Admit it. You’ve never heard of a "gastropub."
Neither had I until September when Spike Hill, an English pub
in Williamsburg, opened. Couple the word with a menu of food
from the United Kingdom, and you’ll understand why it took six
months for me to visit. Had I known that the place was an unpretentious
bar and grill with chef Brett Ackerman in the kitchen, I’d have
stopped in sooner.
So what is a gastropub? If you ask Ackerman, formerly of Williamsburg’s Diner, he’ll tell you that the term originates in London, where "pub owners hired chefs who could do more than fry fish and chips."
When the word is applied to Spike Hill (named for the family property in Ireland belonging to owner-cousins Tom Kenney and Tom Schmitz) it describes an unpretentious, comfortably noisy bar with deep wooden booths that invite a long night of boozing and eating.
To say the place focuses on booze is an understatement: There are 15 house cocktails; a full page of bottled beers listed by country; and another page for whiskey, with descriptions for aficionados and neophytes alike. (Sample: Highland, a single-malt scotch has a "rounded, firm, dry character with some peatiness.")
While good booze is important at Spike Hill, Ackerman takes the pub’s fare just as seriously. He can fry up more than fish, but you shouldn’t miss his upscale version of this "takeaway" classic. Atop a deep pile of handcut "chips" are three moist filets of black cod dusted with Japanese panko crumbs and fried to a light, brittle crust. They’re great splashed with malt vinegar or dipped into HP, a vinegary steak sauce.
Before you head for the main attraction, it’s worth lingering over two pleasant starters: a cheese plate, garnished with cornichons and a well-dressed green salad, and curry-dusted fries with red lentil dip. The cheeses are a firm goat cheese aged in red wine with a nutty taste and a too-mild creamy goat cheese. The curry fries are an amusing take on England’s Indian restaurants and their chips. Good luck trying to stop dipping those spicy fries into the little pitcher of lightly spiced lentil sauce.
It may be better to order the Irish fry-up for lunch or brunch when you have the whole day to digest it. For dinner, it’s heavy going. It’s a huge platter of ketchupy baked beans crowned with every imaginable Irish pork product. There’s a black pudding (blood sausage) that, to me, tasted like clay. There’s a white pudding (sausage) with the soft texture of bread, thick slices of bacon, and an Irish sausage that tasted and resembled a frankfurter crisscrossed with Guinness-soaked toast and a firm poached egg.
It’s not a dish for the faint of heart.
It’s been awhile since I’ve had a chicken stew as satisfying as Ackerman’s. Moist roast chicken pieces are served with flavorful caramelized onions, sweet carrots and large caps of meaty shitake mushrooms in a buttery, brothy wine sauce. Lovely.
So is the warm brownie with chocolate whipped cream that sounds like cocoa overkill, but is everything a brownie should be. The whipped cream is barely sweetened and that brownie is just sweet enough with a slightly bitter edge, a gooey center and crisp, crackled top. (On this evening the other dessert that was offered was a caramelized apple cobbler.)
Many Williamsburg restaurants are long on style and short on simple, good food. Spike Hill is the exception. Whether you call it a saloon, bar and grill or gastropub, you’ll have plenty of booze to chose from and enjoy a good meal, too.
Spike Hill (184 Bedford Ave. at North Seventh Street in Williamsburg) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $9-$15. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily. Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday from 11 am to 5 pm. For information, call (718) 218-9737.