After the 1996 debut of Croxley’s Ale House in Franklin Square whet Long Island’s thirst for craft beer, Ed Davis and his business partners had a concept for a traditional Belgian bistro.
But they kept asking themselves: Is the Island ready? At the time, most people said, “No,” recalls Davis, executive chef and co-owner of Waterzooi Belgian Bistro & Oyster Bar in Garden City, which opened two years later.
“Right off the bat people came in looking for Bud and Bud Light, and we had to tell them that we only carried Belgian beer,” Davis says. “The feedback we got was basically, ‘Good luck, guys. We’ll give you a couple months.’”
Twenty years later, LI’s only authentic Belgian bistro is still going strong.
“Thinking back on it, though, it was pretty crazy,” Davis adds. “But we were young when we did it. We went all chips in.”
Utensils clatter throughout the brightly lit dining room as the lunch crowd ebbs and flows on a recent Wednesday afternoon. Like clockwork, steaming pots filled to the brim with mussels regularly appear from the kitchen, served up with crisp French-fried potatoes — moules frites, as the dish is known in Belgium, where it’s a national obsession.
Waterzooi has cooked up a similar obsession on Long Island and surrounding areas. The
restaurant goes through roughly seven thousand pounds of mussels a week.
“There are certain mussel pots that’ll bring people driving here from Connecticut, Westchester,” says Davis. “All over.”
Davis and his business partners, Joe Mendolia and Chris Werleand, first made a trip to Belgium in ‘96, taking a whirlwind food-and-beer tour through Brussels, Bruges, Ghent,and Antwerp and experiencing everything Belgian cuisine had to offer.
“We really got into it,” says Davis. “We were blown away with the moules frites, the different types of waffles. The beers were absolutely insane.”
Developing the concept for Waterzooi (the name translates to a traditional Belgian stew) and getting materials for the restaurant was no easy task. These days, a quick Google search for traditional Belgian mussel pots for sale yields plenty of results. But things weren’t so easy “pre-internet,” according to Davis.
“I remember contacting a Belgian company for the pots,” he says. “I basically had to go over there to the restaurant supply district and buy pallets of them and send them back.”
Developing authentic recipes proved to be just as challenging.
“We did multiple trips, got into multiple kitchens and really went over there to do everything,” says Davis. “There weren’t many books on Belgian cuisine. It was a real process.”
Along with Waterzooi, Davis is the executive chef of neighboring Novita Wine Bar & Trattoria and oversees the kitchens of all five Croxley’s Ale House locations throughout LI and New York City. To manage it all, his day starts early, around 6 a.m., before he heads to the kitchen as patrons start funneling in for lunch. Managing his staff and working in the kitchen is still a daily passion for Davis.
“I still love the rush,” he says. “There’s nothing like it. When the dining room gets slammed, tickets are pumping out, the kitchen is running on all cylinders. It’s all about teamwork.”
Waterzooi Belgian Bistro offers a variety of seasonal specials that change weekly, along with an ever-changing roster of fresh oysters. Moules pot varieties, which are all served with frites and a house-made mayo, include the “Homard” with a brandy-cream sauce, scallions and fresh chunks of lobster ($39); and the “Thai,” served with a red curry broth, lemongrass, ginger and cilantro ($31). And it’s all washed down with 130 different Belgian beers.
“The slogan we like to use is to drink outside of the box,” says Davis.
Waterzooi is located at 850 Franklin Avenue in Garden City. They can be reached at waterzooi.com or 516-877-2177.