From Passionate Amateur to Smoothly Professional: Smoked BBQ

From Passionate Amateur to Smoothly Professional: Smoked BBQ

Just a few days ago I wrote about some incredible, authentic Texas bbq we were lucky enough to stuff ourselves with. Who’da thunk I’d have a second barbecue experience to share with you in the same week? As it happens, the other night S and I went to Smoked, a new spot in the East Village that does some fairly traditional ‘cue, but with a decidedly upscale and ambitious twist.

Simply by walking in the door, you know you’re not at the old Brother’s BBQ (and I do mean the old one, in that funky wedge-shaped spot on 7th Avenue South, where everything was slightly ramshackle and the food came in plastic baskets). Dark lighting, sexy curved booths, and a glowing bar with an astonishing selection of bourbons. Vintage license plates—a cliché adorning the walls of bbq joints all over the country—had been transformed into a sleek patchwork framing the big side windows. Giant lightboxes of artsy photographs (a charred fish, a flaming grill) lined the facing wall. Yeah, this wasn’t exactly a down-and-dirty joint. On the other hand, it smelled incredible.

Soon after we were seated, a server brought over a small wooden bowl with house-made, wonderfully crisp pickle spears, and I knew we were in good hands. I loves me some homemade pickles. S hates pickles in general—one of his few food dislikes—and you know what that means: more for me. We placed our drinks orders and debated what to eat. The menu was fairly limited (we were there for a private event) so I couldn’t get the thing I was most curious about, the hickory-plank sea bass, but there was still plenty to choose from. To begin, we decided on the grilled lamb sausage, served with “tomato, mango, lime chutney, hint of mint” and the Louisiana sweet potato ravioli. Entrees posed a trickier decision: Should we have the baby back ribs or the boneless beef short ribs? Since we just had pork a few days before, we opted for the beef, and barbecued chicken in a nod to virtue. We’d been told not to miss the cornbread, so we ordered a side of that as well as the kettle-baked beans, and sat back to wait.

The wait wasn’t long—we’d barely had a chance to sample our drinks (Lynchburg Lemonade for him, which was lemonade and bourbon with some other twists thrown in—sorry but I can’t recall the exact ingredients—and Paris, Texas, for me, a champagne cocktail with bourbon and blackberry brandy) when our apps arrived. Both were pretty killer, and served on vaguely Asian, rectangular plates, yet another signal that this wasn’t a backyard wienie roast. The lamb sausage was three smallish pucks of meat, charred nearly black on the outside but a lovely shade of pink on the inside, intensely flavorful and wonderfully spiced. S commented that it was un-sausagey in a good way, which turned out to mean it didn’t have any fennel in it (he’s Italian, can you tell?). The “tomato, mango, lime chutney, hint of mint” part was a little lacking, though—while I saw what looked like a mango salsa on the plate, I didn’t spy (or taste) tomato or any sign of chutney. Shrug. It was scrumptious, so who really cares? As for the Louisiana sweet potato ravioli, well it wasn’t like anything I ate in New Orleans, but that didn’t keep us from eating every scrap. Translucent sheets of delicate pasta encased a rust-colored, sweet-but-not-too-sweet puree of potatoes. Drizzled over the plate was an herby butter sauce which I didn’t love, but it didn’t bother me, either. The little pillows of pasta were so good that unless they were doused in gasoline I doubt I would have stopped eating them. It was a substantial portion, too—if we weren’t sharing, I think it would have been enough for an entrée.

And speaking of entrees, they came out shockingly fast, too. While we were still waxing rhapsodic over the starters, out came a big tray filled with food. The ribs were placed in front of S, the chicken delivered to me, and the sides crammed the center of the table in matching cast-iron serving pieces. Our waitress returned a few seconds later with a stainless steel basting brush and a long dish made up of three rectangular compartments. Each one housed a different house-made bbq sauce: South Carolina Hot, Texas Beer Braised, and Asian Sweet & Hot. Naturally we tasted all three, and in the end we agreed that South Carolina beat Texas and Asia, hands down.

Now, as for the food: the boneless short ribs are served looking nothing like ribs—they were sliced and fanned around a molded cake of pink-tinged potato salad. It was a lovely plate, and did that beef taste good. I often wondered how people could say that meat melted in their mouths, but I wonder no more. This stuff melted. At S’s urging I tried the potato salad. I’m not a big fan of potato salad in general, but I must admit it was pretty good. S thought it was fantastic, and polished off the whole thing. As for my chicken, it too was served in a slightly unusual fashion, three separate pieces artfully arranged on a stark white rectangular plate. No garnish, no sides, just gloriously charred pieces of poultry. As much as it killed me to do it, I peeled back the skin (Weight Watchers, damn) and sauced the juicy, perfectly cooked breast. It had an alluring, slightly smoky flavor, and I ate every last morsel. S took the drumstick and thigh and attacked it similarly, while I picked apart the wing (I know, WW kiss of death for that, but I just couldn’t help myself. It was so gooooood). This was the kind of bbq chicken you want to pick up and eat with your hands, but somehow the stylishness of the setting kept fork and knife in use.

I could write many paragraphs about the cornbread. Golden brown and served in a shallow, square, cast-iron skillet, with a small side dish of butter, it was cut into four portions at the table by the server. I dabbed mine with some of the creamy yellow stuff (just a little, I swear) and watched it melt onto the crust. Mmmm. Before I ever took a bite, I knew this cornbread would be good. It sang to me. And then, and then, I tasted it. Sighed with pleasure. Decidedly corny, nearly sweet enough to be dessert (the menu says it’s maple butter, so perhaps that’s why), crunchy around the edges, crumbly-moist in the center, this was some of the best cornbread I’ve ever eaten. I’d go back just to have more.

You might think that after gorging on all this food, we’d have no room for sweets. You’d be wrong. There is always room for sweets, especially when the dessert menu has things like pecan pie with hazelnut ice cream and chocolate mud mousse cake… The pie was an individual tart, served warm, and it tasted like…pecan pie. Nothing reinvented there. But when was the last time you had a bad pecan pie? Just by its very existence, it’s a good thing. The mud mousse cake was more unusual, served as a parfait with layers of fresh raspberries, oreo cookie chunks, chocolate mousse, mud pie, and gobs of whipped cream on top. It was the definition of “sinful,” and thank god it had those slightly tart raspberries ‘cuz otherwise it would’ve been too sweet. We didn’t finish either dessert, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. It was simply impossible. This was the end of our barbecue journey, and the desire to unbutton our pants was overwhelming.

We managed to make it home fully clothed, but boy was it a relief to change into sweatpants. Something tells me it’ll be a while before we feast on barbecue again—backyard, down-home, or upscale.

Smoked is at the corner of 2nd Avenue and E. 6th Street in New York City.