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While 19th-century Manhattan was littered with oyster bars, Brooklyn has always been more about clams. Sheepshead Bay was lined with clam shacks in the 1950s, of which only Randazzo’s remains. Until recently, at least a dozen open-air eateries on Coney Island prominently offered fried clams, though these places have now been mainly lost to urban renewal. But the beach resort’s most venerable institution—Nathan’s Famous—still sells the bivalves fried, and raw as well. Whoever heard of a fast-food joint serving sashimi on the half shell? And stuffed clams have long been a signature of every Italian-American restaurant in the borough.
So it’s entirely logical that Brooklyn’s newest seafood bistro, berthed near the Gowanus Canal, should be called Littleneck—one of the hard-shell’s historic monikers, referring to the smallest and most delicately flavored specimens. Despite its newness, the place looks like it has been around forever, with rough off-white walls, salvaged seating in a front room minimally decorated with thick ropes, and a room in back with commodious booths and white stools along an L-shaped bar. Behind that bar is a mirror that might have gone down with the Titanic. The chef is Alan Harding, a wind-whipped veteran sometimes credited with inventing the modern Brooklyn bistro at Patois in Cobble Hill 14 years ago.
Yes, you’ll find clams on the menu. There’s a clam chowder ($7), for sure, of the creamy kind associated with New England rather than the one dubbed “Manhattan” (which, by the way, was an Italian-American invention originally called Coney Island clam chowder). The chef sends the soup sloshing in his own unique direction by the inclusion of fresh dill. Sometimes there are raw littlenecks at Littleneck, in addition to a raw oyster service that usually features two from the East Coast and two from the West. The only advantage of the latter is a milder flavor; the disadvantage is that you pay $3 rather than $2 apiece for them.
But the most spectacular appearance of Brooklyn’s iconic bivalve is on a clam roll ($16), featuring full-belly littlenecks with creamy tartar sauce and a few shreds of lettuce for color contrast. Even in Connecticut—which is famous for its clam rolls—you can’t get a better one. Another regular-menu selection is steamers cooked in garlic, beer, and chilies. Fifteen or so to an order, these represent a different species, known to marine biologists as siphon clams but to generations of Brooklyn kids as “piss clams.” Why? Because they’re found on the borough’s beaches buried in sand, identifiable by a small burbling hole. Stomp next to it, and a stream of liquid shoots hilariously skyward.
While the evolving regular menu at Littleneck is relatively short, there’s also a special chalkboard menu with seafood selections that change daily according to availability and season. Recently, my friends and I thoroughly enjoyed a bowl of razor clams steamed in Pernod. (Yes, this is a bistro, and French as well as Yankee ingredients and techniques underlie the bill of fare.) When pulled from their elongated shells—which really do look like old-fashioned straight razors with keen edges to match—the supple white shafts were tender and barely chewy. Eat everything but the bulb at the end, which retains unpleasant bits of shell and sand.
Other notable choices on a specials menu that’s never afraid to take chances have included a combo of cod and cockles flavored with chorizo ($17), a wonderful appetizing platter featuring smoked blue fish and a whitefish salad, and a creamy lobster bisque that doesn’t stint on the crustacean. What to wash it all down with? My instincts say beer, and light beer, at that—which makes the best choice a pint of Kelso Pilsner ($6), brewed nearby in Clinton Hill. For wine enthusiasts, there are plenty of bottles in the under-$35 range (including a wonderful white Italian Soave priced at $28) and a tap Zinfandel at $6 per glass from the Gotham Project that doesn’t suck.
I hesitatingly note that there are dishes aimed at the landlubber, too. The hamburger of brisket and shoulder ($11) is fine, but predictable; the market vegetable plate consists mainly of root vegetables too strongly flavored with thyme. The chunk of Polish bacon glazed with tomato jam is too sweet by a country kilometer, a faddish nod to a dish too common on appetizer menus today, served with the ubiquitous homemade pickles. Really, the only thing at Littleneck that comes from the ground that you don’t dare miss are the excellent french fries.
But what Littleneck is really about is great shellfish—cockles, oysters, mussels, and clams, clams, clams. Since the days of the Canarsie Indians, Brooklyn has never stopped relishing them.