The white-haired waiter bows as a new crowd of customers enters—in this case, a bevy of brown-shirted Dunkin’ Donuts managers, who take their places at one of the long tables, smudges of powdered sugar visible on their sleeves. They stare dumbfounded at the murals that line the walls. On one side, an armless Venus de Milo glances sideways at the Acropolis, not realizing her real name is Aphrodite; deeper into the dining room, a white village crawls up the cleft of an Aegean fjord. Elsewhere, a concentration of beehive huts sits atop a cliff, as a unireme galley that might be Odysseus’ luffs by under full sail. The murals encapsulate four millennia of Greek culture and history, but with colors so strange and bright that the décor ends up seeming like your last Greek vacation on acid.
Yet the salt breezes that blow off Sheepshead Bay and into the open front of Yiasou (“Cheers”) make it an incredibly pleasant place to dine. The evening crowd constitutes a cross-section of Brooklyn: racially mixed, lively, and dressed to the nines, with lavish displays of bling and bosom. These customers find common cause in their mutual search for the perfect fish. Yiasou imitates those midtown places that style themselves “estiatorios,” flaunting seafood of unspeakable freshness and size, then charging an arm and a leg for it. But it’s much easier on the paycheck, demanding about half of what you’d expect to pay in Manhattan.
As my crew and I gazed out on the bay at sunset on a Saturday evening, the party boats came in to dock, disgorging happy fishermen carrying strings of bluefish and flounder. We regaled ourselves with the appetizers as we waited for our fish. Anything labeled “skordalia” is totally dope: This mash of potatoes with olive oil, lemon juice, and raw garlic will set your mouth on fire. You can get it plain ($5.50), heaped up in a craggy Olympus surrounded by triangles of toasted pita. Even better is pantzaria ($7), an equivalent quantity of skordalia hemmed in with lightly pickled beets (which offers the added advantage of turning your urine bright red a few hours later).
Unfortunately, it’s better to get your vegetables some other way than the salads, which come dressed with a balsamic vinegar that must have gotten as lost as Ulysses on its way from Italy to America. You can do very well sticking with the seafood appetizers: the pair of charred octopus tentacles ($15), for example, which the waiter cuts with a sharp knife as he serves them. They arrive dotted with plump capers, which goose up the rubbery octopod’s mild flavor. When the white-haired dude drags in the saganaki ($9)—a lightly breaded plank of kefalograviera cheese—he performs the usual tired shtick of dousing it with brandy and setting it aflame. This time, though, he uses way too much brandy, which sends a ball of fire up to the ceiling as the diners look on in momentary panic.
Since this is Sheepshead Bay, after all—the menu can’t help but be pleasantly contaminated by Italian recipes, in addition to the questionable use of balsamic vinegar. The Coney Island fave of raw clams ($7.50 for six) is worth experiencing, but preferable are the Sicilian-style baked clams ($8.50 for six). There’s also a raw-oyster service, seafood linguine, lobster bisque, and shrimp cocktail, all of which make good starters even though they don’t belong in the Greek culinary canon.
But whole fish with the head, skin, and tail intact is the reason you’re here. Insist that the old man accompany you to the iced display and show you his stuff. While the menu lists over a dozen types of fish, only half are usually available. The branzino ($20 per pound, one pound average) is the best deal of all, black-striped from the grill, with gobbets of smoky flesh easily pulling away from the largish bones. The flounder ($25 flat) is more delicate, and must be crumbed and sautéed rather than grilled. Often there’s red snapper, royal dorados, or sea bass, too, but one evening we found something on ice that wasn’t on the menu. Gleaming blue and silver, these beautiful sardines were big and sweet-fleshed. And cheap, too: At $20 for eight (representing one pound), they easily satisfied our crew of four.