Thistle Hill Tavern Cooks Up a Neighborhood Vibe
South Park Slope (or Greenwood Heights) is a small, quiet place that abuts the neo-Gothic splendor of Greenwood Cemetery to the south and the more affluent brownstone brigade of Park Slope to the north. It was once Eastern European, then Latin American. It's still home to those populations, but the area has been changing slowly, as post-college renters priced out of other parts of Brooklyn move in.
And lately, it has developed its own unlikely upscale dining scene—a scrappier, sometimes more exciting one than Park Slope's, where real estate is more expensive. Walking down Seventh Avenue, you first come across Beer Table at 14th Street, the suds mecca that has recently begun serving dinner every night. Crossing down to Sixth Avenue, find Lot 2 at 20th Street, a solid New American spot, and Toby's Public House on 21st Street, which turns out excellent brick-oven pizzas. (If Giuseppina's—the long-awaited Lucali sister restaurant—ever opens, the area will have a bona fide pizza scene.) And one more block down on Fifth Avenue, basically in Sunset Park, you have Korzo on the corner of 20th Street, a very good Eastern European joint.
Thistle Hill Tavern edged its way onto Seventh Avenue and 15th Street this spring, and the restaurant hums along now, crowded with neighborhood folks most nights, though it doesn't much resemble a tavern. Chef Rebecca Weitzman's style is of the ubiquitous New American genre—rigorously seasonal with Mediterranean flourishes, and, yes, both pork belly and a burger can be had. But as derivative as that may sound, Weitzman makes that food her own, with a meticulous, perfectionist streak. You see it in the Lilliputian brunoise of ricotta salata exactly the same size as the corn kernels in a chopped salad, and in the appealing balance between char and tender bite in a single fat octopus tentacle. The place is also more ambitious than you might imagine, offering the occasional whimsy, like an oddball pairing of pork belly with cantaloupe. Maybe it's time for a new term: CSA-experimental? Moosewood-Brooklyn? Diet for a small planet, but with big burgers?
The restaurant is owned and operated by Weitzman—previously of 'inoteca and, before that, the well-loved Café Star in Denver—along with David Massoni (also of 'inoteca and others), John Bush, and Fat Mike, a member of the punk band NOFX. The menu is straightforward, offering salads ($10–$12), mains ($13–$21), and snacks ($5–$7), plus a selection of European and American cheeses. The place feels relaxed and homey, filled with the buzz of conversation, and it looks exactly the way you might expect: dark-wood tables and chairs, votives, a small bar, and big windows looking out onto the street.
The snack section of the menu contains appetizing vegetables to munch on. Along with the expected pickles and olives find curiosities like zucchini pancakes (tasty) and charred kale leaves (crisp in spots, but too raw, requiring a jaw workout). We particularly enjoyed the bowlful of fried fennel, the vegetable sliced thinly and fried until it goes soft and sweet. The batter is puffy and lightly crisp, almost identical to that of Indian pakoras, though spiced only with salt and pepper. A plate of grilled summer beans fares much better than the kale—a colorful pile of Italian romano, yellow wax, green, cranberry, and runner beans, tender and smoky, dribbled with a creamy Dijon sauce. In a simple but delicious crostini, green-skinned, pink-fleshed figs lend their summery sugar to a pillow of salted mascarpone.
Salads, usually the dreariest items on a restaurant menu, are paragons of the form here. Warm weather incarnate: A rainbow mix of mauve and green heirloom tomatoes with tiny dice of celery, salty ricotta salata, crisp bacon, and corn. It's the sort of thing you dream about in winter when you've grown tired of braised meat and brussels sprouts. Eat it now, while you can. And a pretty standard beet salad with watercress and pistachios gets a welcome bit of excitement in the "blue cheese croutons," which turn out to be mini blue-cheese croquettes, gushing the molten, pungent cheese under your teeth.
Mains are carefully diplomatic, almost evenly divided between fish, vegetarian, and meat. The obligatory burger is plump and juicy, pub-style, cooked precisely to medium-rare and sided by a pile of thick steak fries seasoned with salt and pepper that would have been great if they'd been crisp. As for that pork belly, a square of it sits in a bowl with watercress, bits of cantaloupe, sunflower seeds, and melon vinaigrette, the meat's tender-sticky fattiness answering the bitterness of the watercress. I thought it vaguely reminiscent of those old-fashioned Chinese chicken salads with slivered almonds and Mandarin oranges, in the best sense: sweet and savory.
Skip the seared cuttlefish in a spiced tomato sauce, which feels like it's missing the pasta, and pick the grilled octopus instead, which is usually on the menu in various seasonal incarnations. This spring, it was sensational on top of a pool of polenta with fried artichokes, zested with kalamata olives and handfuls of parsley. In late summer, it comes with charred romaine and romesco sauce. Then again, grilled rainbow trout is a fine dish as well, topped with a bittersweet mess of radicchio, plums, and speck.
Thistle Hill isn't a destination restaurant, exactly, but a just-right neighborhood place. You might come from anywhere in Brooklyn if you're craving this kind of food—made in many other restaurants, though not often as expertly, affordably, or comfortably as this. I'm going with "Moosewood-Brooklyn." Let's see if it sticks.
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