Archives: February 2008
New Hampshire BBQ: MoJo's Review
The site's 134th review is for the month-old MoJo's BBQ Shack (Portsmouth NH). See the review via the Reviews page or link to reviews using the red icons in the Joints directory.
More Thoughts On the Rib Invitational
After the Second Annual Inman Square Rib Invitational at East Coast Grill concluded, I asked winner Geoff Janowski of Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Que (W. Newton MA and Arlington MA) whether he was disappointed that there was no trophy to commemorate the victory. "I already have a trophy," he said. "I call her my wife!"
One of the highlights of the event, at least for our table, was the small jar of "Kipper Snacks" supplied by Blue Ribbon to go on toasted French bread. The smoked herring appetizer was tossed with vinegar, shallots and parsley, offering a nice mix of fishy, smoky and salty. It's a natural pairing for white wine. I'll be having some more of it on Friday night.
It's only been out a few days, but I already picked up a copy of Chris Schlesinger's latest book, "Grill It!" I was going to get it anyway (I own 7 out of his previous 8 books), but I figured I'd get one autographed at the Rib Invitational. It's the most image-friendly of Schlesinger's cookbooks, with photos on almost every page. As usual, there are chapters on basic fire tending techniques and on smoked dishes, but the primary emphasis is grilling with an international flair.
Boston BBQ: Blue Ribbon Wins Rib Invitational
Chris Schlesinger (left) of East Coast
Grill and Geoff Janowski of Blue Ribbon.
Last night I met three friends at East Coast Grill (Cambridge MA) for the Second Annual Inman Square Rib Invitational. The event pitted East Coast Grill against Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Que (W. Newton MA and Arlington MA) and Highland Kitchen (Somerville MA).
I like events like this, because it's a chance to a wde variety of interesting flavors and some spectacle and pageantry to go along with the ribs. It's also a chance to get into a judging groove, with every customer filling out a scoresheet to determine the winner. At the end of the night, Blue Ribbon was the victor, claiming two out of three categories.
After some passed appetizers (wings, shrimp) and some kipper snacks on toast, the main event unfolded: three rounds, three restaurants, one rib per round. The first round was pork ribs, the second round was beef ribs and the third round was chef's choice. The judging was blind; each entry arrived on a different colored plate. At the end of the night, the identities were revealed along with the winner, although I have to confess that from my vantage point, I could see the plates each team was using. In the end, the people's choice agreed with mine for each round.
Wings to start.
Devil man George: not just for Hell Night.
Blue Ribbon rib from round 1.
East Coast Grill rib from round 2.
Blue Ribbon rib from round 3.
Highland Kitchen rib from round 3.
In round 1, my favorite was Blue Ribbon's rib with an orange clementine glaze. I liked the contrast of the well defined crist and tender meat beneath it, and even though I wound up with a "shiner" (rib with exposed bone), I thought it was the best rib of the night.
For round 2, I liked East Coast Grill's dinosaur beef bone, served over a concoction that I later learned was a mix of house barbecue sauce, Inner Beauty hot sauce and pulverized mango.
For the "open" category in round 3, Blue Ribbon's babyback rib was another nod to citrus, with liberal use of lemon zest over the tomato-based sauce. Highland Kitchen submitted sesame crusted spares over a tropical salsa that had watermellon, pineapple and sweet potato. East Coast Grill served the lamb ribs tat are currently on their specials menu, a simple preparation that had a little sweetness at the end.
Boston BBQ: Rib Invitational at ECG
Tonight I'll be judging ribs at the Second Annual Inman Square Rib Invitational at the East Coast Grill in Cambridge MA. But so will everyone else. It's a special event, where the home team competes against longtime favorite Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Que (W. Newton MA) and new kid on the block Highland Kitchen (Somerville MA). Everyone gets three ribs from each restaurant and votes for the winner. Sorry, this event is sold out.
Normally, Mondays are when I rattle off what barbecue I had over the previous weekend, but with two crawls earlier in the week and the rib event tonight, I took a breather. I did do a little advance scouting on Highland Kitchen, a new gastropub owned by Mark Romano. He previously worked at East Coast Grill and was the chef at Green Street Grill in Cambridge before it was sold recently. There are no ribs on the menu, although they do have a pulled pork sandwich.
