I brought the shot glass, filled to the brim with a cloudy, brownish liquid, up to my nose and sniffed with curiosity. A spicy wallop of ginger and a quick tang of vinegar on the nose was followed by a mellow sweetness like a warm, bright ginger kiss on the lips. Oh yes, and then add some whiskey and call it a cocktail.
I fell instantly in love.
“It’s called switchel.” Our gregarious waitress smiled, giving me a proper introduction to my new infatuation. “Isn’t it great? The ‘original kombucha,’” she drawled enthusiastically in her charming Louisiana accent, and I couldn’t help but share her enthusiasm whole-heartedly. The bright energy and charming warmth of the house-made, mildly fermented beverage is the perfect embodiment of its source—Montana’s Trail House.
A mere handful of months old, the restaurant has simultaneously been embraced by its Bushwick community and become a center of it. On a recent Sunday evening, the stylishly home-spun, rustic-cabin-meets-street-art space was bubbling with attractive locals who were eclectically cutting-edge but unpretentiously welcoming (a combination practically extinct in Brooklyn these days), and intermingling in a familiar way that perfectly matched the inviting character of the Trail House.
Obviously, you will try the Swichel Cocktail. Yet, there is generally no way to go wrong when ordering off the short but thoughtfully complex cocktail list—a notion supported by the way each staff member, when prompted for a recommendation, gushes about their current favorite and inevitably every single cocktail ends up mentioned. It doesn’t make the decision any easier, but it does make for a pleasant challenge to try to taste them all in one evening—a task, we must warn, that is not for lightweights.
But lightweights, too, have hope! The luscious menu of hearty, comforting dishes that seem to come straight from the farm and the forest, inevitably leads to wanton plate scraping, and a full belly excuse to drink more.
Though the unique, hunter’s stew of foraged vegetables and a variety of meats, including rabbit, was all the rage during our visit, we were taken off guard by the vegetable starters. First, the slow roasted beets arrived to our table voluptuous and glistening, their natural sweetness balanced by earthy, raw sunchoke shavings, and a lovely, fresh sage gremolotta.
Then, with a name that belies the complexity of its preparation, the “cheesy cauliflower” comes wonderfully oven charred but still tender crisp, atop a smear of richly seasoned pimento cheese, and sprinkled with crisped onions and preserved lemon.
It is deceptively easy to order every small plate on the menu and make a meal of it. And though a terrific strategy, it would potentially mean passing up the sumptuous main courses, namely, the brook trout, which is a showstopper in its own rite. Simply served whole and with a handful of lightly dressed watercress, the salty crispy exterior and perfectly succulent meat were still enveloped in the tangible freshness of the river. Without exaggeration, it was easily the best trout dish I’ve had in ages, and I ate every last bite.
The theme of simplicity and sophisticated comfort continues to the deserts, and in tandem with the continuation of our delight and surprise in everything at Montana’s Trail House. After eating and drinking your way thus far through the menu, it might seem like dessert is an impossible dream, but we must insist: there is no excuse to leave without a wind bourbon flip. The adult version of milk and cookies, the cocktail is a nice balance of booziness and sweet creaminess and is somehow wholesome enough to invite dipping the homemade gingersnaps right into. A drizzle of smoked maple syrup and you realize: impossible dreams do come true.
– Ava Fedorov
Montana’s Trail House
445 Troutman Street
Photographs by Jeff Owens for Socially Superlative