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) 718-488-8886