I'm hoping I taste something exceptionally good tonight.
New Hampshire BBQ: A Portsmouth Mini Crawl
Filled but unfulfilled last Wednesday in Connecticut, I headed north on Thursday to meet a friend and barbecue competitor for a trip to New Hampshire. The goal was to get a first take of the month-old MoJo's BBQ Shack.
With no website and not a lot of advance scouting on the joint itself, we didn't know what to expect. Connected to a service station, MoJo's has over-the-counter ordering, a few high-top tables with stools and more stools at the bar counter (think Blue Ribbon or Daisy May's). I'll get to the food in my upcoming review (probably later this week), but the joint's raison d'etre is barbecue sauce. They apply it with gusto on all of the meats and they sell it by the bottle. MoJo's also now has beer and wine, but we saved that for the next stop.
We moved on to Muddy River Smokehouse, located just a half mile down the road (although the name changes from Islington Street to Congress Street when you cross Route 1). Muddy River is a practitioner of what I call "tourist barbecue," meaning it services the mainstream public more than the hardcore barbecue afficionado. That's not necessarily a crime; within their chosen realm I think they do a decent enough job. But we passed on the barbecue offerings, opting instead for some fried pickles and wings to accompany several glasses of Dogfish 60 IPA. I think it was good choice all around.
Connecticut BBQ: Southington/Waterbury Crawl
Last Wednesday I drove to central Connecticut, hoping to "complete the cycle" for the four Southington joints. I already have reviews posted for Hen House and Smokin' With Chris, so the goal was to hit Brannigan's and Pig Out BBQ.
We arrived at Brannigan's at around 1:00PM, and except for a snow plow, the parking lot was completely empty. Not a good sign. We tried the door, which was locked. A sign on the door said, "Store closed until further notice. Sorry for the inconvenience." This is the second time this has happened in the last year. I found them closed in early April and they re-opened in late May, but this time who knows? I've always been skeptical, but I was hoping to try the "Best Ribs in State." I'm guessing I already have.
Next up was Pig Out BBQ. I had been there once with my wife for a few drinks and appetizers before heading around the corner to Smokin' With Chris. But this time I had a friend along who could help me sample some barbecue items. We split a half rack of ribs, a pulled pork sandwich and a couple of sides. I should have a review posted in the next two weeks, but the short story is that there are a lot better and there are a lot worse.
Waterbury is just a little further west on I-84, so we stopped into the original Big Franks on Watertown Street (they have another branch now on Lakewood Road). This joint is a lot like the Tennessee's chain in Massachusetts. You order over the counter, they call your number when it's ready, the ribs are finished on the grill with sauce. The added attraction at Big Franks is the foot-long hotdogs and burger sliders. We split another half rack of ribs, with some tasty Cajun fries and bland cole slaw. It was far from barbecue nirvana, but it was a step up from Tennessee's.
We stopped into the original Uncle Willie's on Chase Avenue for a pulled pork sandwich. This was the first item of the day that we knew was smoked. The sandwich was decent, but some day I'd love to time a visit to Uncle Willie's when the place is hopping and the 'cue is served super fresh. The cole slaw we added as a side was again outstanding. When I post a cole slaw list, Uncle Willie's is sure to be in my top three.
The last stop of the day was the Cookhouse Cafe in East Hartford, on theway back. My friend asked what to expect, and I said, "It could be absolutely anything. I've had some very good meals there and I've had some very disappointing meals there. It's really a crap shoot." We crapped out. The ribs were miniscule, the pork was dry as a bone and the brisket was tough and cold. I rarely eat potatoes, so I don't know, but my friend thought they were instant.
I've been on a bad streak lately.
Joints Directory Madness
Here's the latest batch of Joints directory activity, spanning three states. This time, there are two new joints, one second location and four into the dead pool.
Farmer Bar (Cutchogue NY) has closed, according to a report on Chowhound.
Ruthie's Bar-B-Q and Thin Crust Pizza (Montclair NJ) is the town's third BBQ joint, joining the Wood Pit and Indigo Smoke. The 'cue is not the highlight but isn't a forgotten sideline either. It's supposedly South Carolina style. Thanks to Robert for the lead. www.ruthiesbbq.com
Brannigans (Southington CT) has shut its doors for the second time within a year. It's uncertain whether the "Best Ribs In State" restaurant closing is temporary or permanent, but on Wednesday there was a sign on the door saying "Closed until further notice." Oh, and the phone is out of order.
