Review Date: 09/10/15
Visit Dates: 07/08/15, 08/05.15, 08/18/15, 08/26/15
First off, this isn't even a joint, much less a barbecue joint. But there are some items on the menu that cross over into barbecue territory and/or would have appeal to a barbecue fan, so I'm reviewing it.
Backroom is a 2015 expansion of Moody's Delicatessen into the space next door. Chef Joshua Smith had already received much acclaim for the charcuterie element at Moody's, so the Backroom (literally so, since you enter through Moody's) is a chance to feature that in more of a wine bar setting, along with cheeses, flatbreads, tapas style small bites and composed dishes.
Items of barbecue interest include smoked brisket, smoked chicken and a Dirty Southern flatbread with burnt ends and collard greens.
I hit Backroom twice with a wine loving friend (first and fourth visits) and twice solo at the bar.
Before you even order, you're treated to a sampling of the charcuterie, typically a form of salami that varies each night. You also get a bag of housemade crunchy snack food that I found less appealing.
This is the thing they do best and probably the best value. I didn't keep track of all the ones I tried, and I'm not going to claim any expertise in charcuterie. But I'm guessing I tried six or seven different ones, along with three cheeses, and there wasn't a clunker in the bunch. The selections and execution are just as good now as in the early days of the delicatessen, if not better.
There are spicy ones, sweet ones, hard ones and soft ones, with different ethnic origins represented. The charcuterie board includes varying accoutrements such as bread, pickled onions, pickled mushrooms, olive oils and
strawberry jam. Your server will be able to walk you through the selections and make recommendations. I recommend going for contrast above all else.
The Small Plates
Scallops: Wow, $18 gets you three small scallops (moist but not gushing) and some
nicely grilled asparagus and fennel. Should've been closer to about
half the price. Not interesting enough or cooked well enough to earn the premium.
Meatballs: They're called "never the same" meatballs because they're made with the butt ends of the deli meats as they become available, ground and cooked down until breathtakingly tender. The chef sent these out to us on the first visit, maybe because the scallops were tiny,
maybe because I was taking photos; who knows. These were very, very
good: tender, refreshingly and intensely smoky, gamey in a good way and topped with
shavings of cheese far superior to what you get at your typical red
sauce joint. While I love meatballs, I rarely order them as an
appetizer, so this turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. We ordered them officially ($15) on the fourth visit, and they were just as impressive even though the composition was different. I'll
be ordering them regularly in the future.
Bourbon Bathed Pork Belly: This yielded a 2-inch cube of well marbled pork ($14) whose maple lacquer was more prevalent than bourbon—which I actually appreciated. The root vegetables, on the other hand, more than made up for that with a very boozy saturated flavor. While not gushing juices, the pork did exhibit very nice moisture and a tenderness that allowed the knife to glide through, cutting thin slices off with very minimal effort. It's cooked at low temperature for days, then placed into the wood grill to crisp up the exterior a bit. The fat is certainly noticeable, but a representative bite gets you about twice as much meat. Very enjoyable.
Mussels: After hearing that Backroom's rendition ($16) was light on mussels and heavy on the grilled bread toppings (a waste when the point of the bread is dipping into the broth), I boldly ordered it anyway and I'm very glad I did. The first worry was for nought: there were about a dozen mussels included, most of them large and one that outsized the tablespoon. Sausage in this one was just okay, but I really liked the broth that combined flavors of the sea, the included meat and myriad herbs. Not too thick, not too thin and perfect for dipping, which brings me to the other worry: the grilled bread had a mustard aioli artfully drizzled over the surface, but that just added to the layers of flavor, dipped or undipped. And just for insurance, they offer even more bread (ungrilled) to dip even more. Just as the sandwiches in the deli are a mash-up of different ethnicities (the Katz is as Italian as it is Jewish), so are the mussels, which I see as a Portuguese-French-Italian hybrid. It's a flavorful and hearty dish that could be a meal unto itself, and would work even better in the winter, so I'm hoping it stays on the menu. So far, I think it's my favorite.
