For years, dining options on the Troy Hill hilltop were thin on the ground. Pretty much, there were a couple of convenience stores, and there was Billy’s, a decades-old neighborhood institution so old-school it still had a cigarette machine — the kind with pull-out knobs — near the front door.
Now, there is still just one restaurant on the hilltop, but although Scratch Food & Beverage is located in Billy’s old storefront, it did not so much replace Billy’s as evolve out of it. New owner Don Mahaney’s approach to change was gentle and inclusive; before he bought the restaurant, he spent time hanging out there, getting to know the clientele and considering how to bring the best of the old establishment’s past along into its future.
The result is refreshing. Mahaney has transformed the outdated space into an open and airy hangout, with books and games on wall-mounted wooden ladders, and a pinball machine; there is a piano on the bar side and big wooden tables made for group hanging out in the dining room. Barn-plank paneling, mismatched thrift-store furnishings, table-top terrariums and mason jars complete the rustic-chic decor.
The printed menu is a short list of appetizers, sandwiches and entrees, but the list of daily specials is almost its equal. Listen carefully, because part of the Scratch ethos is to take great care with every ingredient, such that a brief description hardly does justice.
For example, the special beet salad sounded good and was nothing short of brilliant. Beautifully plated, substantial chunks of firm beet were lightly coated in balsamic vinaigrette, arrayed in a crescent with tender greens, dabbed with just a bit of whipped goat cheese and topped with savory, crispy crumbles, almost like a streusel. The piece de resistance was a slow-cooked egg, poached sous vide style. Unlike a fried egg, which is its own greasy, guilty pleasure, this egg had a firm but moist white, garnished with pickled mustard seeds, still intact around a yolk that was delectably gooey, not quite runny, when released. The result was perfection: a salad worthy of the finest restaurants in the city.
Browned butter, a simple way to develop layered, intense flavor, was a recurring ingredient and fantastic in the halusky. This is a regular menu item, the recipe for which changes daily. We lucked out, because during our visit the noodle component was spätzle, the thick, hand-cut dumpling of central Europe. Scratch’s measured up to the Bamberg family recipe, and the shreds of cabbage were light, tender and crisp. If church-basement pans of mushy egg noodles and mushier cabbage have turned you off in the past, Scratch’s rendition might renew your appreciation for what halusky can be.
The Scratch burger is another item that changes daily. During our visit it included mushrooms, not a household favorite, so we stuck with a plain burger. It was straightforwardly beefy, without much in the way of juiciness or distinctive flavor, although the bun was great.
Beef stroganoff evoked Billy’s-era fine dining with a unique approach to the starch. In lieu of the more traditional buttered noodles were cylinders that looked a bit like short breadsticks, but were actually tender puffs of eclair-like pastry. They were laid out radially atop the bowl in which a rich, but not heavy, sauce held tender beef and, alas, a rather skimpy trio of undercooked carrots.
The “garbage plate,” on the other hand, was just what it sounds like, a mess of mac-and-cheese, home fries and a burger patty, festooned all over with cheddar and onions and a psychedelic spiral of sriracha and mustard. The all-over condiment application tended to obscure the particular character of the components, but the fries seemed good, while the mac-and-cheese seemed to lack much cheesy flavor of its own. We substituted a lentil-mushroom veggie burger for the all-beef patty; it was rather dry.
Catfish bites were coated in a barely-there breading, but packed plenty of buffalo punch. Topped with pickled leeks and dipped in sriracha ranch dressing, they were a fantastic riff on buffalo bites.
A sloppy joe was unusual, the sloppy sauce somehow being cooked into the crumbled meat, so that even a single morsel popped with that unmistakable flavor. It was a neat trick, the only flaw being that there was nothing to hold the meat together, so that this sloppy joe lived up to its name.
Yet messy sandwiches aside, we can’t think of any place that’s nailed the gastropub concept as successfully as Scratch.