New York City is home to nearly as many restaurant clichés as restaurants. There’s the etched-mirror-lined brasserie, the sponge-painted trattoria, and the splashy space-age Thai, not to mention the classic steakhouse and the big-box Asian. These cookie-cutter concepts might have crowds, good food even, but they seldom have that crucial, ineffable quality: personality. Vinegar Hill House, a newly opened mom-and-pop shop in Brooklyn, positively exudes it. That’s partly a function of its very present owners, who not only built the place and cook the food but live in the carriage house out back. It’s also a happy confluence of physical geography and culinary concept. Vinegar Hill House is named for its neighborhood, an anachronistically ungentrified precinct of Belgian-blocked streets abutting the Navy Yard, just north of Dumbo but nearly bucolic in comparison. There are brooding artists working in garages and notices tacked to community bulletin boards. Despite the proximity of a looming Con Ed power plant and the Farragut housing project, the effect is more small-town Americana than major metropolitan area.
The restaurant’s ambience and food are a good match for its setting (never mind the obligatory anti-gentrification gripes on neighborhood blogs). The 40-seat space is the embodiment of warm and cozy, quirky but not off-puttingly so. It’s Little House on the Prairie crossed with Freemans, the relentlessly hip Lower East Side restaurant where the couple who owns Vinegar Hill House first met on the job. Like Freemans, but in a subtly different way, Vinegar Hill House is a period piece, with vintage-y wallpaper, rough-hewn-wood furniture, and old-timey lanterns giving off a soft, warm glow (and—watch out!— a trail of dripping candle wax). For no particular reason, a Colonial flag adorns one wall and part of a pipe organ hangs behind the copper-topped bar, where a pewter samovar dispenses free hot cider until the liquor license arrives. Rich cream-cheese-frosted Guinness cakes sit on shelves by the open kitchen, an autumnal version of the windowsill pies of summer.
The focal point of the room is the roaring wood-fired oven, chef-partner Jean Adamson’s primary cooking apparatus. She uses it for almost everything on her seasonal, streamlined menu, including a simple crimped tart topped with sharp melted Bailey Hazen blue cheese and cubes of sweet roasted butternut squash. The tart is small but rich; the same can be said for the fat-capped jar of duck rillettes, served with grainy mustard and toasted country bread. There’s a bit of whimsy in a special “meat” board, which garnishes three kinds of sausage with a pickled quail egg, medjool dates, and housemade crackers.
At this point in its young life, the restaurant offers a limited menu, with just a half-dozen small plates and four mains (all modestly priced and portioned). Among the latter, the arctic char is the daintiest, its skin well crisped, its flesh perfectly cooked, sided with crunchy quinoa and a grapefruit segment. The spaghetti and meatball is less successful, its singular, supersize main attraction dense and a little tough when it should be soft and airy.
No one knows why, but dramatically presenting something to the table in the sizzling hot pan in which it was just cooked usually ups the pleasure ante of any dish, and the “Cast Iron” chicken is no exception. Minutes before its arrival, your flannel-shirted, stocking-capped waiter will plunk down in front of you a thick cloth trivet that looks like it might have been knitted by a team of Amish women. Onto the trivet goes a cast-iron pan and with it the obligatory warning that the pan is hot—not that you would be tempted to pass this steaming metal inferno around the table like a medicine ball. Cooked and presented in this quaint log-cabin manner, even an old moccasin might trick the mind into thinking it tastes good. But this half-chicken is truly exceptional—moist and meaty with a parchment-crisp skin, not to mention remarkable flavor. Equally satisfying despite being served in a mere bowl is a tender clump of braised lamb shoulder mingled with black chickpeas and melting fennel bulbs. Accompany either of these dishes with a side of roasted Brussels sprouts or horseradish-enhanced mashed potatoes and you have a feast fit for a Navy Yard rear admiral, if not a brooding Vinegar Hill artist.