Big Frank's BBQ Grill (Waterbury CT) has expanded into a second location, also in Waterbury, replacing the hot dog joint that operated under the same ownership. www.bigfranksbbq.com
Biscuit (Brooklyn NY) once again is no more. They closed their original location on Flatbush Avenue in early 2006 and a year after resurfacing on Fifth Avenue later that, they've closed there too.
Sparky's Texas BBQ (Farmingdale NY) has been open for a few months but recently changed their format to BBQ. Thanks to Vinny for the find.
Red Rock Roadhouse (NYC) has been closed for a few months. Admittedly, calling this place a BBQ joint was a stretch, but now it's moot.
I'll be posting over the weekend to provide a rundown of Wednesday's Connecticut crawl as well as yesterday's Portsmouth New Hampshire BBQ mini-crawl.
In the meantime, check out Robert Fernandez's review of the Brooklyn BBQ joint Fette Sau on his White Trash BBQ blog. His take on Fette Sau is completely different from mine. I wouldn't say I loved Fette Sau, but I did like it a lot, at least enough to put it at the back end of my NYC BBQ top 5 (though after the first 3, there's a sharp drop). He hated it. We even disagreed on the baked beans (he liked them, I didn't).
White Trash BBQ on Fette Sau
Pigtrip on Fette Sau
So who's right? Neither one of us. It's just opinion. If anything, we're both wrong, with the "real" Fette Sau better than his visit would indicate and not as good as on mine.
I'm still going back. Who's in?
Another Pet Peeve, Another Disappointment
I just returned from an afternoon BBQ crawl with an old friend. On our final pit stop of the day, we arrived at a joint a little after 4:00PM, finding it very quiet and nearly empty. We were almost full, so we decided to share a 3-meat sampler for $21.99.
It turned out that there's a $2 sharing charge. I normally don't mind when a restaurant does this, since at peak hours they're trying to fill the seats with paying customers, not people looking to eat on the cheap. I can respect that. But at $21.99, we were already laying more out for that platter than we would for a pair of pulled pork sandwiches. I've actually seen split plate charges of $8 or so at high end restaurants. I can respect that too if it involves preparing two separate salad plates or splitting a steak and still managing to decorate the plate in an appealing manner. But our combo was already ready to share; there was no extra work involved. And there certainly was no extra food—we received three ribs, but adding another to make an even number would have been nice. I've had that combo in the past when it had six ribs.
I could overlook all of this if the food had been good. It wasn't. The ribs were miniscule, the pork was dry as a bone and the brisket was tough and cold. I'm amazed that they could serve this with a straight face. I've been on a bad streak lately.
NYC BBQ: Daisy May's Adds Beer, Wine
It seems like all of the New York City BBQ joint websites are getting makeovers lately. First it was RUB, with its slick graphics, full menu, background on Paul Kirk and streaming videos. Then it was Southern Hospitality, with background on its new executive chef Ray Lampe (Dr. BBQ) as well as streaming video of its own.
Now it's Daisy May's, whose recent update revealed its current streetcart location (50th Street between 6th and 7th), added another video and announced the addition of beer and wine. Current brew offerings include Sam Adams, Corona and Coors Light.
Visual Imagery 101: The All Bran Challenge
I'm working on this Presidents Day, but since many have the day off, let's keep things in weekend mode. If you're like most people who eat a lot of barbecue, you're already "regular." But if you want to become even more regular—or if you just want a good chuckle from the not-so-subtle imagery in this classic All Bran commercial—check out this video.
Brooklyn BBQ: The Smoke Joint Review
The site's 133rd review ("hundred and toity-toid," as my Brooklyn-born grandfather would say) is Brooklyn's The Smoke Joint. See the review via the Reviews page or link to reviews using the red icons in the Joints directory.
Events: Pioneer Chili Cook Off in Sturbridge
Most BBQ fans I know love a good bowl of chili, and there'll be plenty of chili at the Pioneer Chili Cookoff, sponsored by Pioneer Brewing Company, in Sturbridge MA. Among the contestants is BT's Smokehouse (Brimfield MA).
