My favorite kind of restaurant is the neighborhood restaurant: a place right down the street from where I live that's short on frills but long on coziness, serves down-home but excellent food at fair prices, and where the quality never seems to suffer no matter how many decades old the restaurant is.
Waterfalls Café, located on a quiet stretch of Atlantic Avenue a few hundred yards away from the thoroughfare's other Middle Eastern spots, is that kind of restaurant. Granted, it's not my neighborhood restaurant anymore, but I grew up just down the street from the place and ate there about once a week growing up. Returning earlier this week, I was happy to find that the simple but confidently prepared Lebanese and Syrian dishes served here were mostly unchanged: they're still as soulful and flavorful as ever.
In a city (and an economy) where restaurants increasingly charge for once-gratis items like bread, it's always a delight to be offered something free at a meal. At Waterfalls, every evening begins with a small plate of excellent pickled vegetables: wedges of turnip, beets, carrots, and hot peppers arranged in a colorful array and finished with a touch of garlic and fresh parsley.
A spot-on rendering of the classic pureéd eggplant salad babaghanoush ($5) is a good indication that the rest of the meal will uphold the standard. Waterfalls' version is smooth and smoky, with a surprising lightness.
A dish of fried cauliflower ($5.50) isn't light, but neither is it too greasy: the deeply browned cauliflower is tender but not mushy and full of flavor, with a small bowl of tahini on the side for dipping.
Fatoosh salad ($6) is a simple, refreshing chopped salad of iceberg lettuce, red bell and cubanelle peppers, scallions, and parsley dressed simply with olive oil and vinegar, and featuring crisp-fried pita bits. There's nothing too exciting about Waterfalls's version, which was a touch lacking in seasoning, but it makes a simple, refreshing side to the restaurant's more complex dishes.
A main dish of vegetarian stuffed cabbage ($11, pictured at top) was the standout of the night. Tender leaves of green cabbage are rolled around a light, lemony filling of fluffy white rice studded with chickpeas and flecked with plenty of chopped fresh parsley and mint, then topped with just a bit of fresh tomato sauce. It's a boldly flavored but delicate dish.
It's always wonderful to see a neighborhood joint that's not just surviving, but thriving. Hopefully, Waterfalls Café will keep dishing up its warming, satisfying plates for years to come.
144 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11201 (map)