847 Union St, Park Slope
Rating: Three out of 5 L's
With a twist of a tattooed wrist and a satisfying pop, a jar of cold mussels was set upon our table. The glass container of fleshy, pre-shelled bivalves looked liked it belonged among the jarred specimens of fetal pigs and dissected frogs on Gil Grissom’s low-lit desk in an early CSI episode. If there were an award for the Least Appetizing Appetizer in the borough, I’d have to nominate this one. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Kiwiana’s smoked and pickled green-lipped mussels ($8) tasted better than they looked. We were instructed to enjoy them on thin slices of sourdough bread smeared with house-churned butter, and this mellowed the assertive flavors of campfire ash and vinegar that overwhelmed the sweetness of the tender mussels. Top Chef contestant Mark Simmons, the New Zealand native who runs the show at Kiwiana, didn’t invent smoked mussels—you can buy them by the jar from gourmet seafood and caviar purveyors. Still, Simmons sets an adventurous tone for his Park Slope restaurant by including such a weird food on his menu. I admire his chutzpa. For lovers of oddball eats, the mussels are a must-try, but the beets with lavender goat’s milk ricotta ($7) are a far more refined choice. The understated floral notes impart extra luxury to the creamy cheese, elevating a run-of-the-mill salad course.
Kiwiana is similar to the concept of Americana. It refers to the quirky and often kitschy products, items and icons that signify New Zealand, such as the Marmite used to braise the baby back ribs ($17). Marmite works its way into the décor as well—a couple of containers of the yeasty, salty spread are displayed on a wide wall-mounted dish rack, along with an ample collection of mismatched china. The space feels homey, and the menu does, too. Meaty mains include venison loin with cola-braised cherries ($27) and a traditional stick-to-your-ribs lamb burger with fried egg and pickled beets ($15), served with thick, hand-cut fries that are neatly stacked like Jenga blocks—a gentle reminder of the chef’s Top Chef past. Just as comforting is the vegetable pie, a lightly crisped puff pastry filled with a creamy filling of seasonal vegetables. At $13, it costs more than double the price of a veggie pie at DUB Pies in Windsor Terrace, the borough’s much-loved New Zealand meat pie joint, but Kiwiana’s is half as greasy and twice as nice. As our meal came to an end, I was dared to eat the last mussel left in the jar—an unusually large one, which looked like the lung of a small mammal. I politely decline.