Barracuda of Bay Ridge

Written by Adam Heimlich on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

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.

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.

7026 3rd Ave. (71st St.), Brooklyn, 718-833-3759.

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

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.