Joints Directory Madness
Here's the latest batch of Joints directory activity, spanning three states. This time there's one new joint, one into the dead pool, one that shut down its restaurant and replaced it with a BBQ truck, and one clarification from a restaurant owner on a branch closing.
MoJo's BBQ Shack (Portsmouth NH) just opened up a few weeks ago, not too far from Muddy River Smokehouse. I'm hoping to visit sometime in the next few weeks.
Smokin' Hippo (Erving MA) has now closed, with a farewell message on their website. Thanks to Jeffrey for the info. www.thesmokinhippo.com
Well Dressed Hog (Dover NH) has closed its restaurant but is still operational, now serving 'cue out of a mobile BBQ truck in Rochester NH. Thanks to Tara for the tip. www.welldressedhog.com
Now for the clarification. Eldorado Southern Bar & Grill owner James DiVilio has assured me that the Centereach NY location did not "close down" but has been "sold to Buffalo Wild Wings because they made me an offer I couldn't refuse. My Port Jeff Station roadhouse is busier than ever and the Eldorado brand is still the dominant force on the north shore of Suffolk County." www.eldoradobbq.com www.buffalowildwings.com
Boston BBQ: Village Smokehouse to Expand to Lowell in April
According to the Lowell Sun's Gourmet Gal, the Village Smokehouse (Brookline MA) will be opening a 12,000 square foot second location in downtown Lowell in April. And that square footage is just the first floor.
read the post on Gourmet Gal
NYC BBQ: Dr. BBQ Joins Southern Hospitality
This has been in the works for a while. Ray Lampe, most famous for his success on the competition circuit and his popular Dr. BBQ cookbooks, is now the executive chef at Justin Timberlake's Manhattan BBQ eatery Southern Hospitality.
The curious thing about this major personnel change is that it was announced—if that's what you want to call it—so quietly. I'd heard rumblings as early as December, but I hadn't seen anything in writing until a grilling article by Lampe in the February 4 issue of People Magazine credited the author as Southern Hospitality's execitive chef.
Maybe getting scooped by People is the reason there's been nary a mention of Lampe's joining Southern Hospitality on restaurant sites like Grub Street and Eater. Back in June, a Grub Street reporter didn't get her way at the Southern Hospitality's opening night party, while reporters from People got first class treatment and access. There was some grumbling (read: whining) soon after, so maybe the only Southern Hospitality news you'll hear from those camps is bad news. Just yesterday Eater ran a piece on the imminent fall of another Timberlake restaurant.
It wasn't until a few days ago that the Southern Hospitality website itself mentioned Lampe. The understated redesign no longer features "Sexy Back" as background music. Maybe it's a sign that they're ready to focus on the food and are now trying to succeed on the merit of the restaurant rather than the celebrity of the owner. That's a good thing. But if Southern Hospitality was a chick magnet before Ray Lampe came aboard, I can only imagine what it'll be like now.
Weekend Wrap-up: Some Boston BBQ
It was just a few days ago that I ended a fairly long BBQ drought. After returning from Brooklyn two weeks ago, I went 10 days without a BBQ restaurant visit, opting instead for homemade BBQ on Super Sunday. It was a nice little stretch of healthier eating and a return to some other restaurants I enjoy, such as Michael Schlow's Italian small plates restaurant Alta Strada (Wellesley MA); the BYOB-friendly Italian eatery Sweet Basil (Needham MA) and my current favorite Chinese restauant Sichuan Gourmet (Framingham MA). The BBQ fast ended Thursday night at Jake's Dixie Roadhouse (Waltham MA), where my wife and I shared chili, shrimp and a "Bubba" platter.
Last night we visited SoulFire (Allston MA), where they've added a large flat screen projection TV and some new items to the menu: fried chicken wings (they already had a fried chicken platter) and a BBQ Reuben (I'll try that next time). The new fried chicken wings were lightly breaded, heavily flavored treats that had as much oomph inside as out. The meaty spare ribs were extra juicy, the thinly sliced brisket moist and pliable, and the beans were a little smokier, reminding me of the ones I enjoy at RUB in NYC. It seems like every item on the menu—sauces included—is being tweaked to improve either the flavor or the restaurant's ability to serve it at optimal freshness. I said early on that one day SoulFire would eventually nudge its way onto that short list of names that get rattled off when you think Boston BBQ. If last night's meal is any indication, they're in that group now.
