The 1960s Gallic posters on the wall signaled that we were about to eat in a bistro. But what, exactly, is a French bistro in Brooklyn these days? Certainly not a predictable collection of recipes like steak frites, skate in black butter, and onion soup. Though the menu at Three Letters—so-called in a nod to the length of the co-owners’ first names—seethes with words like rissoles, confit, and a misspelled bourguignon, the place playfully revamps these dishes, acting as if Clinton Hill were the westernmost ville of France.
Take the classic moules frites, offered in a dozen standard variations in Paris. Here, copping a craze from Francophone Montreal, it has been reinterpreted as mussels poutine ($8): a few bouncy specimens riding atop fries doused with a thin mushroom demi-glace. Making the dish more French than Quebecois, there is no cheese. Let’s also point out that Three Letters’ fries ($4) are some of the best in Brooklyn, nicely browned and unusually creamy.
Falling closer to its French prototype is the smoked pollock brandade ($5), a Provençal passion that traditionally features salt cod whipped with olive oil, potatoes, and sea salt, served in a terrine with toasts. Cod is unsustainable, so pollock makes a welcome substitute. You won’t be able to stop scooping, and will call for more toasts before the dish is done. Less interesting is the golden potato soup ($7), freighted with a fussy collection of ingredients that includes garlic oil and fennel cream. The resulting potage proves as exciting as a dish towel, and the clams tossed in the middle seem like party-crashers who refuse to mix with the invitees.
This being Brooklyn, homemade pickles can be ordered separately, either plain or deep-fried—the latter an odd departure from the French theme. Pickles also come with many dishes, including a pâté de campagne that would be perfect if the cool slab weren’t nearly salt-free. Baguette sandwiches make it possible to dine sumptuously at Three Letters with a beer or glass of wine for less than $20. A banh mi—called, a little too cutely, “bon mise”—features braised pork shoulder, chicken liver pâté, and pickles ($10), slathered with enough mayo that you could dress three more sandwiches with the excess. I loved it. Crudisson constitutes another menu pinnacle—a chorus line of sashimi-style snapper fillets dotted with sesame seeds and, in its most recent incarnation, dribbled with stylish nettle pesto. (No, it doesn’t sting your tongue like the aggressive garden weed.)
In the modern preference for small dishes and bar snacks, entrées tend to be soft-pedaled, and Three Letters does so as well. Which is a shame, since the mains—priced from $16 to $18—are the menu’s best values. Even the vegan seitan fricassee, served with radishes, spinach, and rutabaga fries, is edible enough. The gluten cutlet manages to seem like a skirt steak until you cut into its tender flank and discover sponginess, though the brandy sauce does help. In keeping with the seasonal sensibilities we’ve come to expect in a Brooklyn bistro, the roasted vegetables in the winter lamb navarin is what you might come up with if you dug around in your farm’s root cellar at this time of year. More succulent is chicken St. James, which arrives littered with garlic cloves and broccoli as if the bird had flown into a roadside farm stand. But underneath is the real payoff: a mushy pavement of pommes alene, which just might be the best cheesy potatoes you’ve ever eaten.
What would a bistro in this borough be without weird cocktails? The unnatural pairing of rum and chartreuse in the Death in Brooklyn sounds more interesting than it turns out to be. Just hope that the name is not prophetic. You might better turn to the bottled and draft regional beers, bottled wines mainly in the $30 to $40 range, or, best of all, wine on tap from California in four varieties. For the saturated-red enthusiast, the Nebbiolo is a great choice. While not particularly complex, it goes well with most of the menu, and, at $17 per half-liter, the price is right. If this were a real French bistro, and not a Brooklyn one, we’d call it vin ordinaire.