The Entrees and Flatbreads
Brisket: I'm not sure what to think. It looked like steak and felt a little like steak, served as four slices ($36), about a half inch thick, on a cutting board. Tenderness was very good without being the meltingly tender you get at BT's (Sturbridge), Hometown BBQ (Brooklyn) and other elite brisketeers. Perhaps because there's less fat, which for many would be a desired tradeoff. Each slice had plenty of fragrant smoke, ample spice rub on the crust and a light drizzle of chimichurri sauce to contrast the heaviness with brighter notes. An included bowl of broccoli gratin on the side was excellent, bringing just the right amount of crunch and more grill flavor.
Pastrami Flatbread: Made in a huge ceramic oven to the rear of the bar, this one ($15) echoes the familiar Reuben sandwich made with pastrami, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut. Here, there's a strong herbal flavor along with the sourness, but the crumbles of pastrami sing loudest. They're beefy, smoky and slightly spicy, but the interesting twist is a strong clovy flavor that makes it very different and makes me come back for more.
Smoked chicken: In the early days Backroom only offered whole birds at $42, which was not only a serious challenge in terms of dollars but a major commitment in terms of eating. As of my fourth visit, it was a half bird at $24, translating to a higher cost per bite, but leaving plenty of salary cap room to try other dishes. Presentation was a hit, with the chicken served in a pan, cut into separate dark and white quarters nestled in opposing beds of root vegetables and spaetzle. No, I don't expect every smoked item to be barbecue, and I don't attempt to compare it to barbecue, especially in a restaurant that never once uses the word barbecue. But I do look for crisp skin (this didn't have it), a well spiced skin (like Hammersley's; this didn't quite have it) and smoky flavor (this didn't have it). That said, the chicken was extremely tender, juicy even in the breast and very juicy in the dark meat. Flavor was pleasant, though not their usual compelling. I'd be lying if I said I've had more than a few renditions of spaetzle, but I don't remember any of them being as crispy as this. A balsamic reduction in a mini pitcher was a nice touch. Don't get me wrong, this was some tasty chicken, but I consider it one of the few disappointments here.
Dirty Southern Flatbread: OK, with this one ($16) we know they're trying to bring some barbecue appeal, as the cheese is the so-in-right-now pimento, the protein is smoked burnt ends of brisket and the vegetable is collard greens. The pimento cheese provided a rich foundation. Burnt ends mean diifferent things to different people; here they're the cubes of brisket deckle as opposed to the crumbly Sloppy Joe approach. Unlike the smoked chicken, these were very crispy, very smoky and slightly dry but manageable. Collard greens took a much different route from the expected and it worked: raw ior near-raw and cut chiffonade style into long, slender ribbons. Not to be overlooked: the wonderful flatbread dough with the wood oven grill flavors fully imparted. Overall, a success.
Frites: Very crispy but a little dry on my one try.
Confited potatoes: Slightly crispy and very dry on my one try.
Broccoli Gratin: More grilled flavor, combined with cheese to liven the perfectly cooked (still with a hint of crunch) vegetable. It's also used as a complement to the brisket, and I enjoyed the broccoli just as much.
The tables for two near the front windows are extremely close together, making your exit a challenge and private conversation an impossibility. Bar seats may be preferrable.
The wine list is deep and you'll need deep pockets, but there are some worthy affordable selections. Many are available by the glass. Only a handful of beers are offered.
Be prepared for some lengthy waits between courses and be prepared to have dishes within courses not necessarily arrive at the same time.
Parking is easy in the lot behind the buildings across the street, and free after 6:00PM. Factor that in and the extra couple bucks per dish over what you'd expect is a lot easier to swallow.
The Bottom Line
There are hits and there are misses, with the hits more frequent than the misses and the highs of greater magnitude than the lows.
I'm a fan, but the real question is how Backroom stacks up against others at the same price point. I think it all comes down to what you order: if you hit that great item (as I did with the mussels), it stacks up quite favorably; if you land a dud (as I did with the smoked chicken), not so much. For me, there's enough chance for greatness to keep going back with regularity. It's just not a weekly splurge.
Yelp reviews of Backroom
Zomato reviews of Backroom