Set in a former auto repair shop, Montana’s Trail House hits all the Bushwick restaurant essentials: food heavy on the smoked and the pickled, brick walls, tattooed bartenders, pig ears, and switchel cocktails.
I haven’t seen switchel on a cocktail menu since, well, ever. Not that it’s a new invention. Herman Melville waxed poetic in an 1858 short story about giving “a traveler a cup of switchel, if he want it.” But the vinegary, gingery soda makes for the perfect winter cocktail, especially when mixed with whiskey. Rumor has it Montana’s Trail House has plans to bottle the stuff—put me down for the first case!
While you’re considering your switchel cocktail, it’s about time to order those pig ears, served crispy and dusted with celery salt and whole sage leaves, with a side of ghost pepper aioli.
For those who don’t frequently eat pig ears, they taste like a slightly meatier pork rind in the shape of a long french fry. A crispy, porky French fry. The aioli was not as spicy as the ghost pepper description suggested.
Pig ears seem right at home in the dark interior, with various Americana trinkets adorning the reclaimed wood and brick walls. There’s a bookcase, too, which has a “hidden” door to an outdoor patio. This is very different from the restaurant’s exterior, which still looks like the previous tenant’s auto body shop. Somehow, it actually works.
Our pork craving not yet satisfied, we next opted for a special charcuterie plate with duck prosciutto, spicy and peppery tasso ham, lardo, chicken liver, and assorted pickles. Not your ordinary charcuterie plate. Duck proscuitto was a first for me, and it was terrific with all the smoky, salty flavor of proscuitto infused in a gamier meat than pork. I also enjoyed the combination of lardo, pickles, and grainy mustard on toasts, and the chicken liver, which was well executed even outside of a Jewish deli.
Speaking of Jewish delis, another favorite dish was the steelhead salmon pastrami with pumpernickel, chow chow relish, and pickled radish. The smoked and cured salmon was more delicate than I thought it would be, so it didn’t even need the accoutrements, but the added kick of the chow chow provided the right amount of heat.
One more switchel cocktail, this time with gin.
We then retreated to two vegetable dishes: one with multicolored beets and sunchokes on top of a vibrantly yellow squash puree, and the other with roasted cauliflower, pimento cheese, lemon, and scallion.
The beets made for a beautiful dish that brought some color to the dark restaurant. I especially liked the addition of the sage leaves to the busy plate, and with so much going on, each bite was different.
I was less impressed with the cauliflower dish. The cauliflower florets themselves were perfectly well roasted, but the globs of not-hot-enough cheese weighed everything down.
Next, we turned to the real Southern portion of the menu: fried chicken, brisket, and shrimp and grits.
The best of the three was the impeccably tender root beer-braised brisket served on top of rice grits with mustard greens and shaved horseradish, which really made the dish. The brisket was swimming in a deeply flavored beef broth, which was perfectly fine even if a bit salty, but, really, the meat excelled on its own.
The star of otherwise straight-up shrimp and grits were the crispy, crackly puffed wheat berries, that added such a pop to each bite. The cilantro and chili oil were far less noticeable. The fried chicken with house-made hot sauce and honey butter was a competent, if oily, rendition of the classic combination.
For those still hungry, a collection of six larger than expected sides include superbly crispy duck fat-fried whole mini potatoes with pepper aioli, sea salt and rosemary; quite possibly the best spuds I’ve had in quite some time.
We clearly did not leave hungry.
Montana’s Trail House
445 Troutman St, Bushwick
Recommended Dishes: Switchel cocktails ($8-11), Roasted beets ($11), Crispy pig ears, ($10), Salmon pastrami ($12), Shrimp & Grits ($16), Brisket ($23), Potatoes ($6).