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Blue Smoke is the barbecue wing of Danny Meyer's restaurant empire that includes Union Square Café, Grammercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park. A partner in the operation is three-time Memphis in May winner Mike Mills, who trained Blue Smoke pitmaster Kenny Callaghan. It was Blue Smoke that in 2002 kicked off the New York BBQ renaissance continuing with Daisy May's, Dinosaur and RUB.
Blue Smoke is pretty slick. Looking at the beautiful space with high ceilings, a second dining level overlooking a huge bar area and a large main dining room with greenhouse windows, you'd never know you were in the city. And you might also not notice that it's a barbecue joint—the only giveaways are the stack of wood deep into the dining room and a few classic black and white barbecue photographs that adorn the walls in frames.
This is a fun place equally suited to a date night or a boys' or girls' night out. In the basement below is Jazz Standard, where you can see live entertainment while enjoying the barbecue.
After not looking like a barbecue joint, Blue Smoke starts off the menu not reading like a barbecue joint, which is a good thing for a group where the 'cue isn't a unanimous decision. You'll find diverse options such as iced oysters, barbecued mussels, tuna tacos, crispy calamari, devilled eggs, shrimp corn dogs, house made potato chips, chipotle wings, cheddar wafers, pork ravioli and three different salads.
Barbecue platters with single boneless meats (brisket, pulled pork, chicken) are configured with sides; all ribs platters and combinations are served meat-only with sides a la carte. The ribs are available by full and half racks and assigned geographic regions: Texas salt and pepper beef ribs, Memphis babyback ribs, Kansas City spare ribs. There's also a rib sampler with all three and a "Rhapsody in 'Cue" platter that includes spares, pulled pork, chicken and sausage.
There's also fried chicken, a few seafood dishes, two steaks and standard and veggie burgers.
My several visits to Blue Smoke have typically been with one other person for a weekday or weekdend lunch, with two notable exceptions: one Saturday evening visit and one Sunday brunch with a party of six.
Pork belly: An appetizer affectionately known as "peanut butter and belly" was the most memorable dish of a 2009 brunch visit. It presents three chunky cubes of crispy pork belly gently lacquered with peanut sauce, served on toast, garnished with poblano jelly, topped with peanuts and served with a baby greens salad. It was a pleasant bite that combined many familiar flavors in a new way, and with the pleasing textural contrast of the crunchy exterior giving way to silky, porky richness that provided the flavor of fat without it being in your face.
Wings: Given that I'm a huge wings fan constantly on the lookout for smoked versions to add to my recurring BBQ Wings List, it was inevitable that I'd try the Blue Smoke's chipotle wing that have garnered recurring mentions on NYC-based wings lists. On my eighth visit I finally did, and enjoyed them very much. Slightly above average in both size and crispness, the wings ($10.50) arrived in a neat cannonball stack, each piece fully but lightly coated in a mahogany sauce. Even before first bite, I could see little speckles of rub through the sauce, and I'm guessing based on feel and taste that there's rub applied before and after cooking. That first bite was impressive, delivering a crisp surface and thrusting flavor from everywhere—the chicken, the rub, the sauce, possibly a brine and probably not smoke. The name of their game is balance: although the layers of flavor brought extreme intensity, the savory, sweet and heat were so intertwined that none of the elements went unchecked. I later learned from our server that the wings are fried, not smoked. That disqualifies them from my wings list, but it doesn't disqualify them from being very good.
Rib Sampler: On my first visit, I shared the Rib Sampler for two ($24 then), which at that time included two Texas salt and pepper beef ribs, three Kansas City spareribs and three St Louis ribs. I thought the beef ribs were the best, based on nice crispness and very good flavor in the meat. These weren't nearly as meaty as most beef ribs, so there wasn't the tender and juicy meat to counterbalance the crispy crust so close to the bone. On the plus side, they weren't as fatty as most beef ribs either, and the flavor was fantastic. The Kansas City ribs were much more meaty and very tender, but felt and tasted reheated, with a lot of sweet sauce as a cover up. Not much smoke, crust or flavor. The smaller St Louis ribs, with a mustard based sauce, were firmer but better tasting. Overall, the ribs were just OK. The rib sampler now has babybacks instead of the discontinued St Louis cut, and is now $19.95 for one and $36.95 for two.
Pulled pork sandwich: My first pulled pork sandwich ($11.50 now) had a good amount of pork in the grilled bun, along with a strong dose of sweet sauce (I prefer a vinegar sauce). The pork pieces varied in size, moistness and texture. Some bites were dry, some moist, and some extremely fatty. Overall, an OK sandwich: not great, not bad. The complimentary side of cole slaw was outstanding.
Spread a few years apart, a couple of follow-ups found the pulled pork improved each time, with the meat a little fresher, crispier, juicier and piggier. The only regression was the second sandwich's bun, which was so bready it dwarfed the meat.
When I ordered the most recent pulled pork sandwich, I asked for an extra plate for sharing, prompting our server to ask if we wanted it split. I assumed that meant a half sandwich each on two separate plates, but what arrived was a full mini sandwich on each plate, constructed using two buns, each trimmed around the edges to reduce the diameter. The piled-high pork had a light coating of the house (sweet and tangy mustard based) barbecue sauce. I liked that the sauce certainly gave the pork a boost, but really liked that the natural porkiness of the meat—not always a given, even with unsauced pulled pork—came through. Smoke was light but noticeable. The bun was fresh. Overall, a very respectable pulled pork sandwich with a more-than-respectable pile of crunchy, sesame-infused slaw.
