Where to Eat When Your Friends Move Away
299 Warren St.
(betw. Smith & Court Sts.)
Point is this: I'm getting lonelier and lonelier, here in New York. Not in the sense of lugubrious solitude, not that. No, more along the lines of simply losing friends to other cities, other schemes, for life. It's been going on for a while now. Friends have split for Vermont and Utah on me. Portland, Los Angeles. The common theme, for the most part, if there is one to be articulated, is crossing the Mississippi. When I wave goodbye to New York friends, almost invariably they are making time for the Golden West. Prying themselves free from the frantic, filthy, ambition-humping, attention-grubbing, downright at-times-uninhabitable and?let's face it?cruel cluster of island duchies (this blighted archipelago, this fibrillating 24-hour theme park, this antiquated realm of boundless dreams, this bleak climate) and just flat bugging out, making for greener or at least warmer and less humid and less soggy and less physically and emotionally demanding pastures.
But how sad, to send off friends. To imagine yourself a receding apparition?ghostly, small?in their taillights, in their rearviews. They cut loose, with the good road and beckoning horizon up ahead, while you're left to your short trot back to some rathole hovel with constipated plumbing and no dishwasher and warped linoleum and windows scummed with soot. Depressing, mostly for you. Sending off friends sucks, and majorly. It reminds of you of exactly how mired and possibly depressed you might be. It places great demands on your otherwise cheerful nature. It troubles the soul. Because that's how abandonment works, even if abandonment is, in the end, the best thing. Change and movement are imperatives. They're what make us?us humans, us peregrinating primates?us.
At least we all said our semiformal goodbyes over a decent meal. Ytournel is a relatively new French bistro (open since January) lodged innocuously between the intensely successful Smith St. scene on one side and the somewhat less well-known but equally potent Court St. scene on the other. Boerum Hill/Carroll Garden's twin restaurant rows. A real boon to Brooklyn. Antidotes to the slapdash hillbilly neglect that typifies the majority of the borough, those parts of it that hunch outside the New York-approved axis that runs from Brooklyn Heights to Park Slope to Williamsburg to DUMBO. You know what I mean. Ride the bus out Flatbush Ave. someday, all the way to Marine Park. There are great swaths of Brooklyn that you never hear about, but they teem with life. What they lack is not vigor, but charm, and so your tax dollars do not find their way toward their improvement, even their tidification. Civic pride is decidedly not an equal-opportunity project.
In any case, Ytournel is tucked into a stretch of Warren St. that, to my eye, rather seriously resembles, for the moment at least, forgotten Brooklyn. It looks this way mainly because a chunk of apartment houses on the corner is undergoing what one assumes to be a lavish renovation. They are currently shrouded in plywood and scaffolding. For the moment, however, Ytournel's immediate neighborhood seems somewhat forlorn, neglected?a zone to be warily forded on the way to another, better place. Extremely Brooklyn, this: The borough is lousy with geography that seems to exist for the sole purpose of impeding one's progress from one desirable locale to the next. A little desolation on your way to the oasis. A reminder of what wildness remains.
Ytournel is a pretty good restaurant. I think it's much more authentically French, in fact, than all those knockoff Parisian bistros that currently dot downtown. Sure, you can obtain the perfect simulation, at Pastis, of steak frites, but at Ytournel you can imagine hungry French truck drivers filling up on solid fare. Nothing complicated here whatsoever: steak, rabbit, baby chicken, bouillabaisse, ratatouille, salads, simple desserts, wine (Rhone-oriented, occupying a refreshingly limited list, and featuring some house bottles that actually bear the name of the house), crusty bread, well-cooked vegetables, beer. Culinarily, Ytournel signals staying power: until the appetite chips get implanted in our brains and all we want to do is eat Balance Bars and drink Gatorade, we're going to go on eating this kind of food. The French have everyone on Earth beat in this department, even the Italians; their everyday food is tasty, nourishing, colorful, robust and never unsatisfying. Best of all, you can eat three courses at dinner every single day, a beneficial state of affairs that Ytournel has addressed with its $20 prix fixe.
We all went a la carte (most entrees hover around $15). I was slightly disappointed with both my choices: a salad of leeks (available in large or small size), lightly cooked, but that lacked flavor; and a roasted baby chicken that trembled with taste but lacked much meat. Of course, it was a baby chicken, so possibly I should have anticipated its scrawniness. The ratatouille also arrived as a conservative portion, but its flavors were very well concentrated, and it was still possible to make out the textures of the assorted vegetables that made it up. This might be the perfect vegetarian entree, the whole thing an enticing reddish green, shot through with translucent onions, and not swimming in broth. For my money, the evening's real winner?even though it was too hot for the dish, particularly since Ytournel was having a bit of trouble in the air-conditioning department?was the bouillabaisse, a hulking bowl of fish and crabs and stuff, steaming and delicious and in no way erring on the side of excessive tomatofication. I ate my chicken, with its nice side of haricots verts and potatoes, and promptly volunteered to lend my services to the finishing off of the bouillabaisse. I concentrated on dredging up the uneaten fish chunks while one of my friends struggled with a lobster claw (note to Ytournel: shell-crackers with the bouillabaisse from now on).
As much as I approved of Ytournel, there were a few glitches. The service was entertaining, but a touch too zany for my tastes, though I reckon you take what you get on a Sunday night. Most of us drank beer, but one member of the group asked for white wine, and had it delivered with several ice cubes bobbing in the glass, an almost unforgivable transgression that caused my jaw to drop a long way down. I would have sent it back and suggested that they make a special trip around the corner or something to get me a chilled bottle, but my friend sucked it up and made nice. But really, ice cubes in the white wine imply refrigeration difficulties that most restaurants would want to conceal.
Another complaint: At dessert time, when chocolate mousse was ordered, our waitress insisted that it be downed with an accompaniment of bread and red wine. Perhaps an authentic combo, but one delivered far too insistently, and on a hot night, to boot, under the ragging breeze of a droning fan, when red wine might well have been pretty far from everybody's minds.
But these are minor complaints. Ytournel has got it going on, it's a restaurant to laud for its reliable simplicity, its devotion to basic craft. Unfancy, uninterested in grubbing for attention, essentially a long room with about a dozen tables and a sort of small French deli up front. Sweet. Perhaps the best restaurant in all of undeveloped Brooklyn in which to say goodbye to some friends and hope that the goodbye isn't eternal.
But however the chips fall, I'm betting that I'll be back. Until my time, too, comes along.
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