“You’re waiting for a table next door?” the waitress presumes before even seating you, as if poor Hillside were a frumpy Crawley, called on to politely entertain guests until her more beautiful sister was ready.
It’s true—Hillside is plainer than Vinegar Hill House, the romantic charmer on Hudson Avenue. Jean Adamson and Sam Buffa’s newest spot doesn’t have much of a kitchen, only a stone-paneled counter beside the bar that turns out a handful of dishes. Brian Leth is the chef of both places—though at Hillside you won’t find that chicken-liver mousse cobbled with pistachios, or the pork chops flushed pink as a slapped buttock. But after a few minutes spent chatting with the staff about sour Spanish ciders, and dipping crunchy snap peas into a teeny ramekin of lemon vinaigrette, you may just want to pass the whole evening in Hillside’s not-so-dowdy-after-all arms. Stay and you’re likely to hear Bob Dylan, punctuated by popping corks, and the odd belly laugh from across the room. Oysters materialize silently for a lone regular at the bar, who throws them back with gusto, counts some cash onto the table, and exits to the empty street.
Leth has set Hillside up with its own charms. Soft slices of braised tongue ride in with spicy radishes and greens on a wave of horseradish butter ($10). An elegant snack of crackers caked with a double-stuff layer of butter, then topped with mackerel, cucumbers, and a fluff of lime zest, seems to have been inspired by the awesome lunch box of a fisherman’s daughter. A long boneful of marrow, sliced lengthways, is garnished with a bit of dill and melted all over with bottarga ($10). Turns out that fatty meat jelly paired with a fish’s cured egg sac makes for quite a luxurious, salty wobble of surf and turf. Apply it sparingly to the accompanying bread and be careful: If you drop a piece on the salt heap that steadies the bone, it’s ruined.
All the portions are on the small side, and not every dish is a catch. A sticky special of cola-braised pork ribs disappears into the spongy celeriac rémoulade as if wearing some kind of flavor camouflage. This special needs to be tuned, or taken out of rotation. If you love jerky for the snack it could be, for the comeback it’s always about to enjoy, you may want to try Hillside’s smoked paprika or rum-cola renditions ($4). For me, though, the long, tough strips seem better suited for gnawing on over the course of a rambling hike than over a glass of cold, dry rosé. Your canines won’t cut it, and you may have to use the strength of your molars to tear this meat apart.
Erica Ohrling, who also runs the pastry kitchen at Vinegar Hill House, offers a short list of sweets. Much like with the savory menu, dishes are mostly pared down to their essentials. You’ll find a shape-shifting presentation of aggressively smoked ricotta with very good biscotti ($6)—sometimes seedy and salty as a cheese course, but sometimes honey-splashed like a dessert. On one recent night, the ricotta was escorted by a new beau: a roasted jalapeño. A modest scoop of mint-nib ice cream ($5) is the winner, a lovely and harmonious arrangement of fresh mint and chocolate.
Hillside carries a stylish touch of maritime to the décor, with its beamed ceiling, sliding ladders reaching up to the wine stock, and a funny pair of orchids that hang over the bar like tropical bollocks. The café does appear to please the crowd that previously trekked out to Vinegar Hill House only to find there’s nowhere else to get a drink while they wait for a table. But Hillside is doing its own thing, too, allowing visitors to stay and build a long, wine-soaked dinner, plate by plate, or stop in for a weekend lunch, perhaps after taking a peek at the Commandant’s House, that old Navy Yard mansion hidden behind iron gates.
In the late 19th century, Vinegar Hill’s community of working-class immigrants had more than 200 food shops and 100 saloons to choose from north of Nassau Street and east of Old Fulton, but now the blocks of row houses that slope down by the East River go quiet each night. Hillside’s offerings may be simple, but they’re good, and on these dark streets they gleam.