Smoke and Mirrors

Photo: Kenneth Chen

As Danny Meyer must surely know by now, barbecue experts can be as touchy and discerning as vintners from Bordeaux. Their world is riven with different cults and denominations. They have endless debates over the merits of sauces, cuts of meat, and methods of cooking. They hone their palates at sacred establishments – like the Rendezvous in Memphis – which they invoke like favorite châteaux. In New York City, these deliberations can take on a wistful tone. Open-pit barbecuing is illegal in Manhattan, and Pearson’s, the one legitimate pit in Queens, recently moved, ignominiously, to the back of a local bar. The other options (Virgil’s, Brother’s, etc.) tend to be Disneyland facsimiles of the original, and are about as satisfying to the true barbecue hound as dining at a “New York–style deli,” in Lubbock, Texas.

Enter Mr. Meyer, whose eagerly awaited, abundantly hyped new barbecue joint, Blue Smoke, is an attempt to rectify this sorry situation once and for all. Meyer, who grew up in St. Louis, has imported all the latest high-tech barbecue gizmos to make his project work. The gas and apple-wood smokers were custom-built in Missouri and are attached to chimneys fifteen stories high. The rib recipes are mostly from St. Louis, and the resident barbecue consultant hails from Illinois. There’s a gleaming jukebox in the dining room, and a bar where you can order 30 varieties of bourbon. The room itself is decorated in a kind of hip workingman motif (industrial-light-fixture chandeliers, lots of exposed ductwork), which raised a few eyebrows among the expectant barbecue hounds at my table. “It’s pure hooey,” said one.

The menu reads like a somewhat random anthropological compendium of great American comfort foods. For New Yorkers, this isn’t such a bad thing; for barbecue hounds, it’s an ominous sign. Who ever heard of split-pea soup with your ribs? The pea soup (containing fresh croutons and savory ham hocks) was quite delicious, for the record, as were the deviled eggs, cut widthwise and stuffed with a smooth buttercup-yellow filling. I also enjoyed the beignet-style fry bread, which you can spread with jalapeño marmalade, and the two varieties of sausage links (hot beef and pork). But my iceberg-lettuce wedges weren’t inspiring, even when slathered with Roquefort-and-bacon dressing, and a promising-sounding concoction called Kenny’s Burnt Ends Chili tasted like something from the kitchen of a not-very-reputable sports bar.

By the time we’d worked our way through all this grub to the ribs, the barbecue hounds were growing peevish. Ms. North Carolina, whose favored château is called Wilber’s, in Wilson, N.C., declared that the baby backs weren’t as good “as what I get from my Chinese takeout.” In fact they were better than that, and the heftier St. Louis ribs were almost on par with the faux–Memphis dry rubs served at Virgil’s uptown. The brisket was tasteful but too dry, the pulled pork was richly meaty but lacked real smokehouse flavor, and, the time I sampled them, the “salt and pepper” Texas beef ribs had the texture (and taste) of old pastrami. For fancy Manhattan palates, there’s also a discombobulating but weirdly delicious rendition of smoked lamb shoulder. Among side dishes, the cole slaw, potato salad, and collard greens were superior, although the giant onion rings were chalky, with a dry, plasterboard quality. The grilled smoked salmon had a deliciously deep, almost maple taste, but when I tried passing it among some of the barbecue hounds, they politely demurred. “That might be a nice piece of fish,” said one, “but it has no place on this menu.” Maybe not in Tuscaloosa or Memphis, but in New York, anything goes.

Blue Smoke is actually most successful as a bar, in conjunction with the Jazz Standard nightclub downstairs. There are fine, rust-colored old-fashioneds available, and the mint juleps are properly treacly and sweet. The desserts are equally delicious, particularly the dense chocolate layer cake, which you can buy whole for the grand New York price of $62. Something called Sticky Toffee Pudding was infused with a delicate, gourmet gooeyness, and the banana cream pie had the kind of sugary, cheesecake-style crust you rarely see south of the Mason-Dixon line. But despite the best efforts of the good people at Blue Smoke, true, old-style barbecue remains elusive.

Blue Smoke 116 East 27th Street; (212-447-7733). Monday through Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., Sunday till 11 p.m. Appetizers, $4.50 to $12.50; entrées, $8.95 to $22.95. All major credit cards.

Smoke and Mirrors