A mainstay of the city’s restaurant scene over the last decade has been the French bistro. You could recite the menu in your sleep: steak frites, duck confit, frisée and lardon salad, croque monsieur, crème brûlée, and—God help us!—bouillabaisse. I’ve enjoyed eating at places like Casimir, Café Tabac, Pigalle, and Pastis, but was invariably annoyed by the similar menus and cookie-cutter decor, which often features furniture enhanced to look old, crazed mirrors scrawled with “specials” that never change, and, worst of all, jumbled fake antique signs that encourage nostalgia for products we’ve never known. During the same time, I was charmed by real Parisian bistros during a stay in Montparnasse—small, unaffected haunts often run by extended families, with comfortable furnishings, walls hung with the work of local artists, and menus that play to the strengths of the cooks, but always elegant in their simplicity.
Charmed is just the way I felt visiting 360, an intentionally modest dining establishment founded by renegades from Balthazar bent on avenging the shortcomings of New York bistros, all in one fell swoop. The restaurant lies deep in Brooklyn’s Red Hook on a moribund stretch of Van Brunt Street, a neighborhood whose fading 19th-century architecture may remind you of a town in upstate New York. Apart from banquettes covered in brown corduroy and dinette-style furniture, there’s nothing remarkable about the decor, except that it feels like someone’s basement rumpus room. The place is often packed with diners delighted to be there, including artists and bohos from the immediate neighborhood, partly drawn by a generous three-course meal that sets you back only $20. The proprietors want to make 360 your meal ticket and your personal clubhouse.
The menu doesn’t set out to conquer the world. The prix fixe extends to three appetizers, two entrées, and two desserts. To combat complacency, the menu changes frequently, though certain themes prevail. There’s often an appetizer that features smoked or cured fish. One evening it was an impressive composed salad of beets, apples, and matjes herring dribbled with orange dressing. Another night it was a potato salad elevated with hunks of raunchy smoked mackerel that lent a raffish air. A soup is usually found among the appetizers, too. My favorite is a cold cream-based concoction of mussels and saffron that shimmers in the bowl. It’s likely to be grabbed away by one of your dining companions before you get halfway through it.
The two-entrée selection is never boring, though it also falls within fairly narrow limits. Regulars often see the same roast chicken breast, the truncated wing bone thrust upward in greeting from a mass of crisp skin and tender flesh. But what the bird rests on is often remarkable. One day, the bed is a dense mass of quinoa, an intriguing staple of health food stores, often ignored by chefs. Or it might be a hillock of red Bhutanese rice dotted with a chiffonade of carrots and zucchini, tasting powerfully of poultry with maybe a dash of soy sauce.
There are also a few maverick, single-plate meals meandering around the menu, featuring liver, pork chops, or hanger steak ($12.50), and forgettable assiettes of cheese and charcuterie that serve as temporary distractions from your glass of excellent French wine. The vino selection features dozens of excellent obscure bottles, most in the $20-to-$30 range, making the wine list a document I invite the city’s other bistro owners to study.