The neighborhood restaurant is a genre beloved by Brooklynites, whose Kings County pride is fueled by casual eateries---places where thoughtful food can coexist with reasonable prices and friendly service. There's obvious comfort to be found in the bond between regulars and their go-to filling station, but it can be a curse to the ambitions of a hungry chef. After all, how good can a neighborhood joint be if only the locals take to it?
At first glance, Thistle Hill Tavern---the most recent addition to South Slope's growing culinary cosmos---appears to be another example of the borough's navel-gazing nostalgia. The cozy interior feels like a temple to turn-of-the-20th-century Brooklyn (dark wood, antique maps, black-and-white photos), and the seasonal New American angle---with its earnest balance of meat, fish and vegetarian-friendly offerings---is a predictable match. What's not predictable, however, is the accomplished food---at her best, chef Rebecca Weitzman, an 'inoteca alum and winner of Food Network's Chopped, produces dishes that are too good to be bound by a single zip code.
Though the menu doesn't list any appetizers, tapas-like "snacks & sides" provide a good starting point. A fig-and-mascarpone crostini was delicately executed, balancing the sweetness of the thinly sliced fruit with rich, buttery cheese. Pair it with a selection from a wine list that highlights small producers, or mull your options over a local beer (Brooklyn Brewery, Kelso and Sixpoint all get nods on an otherwise limited list). Salads were more hit-and-miss than the small bites. One ill-advised heap of acrid kale, radishes, carrots and apples came drenched in a dull herb vinaigrette. But the chopped salad was a soaring counterpoint: bright and zesty, with fleshy slices of red, green and yellow heirloom tomatoes fanned out alongside a textural collage of crunchy celery, briny ricotta salata and chewy lardons, all drizzled with a cooling cucumber-coriander dressing.
While entres include a requisite burger---house-ground, juicy and served on an oversize potato roll---you'll find better value in Weitzman's frequently changing lineup of Mediterranean-leaning dishes. A leg of lamb displayed a light touch, with salty feta and a citrusy bed of cracked wheat cutting through the richness of the supremely tender meat. Even better were plump Maine mussels flecked one late-summer night with tiny currant tomatoes and clusters of corn kernels. An order of french fries---cut thick and seasoned liberally with sea salt and freshly ground pepper---acted as a savory sponge for the aromatic white-wine broth.
Not everything hit the mark, though. The chef's restraint can backfire, as in a dish of pan-seared cuttlefish; swimming in an arrabbiata-like sauce of roasted tomato and mild Calabrian chilies, the chewy mollusk needed more kick to come to life. Desserts, like a bland goat-cheese panna cotta, could be skipped in favor of farmstead cheese (choices include local and international picks) or a rich, nutty espresso made with locally roasted beans.
Thistle Hill may take some tweaking before gastro-tourists start jostling neighborhood families and young professionals for a table. Until then, South Slopers should be pleased to have a local tavern this satisfying.---TONY
Drink this: Balanced cocktails, like the Rob Roy--inspired Thistle Hill, share the bill with a beer-and-wine list that focuses on small producers, including some from Brooklyn.
Eat this: Chopped salad, fig-and-mascarpone crostini, salt-and-pepper fries, Maine mussels
Sit here: In nice weather, make use of red sidewalk tables that wrap around the corner of the block. Otherwise, park wherever you can in the cozy dining room.
Conversation piece: One of the owners is Fat Mike, the devil-may-care frontman of the punk band NOFX. He made headlines last spring after allegedly serving urine-laced tequila to fans at a SXSW gig (the incident turned out to be a hoax).
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