Brooklyn BBQ: Fette Sau Review
Well, it took one year, six months and eight days, but I finally posted a review for a Brooklyn BBQ joint. Today you can read my review of Fette Sau, the 132nd review overall. See the review via the Reviews page or link to reviews using the red icons in the Joints directory.
I still want to revisit Fette Sau to sample more of their menu, so I'm guessing this is one review that will get an update fairly soon.
Cholesterol Check: Thumbs Up!
Last week I had my annual checkup, and aside from my weight, all of the numbers are good. My cholesterol reading was 173. Can you freakin' believe it? I know it's not a fluke, because it was 175 last time. Whether it's genes, physical activity, good eating habits on my non-BBQ days or just plain luck, I'll take it.
Tomorrow: My review of Fette Sau in Brooklyn.
Joints Directory Madness
Once again it's time for a directory update. Unfortunately, these updates are happening more frequently because joints are closing. Here's the latest batch of Joints directory activity, spanning three states. This time, there are two new joints, one into the dead pool and one that's no longer going to be BBQ.
Little Mark's Big BBQ (Vernon Rockville CT) has closed their Avon branch. Thanks to Ted for the info. www.littlemarksbbq.com
Finkerman's Riverside BBQ (Montpelier VT) will serve its last BBQ meal on Sunday, February 17. After that, it will become Ariel's Riverside Cafe, operating under the same ownership. They also own the fine dining restaurant Ariel's in Brookfield VT). Thanks to Marty for the lead and to owner Richard Fink for confirming. www.finkermans.com www.arielsrestaurant.com
Beefside (Concord NH) is one of those joints that's been around for 30 years, but I hadn't heard of it until now. According to some online reports I've read, the specialty is roast beef; barbecue appears to be only a sideline. Thanks to Lowell for the info.
Hickory Smokehouse (Killington VT) is a BBQ joint that operates out of a converted caboose next to the Back Behind Family Restaurant. Now that we're in the midst of ski season, this joint seems ripe for a visit. Thanks again to Lowell for the find. www.backbehind.com
Photos From Sunday's Chicken Cook
I made a few adjustments for this smoking session, replacing the external thermometer on my Big Green Egg and using a new dual remote temperature gauge that reports meat temperature and smoker temperature on the same device. But the biggest adjustment was simply switching back to bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (the last batch had no skin, no bone, no juiciness). I decided not to inject them, instead trying an assortment of "skin management" techniques to get the marinade into the meat beneath the skin.
A batch without sauce.
A few with sauce.
A closer look at one sauced thigh.
Pink meat under the skin.
The marinade, rub and sauce were basically the same as last time, with just a few adjustments to the spice and sugar levels in the rub and the citrus level in the sauce.
The meat was juicy and the skin was slightly crisp (transfer to a hotter grill for a few minutes would help get it even crisper). The thin pineapple glaze had enough other flavors going on that it would not be out of place at the judges' table. I'm not ready to say that I'm a world beater yet, but I was pleased enough with the overall results to think this chicken would at least have a fighting chance at the judges' table.
Next time, I'm going to work on the details, like getting the rub a little finer, getting the skin a little crisper and doing a better trimming job to make each thigh as aesthetically pleasing as possible.
So much for perfect.
O Say Can You See?
Some time around 6:00PM tonight, before the Super Bowl kicks off, more Americans will hear those words collectively than ever before. Today I'm wondering how many restaurant owners and managers take that phrase to heart in their everyday running of the business.
One of the great things about going to RUB in New York City, besides the food, is watching owner Andrew Fischel in action. I usually sit at the bar and chew the fat with him while I eat. Although I'd like to think he's fully absorbed in our sparking conversation, I know better, and I wouldn't have it any other way. That's because his eyes are on every plate in the dining room in front of him, verifying that there are no problems and looking to anticipate problems before they happen. Pacing behind the bar like a caged tiger, Fischel pounces on the servers as they emerge from the kitchen, checking every plate for proper meat doneness and proper presentation before they can be brought to the table. In this era when restaurant managers and owners are all too quick to ask how everything was at the end of the meal, it's refreshing to see someone who takes a proactive approach during the meal.
