BY CRAIG CAVALLO
Tucked in a corner of Brooklyn, about as close to the nearest train as it is the Lower East Side, Vinegar Hill is a dozen or so streets sandwiched by the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Brooklyn Heights. The neighborhood gets its name from the Battle of VinegarHill, which took place in Northern Ireland during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Eight years later, in 1806, the Brooklyn Navy Yard became an active shipyard, and 202 years after that, Sam Buffa and former Freeman’s chef Jean Adamson opened Vinegar Hill House.
You are liable to walk right past the restaurant. It’s on a quiet cobblestone street and from outside it looks like nothing more than a modest farm house. Inside it’s warm and dim; there’s a wood burning oven in the back whose digital temperature reads 749 degrees. Old hard wood floors set the stage in this theater and there’s not an empty seat in the house. That’s not a terribly challenging task given the 40 seat capacity, but given its location, and the temperature of a January night in New York, you get the idea that the food is going to be worth the trek.
The copper bar offers to hold your elbows as you wait for a table. They’re all good choices, except for the one that didn’t finish the transformation from a tree. It sits just inside the entrance as a small, kidney shaped slab of wood that is not sensible or necessary. We had to join the statistic of guests that asked to be moved. The food is too good here for the likes of such tables.
After a short stint in the oven, the croutons in the Caesar Salad ($11) are fried in schmaltz. The preparation leaves the outside crunchy while the middle stays tender and warm. The dressing had the perfect amount of acidity, fat, and saltiness that comes from a classic incorporation of Caesar dressing ingredients. For the price though I thought another handful of romaine wouldn’t have hurt the food cost.
The handmade garganelli ($16) were the right choice for a sauce of preserved lemon, capers, chick peas, and kale. It was a light dish that excited the palate but could have benefited from a grating of pecorino.
The wild boar shank ($24) rested on a delicious, but restricted portion of grits. The wood stove proves to be an exceptional heating element when it comes to finishing a braise, as the meat pulls effortlessly from the bone and melts in the diner’s mouth. The dusting of fennel pollen that covers the pecan grits is exactly the breath of fresh air an otherwise rich entree may have suffocated without.
There is something timeless and satiating when it comes to eating this particular cut of meat. Jonathan Safran Foer may disagree on this point, but it speaks to the human soul in the same manner as a campfire, when you’re staring into one on the prairie—instilled in humans after centuries of hunting and evolution.
The food is exceptional at Vinegar Hill House. It is well thought out, professionally executed, and perfectly seasoned. The place is quaint, the menu is economical and concise, and the service is an ideal match for the restaurant’s vision. It executes the Brooklyn restaurant theme to near perfection but forgets the lower overheads that distinguishes them from others across the river in Manhattan. With a Brooklyn location, Vinegar Hill House has the ability to offer New Yorkers what Manhattan restaurants don’t and others in Brooklyn do. All they need to cross their t’s and dot their i’s is tune up the portions or tone down the prices.