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In Brooklyn Heights, an ambitious new restaurant is met with anticipation. The neighborhood only has a couple of terrific places and others that lean toward mediocre, so when an experienced chef finds a corner spot in a secluded part of the area, posts his menu on a Web site, then takes his time with renovations, the opening generates a lot of buzz.

In June, chef Tim Oltmans and his partner, Micki Schubert, launched Jack the Horse Tavern (named for the lake in northern Minnesota, where Oltmans fished with his father and brothers), an elegant space with a menu focused on American fare with a few innovative touches.

The view from the tavern’s expansive windows of leafy Hicks Street affords diners a glimpse of ornate brownstones, some with curtains drawn back to reveal enormous, sparkling chandeliers.

Schubert, who designed the eatery, wisely chose to forgo kitschy tavern accoutrements: There are no beer steins, pipes or other saloon-like tchotchkes hanging from a beamed ceiling.

She’s taken a former liquor store and divided it into two light-filled rooms that flow gracefully into one another. There are brick walls, a long wooden bar in the front room, and cloth-covered tables that pull up to a tapestry banquette. Lining one wall are wonderful drawings by Schubert’s father, Mitchell Hooks, an illustrator who was popular in the ’60s. Hooks’s mostly black-and-white pieces are indicative of the graphic style of that era: One is shaped like a butterfly that, on closer inspection, reveals women in provocative costumes and men with Dean Martin’s good looks.

Candles and small, elegant lamps lend the room an amber glow. On a cold, rainy night that room was as welcoming as a friend’s open arms.

Oltmans offers a small but well-chosen wine list of international bottles ($22-$51), with several excellent selections by the glass. Befitting a tavern, there are six pints on draft and several mostly domestic beers and ales available by the bottle.

The kitchen is starting out with a trot, not a gallop. The market-driven menu references tavern fare with its "Sokota" burger (several of which passed my table leaving a whiff of grilled meat in their wake), a sandwich of German sausages and a thick hanger steak with horseradish sauce.

Oltmans takes a more inspired approach to the appetizers, keeping pairings simple, so flavors emerge with clarity. In a statement on his Web site, he claims to avoid "meaningless flourish," a goal I appreciate: I can live without seeing another checkerboard made of sauce or dessert plate rimmed with powdered sugar.

There are a few fine ways to begin the meal, and, oddly, a few amateurish thuds along the way that are surprising coming from a chef who has cooked in Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern, CT Restaurant and Tabla.

A chowder made with fresh corn and butternut squash is as smooth as cream. The corn’s kernels add a welcome bit of crunch to the works, while a ribbon of roasted habanero pepper oil, swirled into creme fraiche and drizzled over the soup, lends heat as well as a welcome bacon-like note.

One of his most popular dishes is an unctuous chicken liver "schmeer." He serves the rich spread smoothed heavily over crisp slices of Italian bread. It’s delicious just as it is, less so with a cold peach and currant chutney. Warming the fruit slightly would bring forth its savory spices, making it a less jarring companion to the liver.

Every element in Oltmans’s salmon tartare works. The raw fish is cut in cubes that are not too fine, so there is a pleasing texture to each mouthful. Crisp jicama (a root vegetable with a nutty, sweet taste) adds crunch, while creme fraiche brightened with lime lightens the dish.

After such satisfying beginnings, the entrees I tried were disappointing. A roasted pork breast is served two ways: sliced and rolled around figs and almonds, and pulled into shreds and heaped over bacon-studded Swiss chard. Both versions need more moisture. The torn pieces are too salty, and the almonds do nothing for the dish. I’m all for unconstructed plating, too, if the ingredients are attractive. This entree is all tones of beige in appearance, and, in a way, flavor.

White wine, garlic, ginger, shallots and parsley should blend into an ambrosial sauce for mussels. Instead, the creamy mixture lacks brininess and the garlic barely registers. With the shellfish comes a cone of "tempura green beans," a riff on Belgium mussels and frites. It’s a cute idea, but the over-salted, doughy coating on the beans is a far cry from the lacy cloak of tempura.

Pastry chef Sashi Ohbi (formerly of Nicole’s in Manhattan) shares Oltmans’s American-with-a-twist sensibility.

One of her desserts charmed me. Ohbi employs ginger to underscore the sweetness of peaches and adds heat to the whipped cream that fills a tender shortbread biscuit. Pieces of the crystallized root scattered over the top are pleasantly chewy. Digging into the crisp shortbread and its creamy center was bittersweet. I was reminded of the pleasure of the season’s produce and how soon that opulence will pass.

Once Jack the Horse Tavern tightens the reins in the kitchen, it’ll be a winner in the neighborhood.

 

Jack the Horse Tavern (66 Hicks St. at Cranberry Street in Brooklyn Heights) accepts American Express, Diners Club, Discover, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $12-$21. The restaurant serves dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sundays. For reservations call (718) 852-5084.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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