Ask yourself how often your restaurant manager is seeing and acting on the following:
Whether the meat is cooked properly. I've had ribs that were over-charred, I've had ribs that were frightfully pale and I've had brisket that was embarrasingly dry and looked it, all plainly visible to management. I've even had a manager himself run a plate of woefully undercooked chicken wings to the table. How could he have not noticed that they weren't cooked?
Whether the portions are consistent. Ray and Robert Barone aren't the only ones who are envious if the other gets a bigger portion. It's human nature. I've been at restaurants where a person at the table next to me ordered the exact same ribs I did, but his were literally twice as thick. I recognize that dealing with the meat supplier is a challenge unto itself, but making sure everyone gets the same portion avoids discontent. I know one restaurant that switched from racks and half racks to ribs by the pound because customer complained about bigger portions at the next table. But getting the sides portions right should be a slam dunk. Do you really want to risk losing a customer over 10 cents worth of mashed potatoes?
When the lettuce on the salad is brown. Or for that matter, when the peppers are slimy and moldy. Or when the tomatoes aren't ripe. Or when there are tomato or cucumber stems in the miscut pieces. I've received too many salads that were guilty of all of the above. You'd think someone in the kitchen would do a spot check before bad vegetables even made it to the plate.
When a customer sends food back. This can be a simple mixup of the wrong sides being put on the plate, or it can be that the food was awful. I've been in too many restaurants where food has been sent back while the management is oblivious, watching TV at the bar or yukking it up with the help at the hostess stand. If I owned a restaurant and I saw something being sent back, I'd want to know why and I'd make sure whoever sent it back got taken care of.
When a customer isn't eating his food. Sometimes customers who aren't happy with the food don't send it back. Sometimes it's out of fear that they'll get more than just a new plate of food. Or they just don't want to make a fuss. A little recognition and reaction can convert a one-time dissatisfied customer into a regular customer, but too often it just goes unnoticed.
When a customer is waiting for something. Eating out isn't cheap, so when you do, you want to enjoy the experience as well as the food. If my hot chicken appetizer arrives before my wife's salad, I can't really enjoy it, knowing she's waiting. And by the time the salad finally arrives, it may be too late to enjoy it. Maybe we both received our appetizers, but I have no spoon to eat my chili and our server is out back grabbing a smoke. Or maybe we're waiting 15 minutes just to place our order, while watching our server help another server sing Happy Birthday to another table (this happened just the other night). Good restaurant managers know how to recognize when somebody needs something. Great managers have that ability and put it into action throughout the shift.
The Rest Room Image of the Week #6
Mercifully, this photo is the last in the rest room series. It's from the men's room at the Smoke Joint (Brooklyn NY), where the fact that the rest rooms doors slide rather than swing open seems to be a big deal among those who've reviewed the joint on www.menupages.com.
Super Bowl Thoughts
Just a few days to go until the big game. Here's what's on my mind:
I'm rooting for the Patriots and expect them to win, but would be surprised if it were a blowout. I'd be very happy with a Patriots blowout, however.
The Giants are on a roll now, more so than the Patriots. Yes, the Patriots have a "perfect" 18-0 record so far, but they've made too many mistakes lately to be called perfect. It's a lot like some of my favorite BBQ joints: they're my favorites, and they're the best, but perfect? No.
Tom Brady is already one of the greatest quarterbacks who ever played the game, but a win on Sunday would place him in that best-of-the-best category. There are quarterbacks who are known for gaudy stats (Marino, Manning) and there are quarterbacks who are known for winning (Bradshaw, Montana), but Brady has the potential to establish himself as that rare QB with both attributes in spades.
If you could be Tom Brady for one day, either on or off the field, but not both, which would you pick?
Ordinarily, I'd be going through my Super Bowl snack menu for the sixth or seventh time by now, looking for holes to plug in the line-up, but I'm just not into it this year. I might smoke some chicken thighs, but other than that, I'm going to just take it easy on the barbecue this weekend.
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