You Can Get to Randazzo's from Here, and It's Worth the Trip; Exceptional Middle Eastern Fare at Waterfalls Cafe
Sitting at the counter of Randazzo's on a hot Sunday afternoon last July, watching the oyster shuckers and the foot traffic through the big window behind them, along Sheepshead Bay, was perfect. We had a whole steamed lobster, chilled, six clams and some beers. A ballgame was on the restaurant tv. Randazzo's raw bar was setting an impressive pace?dozens and dozens per inning?and we marveled at the efficiency. No good raw bar doesn't deal in volume.
Randazzo's atmosphere is set by its floor manager, who works behind that counter, taking orders and shouting them in restaurantese to the shuckers and back toward the kitchen. Smallish, hoarse and happy in his element and his brillo-haired middle age, he's impressively loud. Almost definitely a Randazzo. At the counter, watching the experts, being served by the proprietor, having chosen the place after a long walk from Coney because it has a huge neon lobster sign claiming "Clam Bar," well, that's my element, pretty much.
I also didn't know that one can take the subway direct to Sheepshead Bay. A Brooklyn friend with a car once took me for the old-school family seafood dining experience at Lundy Brothers. It was fun, but it put in my mind the idea that the area wasn't accessible to MTA-bound Manhattanites. Lundy's has, like, a parking lot. Randazzo's is just a block away, past a gamut of checkered-tablecloth restaurants that sprang up in the shadow of that revitalized Brooklyn-as-resort institution, yet it's really a neighborhood place. Anyway, you get there on the Q, and at rush hour there's the express Q diamond, so it's Herald Square to Clam Bar in half an hour. You get a taste of salt air as soon as you exit Sheepshead Bay station (then go left to Ocean Ave., right and under the Shore Pkwy. to Emmons Ave. and you're there). I'm glad I learned that and went back to Randazzo's on a warm, late-summer weekday evening. But things would've worked out better had I not looked up Randazzo's on Chowhound.com's NYC message board. Someone there raved about the fried calamari and the restaurant's red sauce, pointing out that it's Granny Randazzo's recipe and available worldwide via the Web.
Stupid Internet. It's easy to imagine a regular customer convincing the proud family to market their sauce in jars. Spicy and smoky, it works with the calamari rings well enough. Those have a batter coating superior to the usual fryer-grease sponge. If you grew up with this particular dish as an after-beach treat, its distinctiveness could arouse a special feeling. Without warm memories, it's just a smokier version of the generic squid-gum bar snack. Even for us, though, I think the setting helped.
We tried both the red and white clam chowders, neither of which was thin or bland, and the tomato sauce Randazzo's uses for pasta, which was thin and bland. Of course the spaghetti was mushy. Naturally the mussels came in what seemed like pure oil, not tarragon mustard or coconut curry, which wouldn't have mattered if the bivalves had been ultrafresh. Then we wouldn't have felt spoiled by silly Belgian bistros.
Mitigating all that was the treat of service from employees enjoying themselves. Our waitress warned us about ordering too much, and called us "kids" convincingly. She applies lobster bibs to patrons, "Not 'cause you're messy?it sprays all over!" The mollusk assassins appear to be Central American and never smile, though they obviously appreciate their own level of professionalism, as well as the implied praise of constant takeout orders. Our busboy, also Latino, raised his eyebrows in mock gratitude after being informed at a course's end that he could "take everything," pointed at my subway reading material and said, "Dat book?"
And Mr.-probably-Randazzo filled the place with that voice of his. He shot the breeze with four big guys at the counter, who were eating meals of simple shellfish. One of them had brought his teenage son, so the scene looked like an initiation ritual. I envied those guys to the point of wishing I, too, were a plumber or a fire chief, with the sagacity to always order toward a restaurant's strengths and quite possibly own a modest brick house near the Brooklyn seashore. Yes, I'm quite an idiot. When two young black men took stools next to the beefy foursome, I thought there might be coldness. Instead: "Is this your first time here?" Nods. "Well it won't be your last!"
Not a bad bet. Our second visit confirmed that Randazzo's is no slouch when it comes to lobster and shrimp, and for a lot of people the ideally toothsome consistency of those creatures well-steamed conveys summery high life like nothing else. The way their fat white meats retain shell shape after being wrestled out, then resist and collapse in the mouth with that flood of salt water and rich flavor, speaks to some primal sense of luxury. It's said that lobster is best enjoyed during lunch break on a fishing boat. The cliche rings true because the sea and a work-rest dichotomy are the other elements in the equation. Effort and reward is the theme. Even otters eat shellfish while reclining with their tools. Notice how content they look (and how they never even consider Fra Diavalo)? Randazzo's is like a big, friendly, gently bobbing kelp bed for humans.
