A few years ago I sat on a food writer’s panel with Florence Fabricant of the NY Times. I was moving to Brooklyn at the time and we got to talking about all the great restaurants in Cobble Hill and Park Slope. But when it came to Fort Greene her face turned sour. “There’s really no place to eat near BAM,” she said. “Do you have any suggestions?” At the time, I offered Smoke Joint and Stone Home Wine Bar, two places I’d been to and enjoyed. But other than those two, which I wasn’t convinced would be her speed, I had nothing for her. She was unimpressed. “I’ve been to those places, isn’t there anything new?” At the time I shook my head. How I wished I could have steered to some under-the-radar gem, so that she would have looked to me as a resource and not just another useless food blogger. How I wish I were on that panel with her this year so that I could let her in on a newcomer to Fort Greene that would have solved her BAM-related culinary issues. I’d have told her about Aqualis and she’d forever be in my restaurant debt.
Well, if I can’t let Flo Fab in on the secret, I might as well share it with all of you. Aqualis, a Greek bistro that opened just over a month ago a few steps from Habana Outpost on Fulton Street, is the newest addition to the burgeoning Fort Greene food scene that includes recent stars like The General Greene and No. 7, as well as a new beer garden as of this week, Der Schwarze Kolner.
Aqualis is a sweet little place, a labor of love owned by the former manager of Zanzibar, Gorian (Arnie) Papa. He’s decorated it in bistro style with exposed brick walls, long sets of banquettes on smooth wood floors, warm amber lighting from wall sconces, tin ceilings and eclectic antiques salvaged from North Fork shops, and tall French doors painted the color of milk thrown open to the bustling street.
In the kitchen, he’s installed Greek-American chef John Tsakinas (most recently the chef de cuisine at Kellari Taverna and before that the owner of Piggin’ Out and a cook at Petrossian, Windows on the World, and others) who’s been given the privilege of cooking the fish that Arnie hand selects himself every morning (sometime around 2am) from the Hunts Point Fish Market.
From an open kitchen toward the rear of the restaurant, Tsakinas offers a simple menu that relies heavily on that seafood Arnie schleps in every morning, and also includes lamb chops with potatoes and greens, as well as steak with hand cut fries. Starters include a selection of your typical Greek spreads ($4) served with grilled pita bread, and while you might expect nothing special from dips like hummus, fava, cucumber and yogurt, or feta, the kitchen takes care to make sure you notice that they’re made fresh, not spooned from a Sabra container. Kiri and I especially loved the fire-roasted eggplant dip, whipped with zucchini so it’s remarkably light and slightly sweet, but smoky from the char of the fire.
Starters also include freshly fried veggie chips with yogurt dip ($8), plump mussels steamed with ouzo, saffron, tomato & feta ($10), and a bowl of hot and crisp barely breaded seafood frito misto with smoky tomato sauce ($9), all nice options if you take a seat at the small convivial bar and have a beer or glass of white wine (they’ve just gotten their liquor license and their selections aren’t great yet, but they’ll do).
Kiri and I opted for a shredded romaine salad with a yogurt, dill and feta ($8) dressing that sounded great, though I was slightly disappointed. The dressing was short on yogurt, dill and feta in my estimation and so it lacked the balance of flavors and the bright tang I was craving. That sort of bold dressing should make more of an impact.
But there were other high notes (all the seafood), and the menu is reasonably priced, making it an attractive option for regular visits. I was shocked at the value, especially for whole fish, which easily serves two and was just $24 the night we were in. In Manhattan’s fanciest Greek tavernas you’ll pay twice that easily.
The kitchen turns out a gorgeous piece of cod ($18), a square filet seared so it’s golden and buttery on the outside, and flaky and moist on the inside, served over roasted beets and topped with a vibrant green heap of lemony spinach. I’d have rather had potatoes than the beets, but otherwise I cleaned my plate. The kitchen is generous on the lemon, a simple touch that’s really all that’s needed with such fresh fish. The swordfish ($19) also stays the traditional Greek give-me-a-lemon-olive oil-and-a-grill-route, cooked just the right amount of time so it was almost as juicy as a sirloin, served with a generous tangle of escarole ($19). There are sides of hand cut fries, which should by all means be added to the swordfish.
You’ll have room for dessert if you don’t fill up on pita and dips (or fries). They include house made yogurt topped with fresh preserves or a nugget-shaped slice of baklava, dense with nuts and sticky with honey. Have both. They go well together.
Arnie is typical of this generation of young Brooklyn restaurateurs. He does it all: buys the fish, works the room, waits on tables (clears them, too), and chats up neighbors on the sidewalk heading home from the subway. He’s opened a restaurant that’s rather simple, to be honest, but its straight-forward menu and promise of delicious fish is a welcome addition to the Fort Greene dining scene. Florence, if you are reading this, you should check it out next time you are at BAM.