The burden of deciding between a savory or a sweet breakfast plagues a lot of people; both options have their appeal. My preference usually tends toward the savory—I’ll do a bodega egg and cheese drowning in hot sauce before doughnuts—but when it comes to brunch, I want both. Brunch is special; my brunch spread should have it all. Most of the time that means I have to order two items, or split a dish with friends. But what if you, by which I mean me, could get a savory and sweet brunch in a single course?
The exciting thing is: you can do that. Because there is something called a sourdough pancake, and you can get it just off a little cobblestone street, inside the quaint and tasty Vinegar Hill House.
I’d heard about this mythical breakfast item, though had never seen or tasted it. Then, recently, mention of it popped in front of my eyeballs somewhere on the Internet. And so I said to myself: I must have this at last. Surely, Brooklyn, food fetish centrale, would accommodate me. To my astonishment, googling “sourdough pancakes Brooklyn” populated one measly result. I called Vinegar Hill House to make sure that, indeed, I could still order myself this elusive pancake, and I was assured that yes, I could. So with my mother as my witness (in town visiting), we headed to Vinegar Hill to see about this savory sweet hot cake.
My idea of sourdough comes from my Grandma Rose, who would whip up weekly airy loaves with crunchy outer crusts. My cousins and I would inhale slices of it fresh out of the oven, slathered in butter. The Vinegar Hill House sourdough pancake was about like that except it was about the size of a baseball mitt and, in addition to a large pat of butter, it also dripped in Grade B Maple Syrup (preferred for its darker hue and richer maple taste); it also featured thin apple slices mixed into the batter. As it cooks, it rises high in cast iron pan, which gives it, as all sourdough worth its salt should have, an exceptionally defined, crunchy outer crust. Inside, the texture is astounding: both fluffier and more moist than your average sourdough bread, definitely, but also more so than a standard pancake. It was almost closer to the experience of a tart or clafouti, except not either one those exactly, either.
“Yes,” said Vinegar Hill House manager Meghan Lynch, when I sat in front of her and tried to assess it. “It’s hard to describe, it’s very unique to what we do here.”
Indeed, that is somewhat of an understatement. The Vinegar Hill House sourdough starter is not only the same continuous starter in use at the restaurant since it began serving brunch in April, 2009; it is, in fact, decades older than that. Owner Jean Adamson inherited it from a woman in Billings, Montana named Angela Sherry. “At this point, we think it’s sixty, or a little bit more than sixty years old,” Lynch told me. “Last I heard it was forty years old, but then I found out it was so many years older from whoever (Angela Sherry) had inherited it from.”
People say that sourdough starters, regardless of their origin, take on the quality of the air they live in; but regardless of what Vinegar Hill House’s starter has evolved into from its natural habitat in Montana, it continues to do a heck of a job. The fermentation process, says Lynch, takes three days. It begins nibbling away at sugars on Wednesday or Thursday; by the weekend, dozens of thick, fluffy, crunchy outer crust sourdough pancakes are ready to be plopped in front of salivating brunchers.
I asked if they ever run out of sourdough pancakes come brunch-time, but Lynch assured me they knew better than to let that happen. “We over-prepare because we just assume every table will get a pancake,” says Lynch. “Nine times out of ten you can count on that.”
Pro-tip: order your sourdough pancake with maple syrup on the side–they really do pour it on. To ensure you get the full tangy sour-sweet effect, just add it as desired. Either way, your full brunch demands will be met in one elegant dish. So thank you, Jean Adamson for keeping this starter alive and fermenting in Vinegar Hill.
Vinegar Hill House, 72 Hudson Avenue, Vinegar Hill