Photo Ingalls Photography
When visiting Hillside, the new sister wine bar of Vinegar Hill House, you have to ask yourself: do I fall in love with the cozy room’s rustic, plant-strewn, country-kitchen feel? Or do I scoff at the tired tendency of restaurants to expect me to pay $12 a drink—and maybe more for an appetizer—while plopping me down at a farmhouse table on a backless stool?
My dining companion immediately chose the latter while I sat, quite literally and uncomfortably, on the edge. But the food is good—much better than the average local, seasonal fare. And the wines are exceptional. Our first two selections from the extensive list—a slightly sparkling red from Slovenia and a funky, earthen-tasting cider from Spain—were distinctive, risqué, and highly sippable slam-dunks. For the wine enthusiast, Hillside is a destination of its own; do not underestimate it, as I did initially, as a mere waiting room for the coveted tables next door. I stood corrected after one round (although not physically).
There is no food beyond appetizers, goading you after one glass too many to enter the line at Vinegar Hill House. That is, after all, this place’s raison d’être. As for those appetizers, there’s a briny beef tongue, pickled generously and served with fresh radishes and dots of crème fraiche on the plate, a distant cousin to Jewish deli fare that’s traveled to Paris and back with guilt-washed ambition. There’s also a roasted bone marrow with flecks of shaved bottarga and dill, served on a pile of salt but plenty savory on its own. There are some salads, sweets, raw shellfish and cheese. You wonder if you could be sated by these alone, but the promise of actually sitting next door makes you antsy and even hungrier.
There is no solution but to succumb. Beforehand, though, try as many wines as you can. There’re no cocktails and only two draft lines at Hillside anyway. There are a few sakes, ciders, and bottles of wine ranging respectfully from $35-$100. None are from the North or South American continents, however. The wine list highlights “island” wines, both reds and whites, from the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe as separate categories. (Croatia, Sardinia, Greece, and the Canary Isles, specifically.) Yes, you may feel as if on an island getaway as you savor these exotic flavors and attempt to start smart conversations if in real life you’ve actually been anywhere near such places. You won’t get much help from the servers: Brooklyn hipster types, just like anywhere else. The average service and incongruous setting to the worldly offerings are disarming, but so are some of the best things about the borough, like highbrow graffiti, or the quiet Admiral’s Mansion a stone’s throw away from the bar in this eerily quaint neighborhood. Hillside’s Americana and purposely repurposed aesthetic anchor this constantly contradictory place.
Embrace it. Have a heated argument over nothing with your date. Fill your belly and shill over double your budget by dining next door, too. Fuhgeddaboudit. There’s nothing like taking a small vacation while staying very much at home.