Worth the trip? You wouldn't want to load your kids into the minivan and take them here. But it's an excellent place to enjoy having neither kids nor a vehicle. Randazzo's is not as inexpensive as a place where someone is shouting all the time probably should be. Lobsters were around $18 both times I went, though they seemed larger than the advertised pound-and-a-quarter. Raw dozens run from $12 for littlenecks to $16 for the (unspecified, probably) Blue Points, and the fried calamari with sauce is $9.50. Beers are $2.50 or $3. For an intra-city vacation, much better is not available. Like every modest pleasure that comes with a journey, it feels better without too much planning. Say you doze off on a southbound Q and wake up smelling the sea breeze. Look for the neon lobster.
Randazzo's Clam Bar, 2017-2023 Emmons Ave. (betw. Ocean Ave. & E. 21st St.), Brooklyn, 718-615-0010. Open 11 a.m. until midnight Mon.-Thurs., until 1 a.m. Fri. & Sat.; cash only.
The first week in October found only one cop stationed on Atlantic Ave.'s Middle Eastern restaurant strip. I visited during one of the unseasonably warm afternoons last week, strolling west from Flatbush Ave., past the Islamic bookstores wafting incense and the Brooklyn House of Detention, all the way to the BQE ramp. Most of the establishments were open for business and doing some. I'd heard that throughout the middle of September, the entire strip was under guard, and needed to be.
My destination was Waterfalls Cafe. It's Syrian/Lebanese, specializing in appetizers, with decor that splits the difference between storefront takeout and fine dining. There's a big display fridge up front, and an open kitchen right behind it, but the eating area has glass-box chandeliers and mauve tablecloths. It's not the kind of Middle Eastern joint that would usually draw me in?I'm more of a look-for-the-hookah-so-you-know-Arabs-actually-eat-there sort of man. It was the infinitely less appropriate, though in this case more effective, hunting method of drunken serendipity that made me a Waterfalls regular.
You see, Waterfalls is the restaurant closest to the Last Exit, a newish couches-and-microbrews bar at the end of the Atlantic strip. The neighborhood on the avenue is truly immigrant and not immediately accessible by subway (Borough Hall and the Bergen F stop are closest), but it's also the border between Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill. Does that explain the mauve? Anyway, I first stumbled into Waterfalls on a mission from a birthday gathering at the Last Exit?to find some takeout for 12 non-native young Brooklynites and bring it back to the couch where we'd been since happy hour. Try Fountain or Tripoli, someone said.
Waterfalls was full that night. I must've seen the display case from outside and figured that visual previews of dinner prospects might be a bright idea. Prepared items appeared fresh and varied, with plenty of colorful plant matter, so I pointed some out. Everything was microwaved and I returned a hero. Back at the bar, it felt like we'd raided an ethnic friend's fridge for its homecooked leftovers.
The stuffed vegetables inspired me to remember the restaurant's name. On my first return trip it became clear that (a) whoever pre-prepares Waterfalls' appetizers is no joke; (b) I wanted to eat their stuffed vegetables often; even though (c) I'd been sloppy-drunk oblivious to the fact that the place doesn't serve alcohol for religious reasons. Just another mild conflict in happy-go-lucky old New York City, I guess.
For last week's lunch I had the dining room to myself. Sadly, though predictably, some of the display-case treats were wilting a bit. Waterfalls' grape leaves alone should be enough to bring it through the after-aftermath: for their kiss of vinegar and lemon that protects the integrity of the leaf while bringing out its flavor, and the tight wrap around sticky rice to guarantee moist density. The stuffed cabbage is similarly compact yet yielding, though the morsels are longer. Their leaves' stuffing is made from cracked wheat and chickpeas, with a little mint.
The rice-and-chickpea-stuffed squash, 6 inches long and green on the outside, amplifies its membrane's funk with sauteed white onion, instead of mitigating it with herbs. At the time of my recent visit the eggplant was better than the cabbage or squash?other times it's been one of those that surpasses (the grape leaves don't seem to vary). Waterfalls uses round little eggplants, and rice with tomatoes and cumin inside. The feel is more stewed and layered, somehow slower than the others, which are more like tasty salads, but the satisfying presentation, in a firm, delectable package, is the same. Every slice of the fork yields a balanced mix of ingredients.
The fool medammus, spinach pies and eggplant salad at Waterfalls are exceptional as well. Most of the appetizers are also available in nonvegetarian form, with lamb meat, but it's not necessary?at least not for taste. Sandwiches and salads are priced in the $3.50-$6.00 range, and the meat section tops out at $14. Waiters don't mind patrons deviating from the menu to construct their own platters.
If you enjoy Middle Eastern dining but haven't done so since Sept. 11, go already. One good reason to do so involves lending support to neighbors. It's also useful in bringing oneself back to Earth. Well-cooked food is rational and universal.
Waterfalls Cafe, 144 Atlantic Ave. (betw. Clinton & Henry Sts.), Brooklyn, 718-488-8886.
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