Breathing Room In Brooklyn

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The New York Sun

If Jack the Horse Tavern were in Manhattan, some part of its virtue would have to give. Maybe it’d be the breezy, unhurried feel that reigns even at maximum capacity; maybe the subtle restraint of the cooking. In Brooklyn Heights, though, it occupies a quaint corner as comfortably as if it had always been there, with a loyal following after just a couple of months in business.

The restaurant has the neighborhood, mom-and-pop air that many restaurants strive for in vain. Chef-owner Tim Oltmans and his partner, Micki Schubert, give personal touches to the food and the space respectively; the result is a restaurant with definite personality. The cooking runs along American and somewhat rustic lines, although not without novel ideas. The chef delights in his ingredients, leaving many of them nearly undoctored, as in a variety of market-fresh vegetable sides ($5). A cool, onion-spiked salad of fresh corn sets off a single quail ($9), roasted whole and with a marvelously deep, meaty flavor. Chopped chicken liver ($7), thickly spread on toast, needs nothing to enhance its unctuous savor, but an off-sweet peach chutney, thoughtfully served on the side, suffices for any maximalists who disagree.

Other dishes get clever, discreet accents. A starter of sweetbreads ($8) — fried crisp and richly tender inside — is dressed with a hint of toasty cumin, complementing the offal’s earthy undertones with a note of unexpected fragrance. And the marine impact of a Japanese-style seaweed salad gives a fresh twist to simple breaded oysters ($9).


Some Manhattan restaurants work a similar market-driven culinary territory — one savvy customer compared Jack to Savoy — but those tend to serve precious, careful creations, with every sustainably snipped heirloom chive in place. Jack the Horse takes not merely a different tack, but an active stance against what the restaurant’s Web site scorns as “meaningless flourish.” Mr. Oltmans’s effects are subtle rather than showy, as in a pork entrée ($16) in two phases: Delicate, mild pork breast is rolled with figs; their dark sweetness and the crunch of their seeds offsets the tender meat. Elsewhere on the plate lies a savory fried cake of pork shoulder meat whose toothsome browned shreds show a heartier side of the animal. Another restaurant might make much of the composition; here it’s just good food.

A selection of three German mustards in toothpaste-style tubes heralds the arrival of three sausages ($13), neatly grilled and halved and as light as sausages get: one pale and sweet, one coarse and spicy, one deliciously porky. Served on a crusty roll, with sour pickles and a side of fresh-tasting braised cabbage, the dish is delightfully unpretentious. A big bowl of mussels (“Big Bowl of Mussels,” the menu says) features a garlicky, creamy broth that’s heavy on the cream, and also a little side portion of fresh green-bean fritters ($16). The hot, battered beans could pair neatly with any of the entrees, but the kitchen’s iron whim places them with the mussels alone.

One side effect of that vibrant culinary informality is that the pairings on the plate sometimes wind up a little too arbitrary for their own good. Medallions of salmon ($17) — billed as “organic,” a fine thing but also a euphemism for “farmed” — are cooked simply and rare, their ultra-mild flavor drowned out by a sweet citrus sauce that harmonizes with the fish in color but not in taste. An enormous, roughly sliced hanger steak ($21) has deep, well-aged savor that’s enhanced by a thick and creamy horseradish dressing. But sitting on top of the steak, a white globe of bone marrow makes a misguided accompaniment: too cool and firm to melt into the meat even a little, and too rich to bite into on its own, it winds up pushed to the side as a garnish.


Plenty of care goes into the drinks. At the bar, there’s a list of $9 cocktails that includes exacting renditions of classics like Manhattans and mai tais as well as inventions like the Man of Leisure, a balanced shaken blend of bourbon, lemon juice, and pear liqueur. Two dozen wines in the $25–$40 range include some interesting choices from Long Island and Virginia as well as reliable Europeans and Californians. A dozen or more gourmet beers round out the drinking options.

The low-key desserts ($6) are left to succeed on the strength of their ingredients: Excellent fresh blueberries elevate a mild panna cotta, and a ginger-tinged shortbread preparation gives its star, golden fresh peaches, plenty of room to breathe. Breathing room is one of Brooklyn’s strengths.

Jack the Horse Tavern, 66 Hicks St. at Cranberry Street, Brooklyn, 718-852-5084.

The New York Sun

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