Vinegar Hill House
72 Hudson Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11201 (b/n Front and Water; map); 718-522-1018; vinegarhillhouse.com
Service: Super-casual, somewhat competent
Setting: Quintessential Brooklyn restaurant, old storefront decorated with odds and ends
Compare It To: Prime Meats
Must-Haves: Shaved market salad, fennel salad, Red Wattle pork chop, Reuben Sanchez
Cost: Not as cheap as you think it's going to be—at least $50 for three courses, a glass of wine, tax, and tip
Sometimes other writers, critics, and bloggers pique my interest in a particular restaurant. Oliver Strand, Frank Bruni, and Adam Platt have all favorably mentioned Vinegar Hill House—though, interestingly enough, none of them felt compelled to write a full-on review of the place. That's all the opening we needed. So four of us trekked out to Vinegar Hill one frigid Friday evening.
We were greeted rather indifferently. The host noted us on his clipboard and suggested we wait outside. Brr! For how long, I asked. He gave us three answers, somewhat confusingly—twenty minutes, perhaps a half hour, maybe ten minutes?
The others went outside to wait; I stayed inside and kept my eyes square on the ever-so-casual host. A half an hour later, he motioned to me that a table was awaiting us downstairs. I didn't even know Vinegar Hill House had a downstairs, but it did. It turned out to be an extremely cozy room—well, the line between cozy and claustrophobic can be painfully thin—with five or six tables and a fireplace, and precious little room for our coats. The downstairs waiter told us we could sit at a roomier table, but alas, just when we had settled in, the host returned to send us back to the tight squeeze he had originally given us.
All right—so sometimes Brooklyn hipsters don't make the most gracious hosts. We were there for the food.
Our shaved market salad ($10) was a mighty tasty melange of Clothbound cheddar and pecans in an unusual and seriously delicious caraway vinaigrette.
The fennel salad ($10) was equally good, with its medley of aged provolone flecked with red pepper flakes, green olives, and currants. What a fabulous combination.
A wood-fired tart ($10), made in the wood-burning oven that dominates the upstairs dining room, was sparsely filled with collard greens and pork belly. Alas, the crust was brittle and rather tough.
Pork Rib Cannelloni ($16) came on a bed of red cabbage and sultanas (raisins to us Americans), all lightly sauced with a pecorino-turnip fonduta.
My friend Adam Platt raved about the cast iron chicken ($15), as did Oliver Strand, but ours, roasted in the wood fire, was undercooked with large areas of flaccid skin. Though clearly a riff on classic French chicken with vinegar, the sauce here didn't quite work—tart and astringent.
Braised Beef Cheeks ($21) gave us a tender hunk of red meat that according to our friendly waiter had been braised for umpteen hours.
The main course that everyone should order here is the Red Wattle Country Chop ($24), served with homemade sauerkraut studded with bacon. This delicious piece of heritage pig is sliced like a porterhouse steak at Peter Luger's, and, with its pinkish-red color, actually looks like steak. I didn't worry about this kind of pork being served that color because I've seen what a Red Wattle pork chop looks like uncooked—it is most assuredly not the other white meat.
Desserts, all $8, are more homey and well-meaning than well-crafted and delicious. Key lime pie had broiled lime slices but not much spicey, limey flavor.
Chocolate stout cake, with a smooth, tart cream cheese icing, was satisfyingly moist but light on chocolate flavor. It tasted more of stout than chocolate.
Pain Epice, spice cake, came with a scoop of rum raisin ice cream.
A cookie plate had Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookies, anise biscotti, bad orange chocolate macarons, and sesame shortbread. There was not one cookie on the plate that had to be eaten.
Brunch was equally laid-back and equally crowded. I had two dishes at the bar, and though it took awhile for someone to take my order, the food came quickly. Reuben Sanchez ($11), described on the menu as braised corned beef, was actually a tasty and tender brisket sandwich with sharp cheddar, on grilled rye bread that was enlivened in a clever way by some tomatillo-jalapeño jam. And Angela's Sourdough Pancake ($9) was about a quarter-inch-tall pancake with crispy outer edges and tender, slightly tart innards. The fresh ricotta took the place of butter, and the bruleed bananas lent the dish a crunchy touch.
Vinegar Hill House is a perfectly good restaurant, but not a particularly inspired one. I could see going back in the spring, when the wait wouldn't be so uncomfortable, and the kitchen will have more ingredients to work with. But though it hits all the right locavore-seasonal-minimalist notes, it lacks a little something.