This might not be the best new bar-restaurant to open lately, but it does give its eager crowds the best new bar snack in town: moules poutine. That’s french fries smothered with a thick, brown gravy studded with whole mussels—and, yes, you can polish off a whole plate alone. Sprinkled with parsley and hinting of white wine and cognac, it satisfies several common bar cravings at once: gravy (or “disco”) fries, whole oysters, and moules frites, with its pot of way-too-thin broth. Perfectly confused between upscale Parisian bistro and down-home American diner, this bar—and this dish—has just what it takes to bring ‘em out every weeknight. Not that that’s terribly difficult to do here.
Opened this month on the cusp of Clinton Hill, Three Letters occupies the former space of the longstanding Senegalese restaurant Joloff, which moved several blocks East to Bedford Avenue. Alas, it’s a significant changing of the guard for what was once a miniature African restaurant row. Chef Pip Freeman, formerly of The Grocery, has chosen a safer aesthetic than Joloff’s vibrantly painted panels, opting for mahogany, red leather booths, and tres chic black-and-white floor tiles. Three Letters’ bibles—two heavy hardcover cookbooks, French Feasts and the French housewife classic La Bonne Cuisine—are enshrined on a shelf near the room’s entrance, along with jars of pickled radishes and cauliflower.
For wine, there are more than half-a-dozen options by the bottle for both reds and whites, but only two or three by the glass. You really ought to order a whole bottle, Three Letters seems to say—that is, after all, the French way. The reasonably priced selection lets you relax over one bottle with friends, or be that bon vivant reading the paper alone for hours. (If you can’t finish the bottle, perhaps share a glass with your neighbor, or let the waitstaff secretly imbibe.) The wine list emphasizes pairings with food, with suggestions like “try with the pork bourgognone” for the Oregon 2000 Red Door Pinot Noir. If sipping a single glass, ask your bartender what’s what, as descriptions are minimal (e.g. “Pinot Grigio,” “Languedoc”).
Even more minimal are the cocktails, both in selection and style; this is not a mixology lab. If you’re feeling boozy, try the Death in Brooklyn, a potent blend of Sailor Jerry rum, chartreuse, citrus, and “bubbly float.” A frothy Threesco Sour with brandy, egg white and mint simple syrup is a little more bitter than sweet (or sour); the best bet is the Rye Devil, with rye, tarragon, and ruby-red Cherry Heering liqueur. There are four craft-beer draft lines, currently pouring Sixpoint, Carton, Greenport, and Lakefront, and four more options by the bottle or can, including Stella and Narragansett. Again, not too challenging or rare, but wise choices for pairing with food.
So inseparable are the morsels of fried, buttery, or saucy things to the experience here that you must try some snack or small plate. The poutine should be compulsory, but there’s also a hearty mushroom tartine, essentially toast with a mushroomy glaze and a poached egg to mix in; delightful, deep-fried chickpea crepettes; and the pate de campagne, on a bed of cabbage and kale with anchovy mustard. For $10, there are sandwiches that include fries or a salad—not burgers and clubs, but an apparent banh mi rendition with pork and chicken-liver pate (“Bon Mis”), a creamy chicken confit sandwich, and a disappointingly bland fried fish fillet with slaw. The sandwiches could use some work compared to the rest of the classically appealing, oh-so-French menu. More noticeably though, portions are petite and served on small, clunky oval breakfast plates—a retro touch, no doubt, but one that seems to further diminish the servings. Wine glasses are likewise squat and thick. More reason then to go for the whole bottle.
Photo by Emma Freeman