Monday, May 31, 2010

Celebrate America at Vinegar Hill House

Memorial Day Weekend in New York City, where the extent of most people's patriotism consists of taking shots of red, white and blue colored liquors with sailors out partying during Fleet Week.

With that in mind (and the fact that Saturday was absolutely gorgeous), my friends and I celebrated America by starting on the slippery slope of day drinking. We kicked off the day at Spin, the ping pong club owned by Susan Sarandon (yes, you heard correctly), and continued in true New York City style by drinking on multiple rooftops.

So to say that I was slightly buzzed by the time I got off the F train for dinner in Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn to meet the DAsian and others friends would be a dangerous understatement. The setting sun, and quick stop at my apartment, had done nothing to curb my stupor, and it was 9:15 by the time I stumbled into Vinegar Hill House, meeting up with a far more sober crowd for what I hoped would be a fantastic American meal.

Our group of 7 presented us with the opportunity to try the whole menu (except for the very last steak for 2 for $100, which we passed on), so I not-so-subtly tried to steer people into ordering different things. This turned out to be quite easy, since everyone was already willing to try everything, and it's hard to be subtle when you're drunk.

First up, a pickle plate of sweet bread and butter pickles and garlicky half-sours. I'm a devout pickle snob, so I was surprised when the half-sours reminded me of my great-grandfather's pickle recipe that I now call my own. Fortunately, while the flavor was strong, the intense backbone of lingering heat that distinguishes my homemade pickles was completely absent, leaving me secretly relieved.

Filled with green pea-ness (props if you already know the clip), the English Pea ravioli was cooked perfectly al dente, with a cream sauce and an intense pea flavor that did not overwhelm. Great dish.

Asparagus was a vivid green and covered in a tangy Hollandaise. Any questions?

Other appetizers arrived in waves. A glass jar of chicken liver mousse was topped with pistachios for an earthy combination. While this was a nice touch (I love pistachios), for some reason, I've been underwhelmed with all the chicken liver mousse I've tried lately. It must be a personal failing on my part (and I think I like chopped liver better anyway).

Spinach salad was elevated by the combination of sweet strawberries and pine nuts against the smokey bacon and piquant buttermilk dressing. Maybe slightly overdressed, but still an excellent salad starter.

The weakest appetizer was the octopus, which was refreshingly tender, but the octopus itself ended up tasting like canned tuna. Pass.

Our mains were uniformly outstanding. I ordered the fluke with a duck crackling crust, celery, walnuts and cherries. The fluke was cooked perfectly, with the duck fat in the crust adding a crunchy richness to the rest of the dish. The mixture of celery, walnuts and cherries, while good, felt like it should be served in October rather than at the beginning of Summer. A minor complaint, but that's what I'm here for.

Lamb shoulder with pearl barley and onions was fantastic. The lamb was meltingly tender and not at all dry. I usually find barley to be soupy and overcooked, but here it was pleasingly al dente, soaking up the flavors of the lamb.

I was too drunk at this point to remember the specifics of the cast iron chicken, but I'm fairly certain it was delicious-- with the rich pan-juice gravy standing out.

Lamb heart and liver papardelle was very good, the pasta again cooked perfectly, with just the right ratio of sauce to pasta. The squeeze of lemon and parsley managed to mellow out the stronger flavors of the lamb and liver.

The pork chop with cheese grits was really fantastic and made me wish I'd ordered one for myself. The chop had a serious char, and was cooked medium rare. It had a strong porkiness, with a slightly aged flavor (maybe this was from the char). The cheese grits were fine, and the strong cheddar cut through the meaty char, mixing with the pan sauce. I managed to snag the two bone pieces, which I picked clean while we finished our mains.

Desserts were not as consistent. We split one of each choice: a chocolate Guinness cake, ginger upside-down cake with buttermilk ice cream and a salty caramel custard with butter cookies.

The chocolate cake was pretty boring, tasting like a less cloying Hostess cupcake. No discernible Guinness taste. Most of the flavor came from the cream cheese icing on top.

The salty caramel custard was on the verge of being too salty, but the butter cookies and whipped cream helped balance the flavor slightly, although not enough to harmonize the dessert. I think I would have pronounced it saltier if I weren't already drunk.

Surprisingly, the ginger upside-down cake, which on paper interested me the least, turned out to be the best of all. The sweet bite of the ginger cooked into the extremely moist cake paired well with the buttermilk ice cream. Definitely choose this dessert.

Here is where I would conclude with the obligatory description of new Brooklyn cuisine and contrast it with the supposedly "typical" Manhattan restaurants such as Pulino's and The Breslin. I'll pass on that conversation for now, but you can add as necessary in the comments.

Instead, I'll say that Vinegar Hill House serves up an unpretentious New (classic?) American meal in a relaxed setting at a reasonable price. Can the same not be found in Manhattan? I'll disagree, but Vinegar Hill House is a great restaurant that would be welcome anywhere.

Vinegar Hill House
72 Hudson Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Vinegar Hill House on Urbanspoon

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