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The snail’s trail

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There is a certain “je ne sais quoi” when it comes to escargots. Maybe it’s the tiny fork with its few delicate prongs, or maybe it’s the French-porcelain serving dish, and the way each round cavity perfectly cradles a single snail. Whatever the reason, I love nothing more than to sit in the sunshine at a rickety bistro table, with a glass of white burgundy (of course!), a basket of crusty bread and plate of still-sizzling snails.

Escargots — the quintessential French appetizer of snails cooked in butter and garlic — is de rigeur at any self-respecting bistro. Of course, preparations vary. The most-authentic way to serve them involves a lengthy process of removing the fresh snails from their shells, gutting and cooking them, and finally returning them to cleaned-out conches, ready to eat.

These days, to cut time and costs, most restaurants buy farmed snails and serve them shell-less; a little less dramatic, perhaps, but still perfectly palatable.

So, while there are plenty of bistros dotting Brooklyn, I got to wondering where the best snails were hiding.

Patois

The first upscale French bistro on Smith Street, Patois virtually launched the Carroll Gardens restaurant boom. The interior remains farm-house charming, dimly lit with cozy wooden tables tucked into corners, but the real place to be is in the back garden, surrounded with lush green trees and hanging lanterns. The escargots ($7.50) is earthy and buttery, and brightened by fresh chives. Each of the six snails is capped with a tiny, airy puff pastry. The best part? On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the escargots is part of the restaurant’s $20 prix fixe menu, which also includes an entree and a slice of dense, luxurious chocolate cake.

GRADE: B+

Bacchus

Dining at Bacchus is about as French as it gets in Boerum Hill. With a muted red exterior, exposed brick walls and an impressive display of wines behind the brass-accented bar, it’s easy to believe you’re stepping in off a market street in Paris instead of bustling Atlantic Avenue. The escargots ($5.50) is equally transporting. The dish comes to the table hissing and bubbling, topped with a garlicky crust similar to the cracking top of a creme brulee. The snails are perfectly rendered; large, but not tough, they’re ever so slightly chewy, like an expertly cooked mussel or clam. Even if this way France, it would be worth the trip.GRADE: A

Blue Ribbon

Blue Ribbon isn’t French, but when it comes to escargots, nothing’s lost in translation. There are two kinds of snails on the menu here; the first, a traditional butter-garlic version ($12.50), is flawlessly prepared. The dish is showered in brilliant green parsley, and the flavors of the garlic, butter and snails are supremely fresh and perfectly balanced. The second version is a bourguignon; the snails are stewed with red wine, garlic, onions, carrots, mushrooms and lardons (pieces of thick-cut bacon), and served in a bowl, like a hearty beef stew. The bread served alongside, an essential tool for mopping up the rich wine sauce, is crusty and chewy, like its fresh out of a brick oven. At $14.50, it’s the most expensive escargots I tried, but it’s worth every penny.

GRADE: A+

Le Barricou

Le Barricou, Smith Street pioneer Jean-Pierre Marquet’s latest offering, is a whimsical French bistro in the heart of Williamsburg. The walls are papered in French newspapers, a display chest is full of French action figures and there’s an antique foosball table in the back. Despite the restaurant’s funky affect, it had the most-traditional escargots ($7) of any I sampled — the snails are properly served in their swirled, pink shells. They were a bit small — and there wasn’t quite enough butter in which to soak the bread — but the dish was visually arresting, and, paired with a fine glass of wine, managed to do the trick.

GRADE: B

Bacchus (409 Atlantic Ave. at Bond Street in Boerum Hill) accepts American Express. The restaurant is open Monday through Friday from 5-11 pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 11 am-3 pm and 5-10 pm. For information, call (718) 852-1572.

Blue Ribbon (280 Fifth Ave., between First Street and Garfield Place in Park Slope) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. The restaurant is open Monday through Thursday from 6 pm-2 am, Friday and Saturday from 4 pm-4 am, and Sunday from 4 pm-midnight. For information, call (718) 840-0404.

Le Barricou (533 Grand St. at Union Street in Williamsburg) accepts cash only. The restaurant is open Monday through Friday from 5-11 pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 11 am-4 pm and 5-11 pm. For information, call (718) 782-7372.

Patios (255 Smith St. at DeGraw Street in Carroll Gardens) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Thursday from 5:30-10:30 pm, Friday and Saturday from 6-10:30 pm, and Sunday from 11 am-3 pm and 5-10 pm. For information, call (718) 855-1535.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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