There are times in life when you need to leave your comfort zone, to force yourself to step outside your self-imposed womb and dip a toe in unfamiliar waters: take a risk on a new relationship, try a fresh start in a different career, or in my case, take a train (and then a bus) to a far away land known as Red Hook. Personally, I tend to be a sad creature of habit; I am often found within my downtown rectangle, below 17th Street. I am a sheltered New Yorker, I admit it. When I travel, it’s to Barcelona—or soon to Rome to visit Susie who I miss every day— not outside my nook of comfort here in the city. But I am also a seeker of pleasure in the form of food and a former resident of Brooklyn, and I often head to Billyburg, Park Slope, and Cobble Hill for great food and to visit friends who have reproduced and moved out to the Brooklyn ‘burbs. But Red Hook? Not so fast. A few months ago though, I was writing about a bakery out there called Baked—which is AWESOME—and discovered Van Brunt Street, just a stone’s throw from the East River, a little peaceful village that made me feel very far away from everything that was familiar. I wandered around and discovered
The Good Fork (which was under construction at the time), learned about the Fairway that would open (it opens in mid-May) and popped into a cool cocktail and wine store called LeNell’s. The guys from Baked told me I should come back and check out a little seasonal bistro down the block called 360, and I made a mental note to return. I did last week with Jamie, Court, and Harvey, and we had an eating rave. Now, let me be straight with you. Getting to Red Hook from Manhattan is what I tend to call a schlep. You have to take a subway (F to Smith/9th) and a bus (B77), but when the subway comes out of the tunnel, it’s great fun, and the bus, well, it’s makes for a total experience. Seriously, it may feel like a hike, but your efforts are immediately rewarded by a sweet little street that feels remote and unchartered, but welcoming, like a docile version of the wild old west. Kids are playing in the streets, business owners are planting flowers in the window boxes, and homeowners sweep their stoops. It’s like Oz.
Somewhere down the yellow brick road you will find 360, a French-American bistro owned by Arnaud Erhart, a veteran of spots like Balthazar, Orsay and La Goulue. Erhart was living in the neighborhood (he’s been there for 10 years) and wanted to open a place for his friends and neighbors to come for dinner. So as not to alienate the community, he priced his three-course prix fixe menu at all of $20 (three years later, it is now $25 and also includes several a la carte offerings), and decided to offer his neighbors a restaurant that reflected the way he liked to eat and drink—serving seasonal local ingredients and wines from vineyards using organic and sustainable farming and wine making practices. It’s a pleasure to mimic Arnaud. 360 is a simple contemporary space with banquettes, ceiling fans, raw wood tables and floors, and a menu by chef Rick Jakobson (Daniel, Bouley) who has quite a wonderful way with ingredients. While we looked over the menu and waited for Jamie and Court, who were delayed at work, we started with a smashing steak tartare ($12), meaty and hand cut and boldly seasoned with capers, Worcestershire sauce, and mustard and served with mesclun salad and toast points. We paired the tartare with a fabulous bottle of juicy Bourgueil (2002) Perrieres, from C&P Breton ($32), producers Arnaud has recently visited in the Loire Valley.
Jamie and Court arrived and were slightly unnerved by the length of the journey, but once they had a sip (or two) of wine, they were singing a new tune. Court was in love with the place: “Aside from the fact that I feel like I should be carrying luggage, and that we may need to save some of this bread for a trail to find our way home, I love it here.” We all agreed, as did the rest of the diners who packed dining room, a nice crowd of suits, couples, friends and neighbors all sitting down to dinner together on one magically warm Spring night. Spring is all over the menu—in a gorgeous sugar snap and pea soup, cool and fresh and touched with mint, with a flirty swirl of crème fraiche, and in a bright fricassee of fava beans, carrots and snowpea tendrils served with wonderful hunks of seared monkfish. But even where the ingredients are more ordinary, the dishes shine. The smoked trout salad is the sort of salad you might want to devour at a backyard picnic. It is a smoked at Gold Star (yes, the horseradish people) and served in lovely lightly smoked, moist lumps with a nice roughly chopped potato salad tossed with a horseradish vinaigrette. The pork belly, from Flying Pig Farm, is served in a luscious fatty square with a glistening crispy top layer of fat, over Anson Mills polenta, and the spaetzle, a nod to Arnaud’s hometown of Strasbourg, is spectacular, fashioned into a sort of spaetzle succotash with rich gamey pieces of dark meat pulled from a roasted Cloonshee Farm’s chicken, braised leeks and mushrooms ($8.50) in a deep, buttery chicken jus. I was also taken with the country pate ($6.50). It was infused with some warm spices and had a fabulous rough texture, served with cornichons and whole grain mustard and a green peppercorn vinaigrette. My steamed PEI mussels were about as fat and plump as I have ever known mussels to be, served in a seriously slurpable Thai curry and chile broth. Jamie’s steak was super tender, marinated and grilled to perfect, with a zippy puree of chimichurri. We ordered another bottle of wine at this point, a Barbera D’Asti (2003) from Cascina Tavijn ($33), which Arnaud chose for us based on our need for a bigger red than the first. It too, was perfect.
As we toasted to more dinners in Red Hook, Arnaud was working the room, welcoming guests, pouring wine, chatting up locals families sitting at the sidewalk tables with their new babies. As I watched him stroll from table to table, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gerard Depardieu. (If a movie ever gets made, Depardieu must play Arnaud.) Like Depardieu, Arnaud is sweet and sort of big and burly, with long hair that he keeps tied back in a ponytail, and a rich gravely voice with a sexy French accent. He is quite the consummate French host—warm and welcoming and devilishly charming. A night of Arnaud, coupled with Jacobsen’s food and that great (and reasonable) wine, and you will find yourselves in Red Hook heaven. After dinner, we shared some cheese (they have a great selection including a bold blue from Cato Corners) and passed around a bottle of late harvest Riesling, and then made an attempt at desserts which were fine, especially the panna cotta, though the spice cake tasted like Christmas leftovers. But then at this point, we were overly stuffed and just plum tuckered. We called a few cabs and lingered over the last bites of crème caramel and sipped down the remaining drops of Riesling, getting pretty silly at the table. About fifteen minutes later, in the middle of a fascinating conversation about polygamy (we are all in favor monogamy, though I mentioned that I feel I have entered some rare form of single life known as nonogamy), Arnaud let us know that our cars were outside. This was quite fortunate considering we were almost high from food and wine. We strolled out into the soft spring night and our cabs were waiting to whisk us home to our cozy Manhattan womb. The funny thing is, on the way back home, we couldn’t stop talking about when we would return to Red Hook. That’s the crazy about leaving your comfort zone—once you do, you realize, it suddenly expands.