresh sardine filets with dill and onions added to the standard roster of bar snacks. Or at least to that of raw bars. They went unbelievably well with beer. The taste is ethereal compared to that of pickled herring, and the full butterfly cut executed by Barracuda's chef conveyed due respect for these oft-misunderstood little fishes. They look dignified lying flat, like sushi (the primary body of food poetry), and they're just as raw. The garnish was some kalamata olives, so fruity they confounded. Crowning the filets with bare onions resulted in flavor a little too royal. They also come with a peeled, boiled potato, but bedding the fish and onions together on a slice of toasted wheat bread from our table basket was the move for me.
My brother's salt-style analogy extends all the way to cultural taste, apparently. You ever meet a man of Russian descent who feels any way other than passionate about the great Russian novels? I suspect that what clicked the moment I settled into a semiconscious beer-and-sardine groove must have been the Slav in me.
Barracuda is in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. It's a seafood restaurant. The only other ethnic options it offers are a soup called Ucha ("double broth with vodka"), a couple of vodka fish sauces and one red wine from Georgia. Other than that, its menu is a conservative take on the beach-town family restaurant theme. Only long-traditional eating fish appear on the list of entrees, alongside pastas and sandwiches, jambalaya and paella, plus the obligatory steak and chicken options. Surely someone behind the place is from a formerly Soviet land, wary of scaring off potential customers. All kinds of people live in Bay Ridge, and some, no doubt, are not adventurous eaters. The neighborhood may have the same avenues as the South Slope, but it's about four miles farther down them, Staten Island-ward all the way. (The R runs just about the entire distance, along 4th Ave.)
Walking around, it feels odd to see the spans of Verrazano peeking out at the ends of avenues, exactly the way the Empire State Bldg. does in Lower Manhattan. Expressways to the bridge form a heart-shaped border around Bay Ridge, sealing it off, making it an enclave. As is true of the other beachfront New York neighborhoods, a lot of current and retired city employees reside within. I'm told that Bay Ridge is particularly rich in Board of Education workers. Yet the population is diverse. Most of the signs along 5th Ave. are in Arabic, and the apartment buildings and row houses in the old Italian brick style do not house only old Italian-Americans, not by a longshot. The restaurant strip on 3rd Ave. features enough far-flung cuisines in close proximity that it could be mistaken for a street in Queens. Well, except for the Verrazano and the cool ocean breezes.
Barracuda is in there, on one of the busier corners. The restaurant has a funny layout, with its kitchen between the barroom and the dining room. Both have exterior doors, but if you walk in the wrong one you'll be led through the kitchen to your intended destination. They really don't want to lose anyone. You can practically hear the owner imploring his staff: "There's a million other restaurants out there, so keep them in here!"
Even beyond the sardines (which were $5.95), Barracuda is a find. We continued with a grilled calamari salad ($7.95). The squid was tender and not at all chewy. The smaller rings were a tad dry from the grill, but some lime dressing solved that problem. We even let our calamari grow cold?distracted by pickled sardines?and still it didn't turn to gum. You won't find many family-sized portions of tentacles that don't become off-putting if not promptly devoured by a family.
Three Fisherman Soup ($4.95) was simple shellfish broth with some chopped scallion and a pinch of saffron. The latter rang equal parts obvious and perfect, suggesting another writing/cooking commonality: A lot of good work is sophisticated and elegant, but you don't have to be at all either to be good.
There was also saffron in the rice of our seafood paella entree ($15.95). The highlights here were mussels, clams and baby scallops, all springy to the teeth?the shrimp alone were only par for the course. Chunks of salmon proved tastier than the farm-raised standard. The menu description of the paella specifies "our favorite sauce," which turned out to be a melted stick of butter. Every cook's favorite sauce, really, but few are willing to come even that close to admitting it. Of course it made the paella taste great. We saluted Barracuda's decision to not really disguise its favorite sauce, and thereby engage in pretend deference to calorie counters who actually wish to be fooled. Paella should not be a charade.
After all, if you want something relatively light, you can get grilled fish. It was clear by now that the person who selects Barracuda's seafood enjoys the creatures himself. So the freshness and firmness of my whole red snapper ($18.95) were not surprising. I'd hoped for grill marks, but there's no shame in a restaurant using an enclosed kitchen grill, even though those are really oven/grill hybrids. The unexpected part was the slick whole-fish presentation. The snapper was positioned the way bony fish often are in Chinese places?upright, as if it swam directly onto the plate. But what ends up a mess in black bean sauce in Chinatown was quite functional at Barracuda. The snapper had been split open along its bottom edge, which was spread apart and held that way by half a baked potato, serving as a platform. Corn scraped off the cob filled the sides of the plate. That plate was metal, so the fish had actually seared to it along that split bottom edge. This made it remarkably easy to get at the snapper's meat, a boneless piece of which fell directly into the hot corn every time the pinned-down fish was forked. The sweet white meat and crunchy kernels together felt festive and summery.
Our only negative experience at Barracuda was with my second side dish. Your choice comes free with a fish entree, but terrible sauteed broccoli wasn't worth the price. I also take issue with the selling of sauces as sides for $1.95 each. Uninterested in the "Sides" section of the menu, I didn't even see the sauce list when I'd ordered. The fish with corn was juicy enough, but it might have been nice to try "Mushroom Vodka," "Key Lime Tequila or "Lemon Barbeque" with my snapper. The waitress should have called my attention to those, especially if one would've counted as my free side. She failed to tell us the evening's specials as well, come to think of it. Next time I'll deal directly with management.
Did I mention that I heard about Barracuda from a billboard on the BQE? The one with the cartoon barracuda holding a mug of beer, smoking a Habana, yes sir. I know how to read.
Barracuda, 7026 3rd Ave. (71st St.), Brooklyn, 718-833-3759.
Uncle Louie G's
We skipped Barracuda's dessert offerings in favor of Uncle Louie G's, an ices and ice cream parlor on the next block. I've been frequenting a spinoff franchise in Park Slope (there's also one in the East Village) since I found that the hazelnut ices served there soothe my ongoing withdrawal from Murray Hill's Il Gelatone, New York's best frozen-treat stand, which I used to live sort of near. Sigh. Uncle Louie G's hazelnut is major-league, though. In fact, this very writing unexpectedly necessitated another trip to Park Slope.
The Bay Ridge outlet doesn't serve the hazelnut. Maybe it's considered too hoity-toity?which, if it's the case, suggests an Italian-American culture woefully out of touch with the Motherland, in my opinion. From the list of dozens of other flavors we chose cappuccino, which was milquetoast, and pistachio, which was only barely satisfying.
A sign at Uncle Louie G's claims, "All Ices Are Fat Free." That would suggest that the hazelnut is artificially flavored, because hazelnuts, like all nuts, are fat. Our pistachio had actual pistachios in it, however. Would Uncle Louie say his ices are fat-free even when the nuts suspended in them (other flavors have chocolate chips) are not? It's probably best not to think about this too much, but I can't even imagine a Clintonian explanation that would back up Uncle Louie G's claim with reference to his delicious and creamy hazelnut ices.
Uncle Louie G's, 7207 3rd Ave. (betw. 72nd & 73rd Sts.), Brooklyn, 718-921-6301, and throughout the city.
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