Beef ribs: Historically, the back cut beef rib has been my favorite item at Blue Smoke. Not only has it never disappointed, but it's at least in the same league as the ones at Hill Country and Wildwood, and arguably the best of the three.
On a Sunday barbecue crawl that also included RUB and Hill Country, the beef ribs at Blue Smoke were the unexpected star of the day. It's no secret that of the three barbecue restaurants we visited, I slot Blue Smoke in the third position behind RUB and Hill Country, but I have nothing but praise and admiration for the beef rib we had at Blue Smoke that day.
The cut was both generous (a solid wall of meat as opposed to their previously sparse and bumpy nibbles) and lean, with none of the unwanted fat you sometimes see in a beef rib. The smoke ring was straight out of central casting. And most importantly, the beef ribs were very fresh tasting, with a nice outer crispness, no steaminess (their spares didn't avoid that sin) and a perfectly tender texture. The seasoning was quite aggressive, with more of a coarse black pepper component than I'd had at Blue Smoke previously. Although I prefer savory to sweet, I missed the hint of sweetness that I remember from previous Blue Smoke beef ribs, but I was quite impressed with what we were served at the unforgiving hour of 12:30PM.
My most recent sampling kept the streak going, with an appetizing bright red smoke ring, good crispness on the exterior, plenty of smoke and rub flavor from surface to bone and good moistness. Back to the flavor: this one had less salt in the rub than usual, a little less pepper than usual, more coriander and extremely little if any sugar. I remember the earliest versions having a salt-pepper-sugar harmony, then a transition to a sugarless pepper-happy rub, and now this one. I like all three, but I miss the salt. Regardless, this was a very satisfying beef rib that could be eaten with gusto, as there's no membrane or fat to interfere.
Babyback ribs: On a couple of visits (one day, one night) these were cooked to the perfect doneness, allowing a clean bite with a little snap. Surface crispness was dead-on one time and totally off the other time. Moistness was slight both times. Flavor? Well, I like the lightly sweetened mustardy kick of the "Original" (sweet mustardy) sauce when used as a dip, but something gets lost when it's cooked into the meat. So these had an odd flavor that just didn't do it for me. The meat beneath has been hammy, closer to ham hammy than rib hammy. So despite a good cut and a good smoking job, these babybacks let me down strictly on flavor.
Spare ribs: Appearance was fine on an evening visit thanks to a maroon crust, but lackluster on a day visit thanks to no crust. Moistness was more than fine both times, with the maroon version yielding a profusion of juices. Flavor, though less intense all around than the beef ribs, is generally fine too. On my most recent try, instead of the thick cut that gets even meatier at the rib tips, the spares were long, flat and thin, with much more fat and gristle throughout. Overall this was okay, but a dropoff from previous spares here and a bigger dropoff from the spares at Wildwood, which targets a similar demographic. I usually prefer sauce on the side, but the spares at Blue Smoke have generally been at their best—and darned good—when ordered with the sauce.
Sausage: Though seemingly far more Italian than barbecue, this one had a lot to like: crisped up skin, decent juiciness and a light coating of sweet Kansas City (molassesy) sauce that contrasted the heat of the meat nicely. So what's not to like? Volume. On the Rhapsody in Cue platter, you don't get a whole sausage. You don't get a half sausage, bisecting it halfway along the length or against the length. You don't even get a quarter sausage after both bisections. You get a subset of that, about the length of a Band-Aid with a semicircle cross-section. At least all the cutting had no adverse impact on moistness. Quantity and "authenticity" aside, I think I liked this sausage more than Wildwood's, though not as much as RUB's or Hill Country's.
Brisket: I was looking forward to my first tasting of Blue Smoke's brisket on a rare evening visit. We asked if our brisket portion could be divided evenly between the "lean" and the "marbled" choices, and the kitchen accommodated. The quantity was much more generous than the sausage (which may explain the lack of generosity with the sausage), supplying two lengthy slices from the flat and two separate chunks from the deckle. The slices had a prominent smoke ring, good tenderness, very good moisture, nice flavor with hints of sweetness mingling with the beef, with a tasty spice rub crust. The marbled brisket was more tender, with a melt-in-your-mouth texture and not too much fat. Its flavor beefwise was superior to the sliced but lacked the rub treatment that I enjoy more. Both were very competently prepared, very enjoyable and easily among the top third of brisket I've sampled across New England and New York.
Pork: A burger-sized pile on the Rhapsody in Cue platter was topped with a light coating of the Original sauce. Although the meat wasn't pink like I like, I liked this pork, which at first was intimidating due to the higher-than-expected fat content and overcooked ("pre-chewed" comes to mind) consistency. Eventually I acquired a taste for it, and the memory improved after a few days of reflection. The pork had that appealing "piggy" flavor (possibly from parts of the animal beyond the shoulder) that a pig-loving friend of mine seeks. Of all the meats I tried, the beef rib is the one I'd most like to have again based on excellence, but the pork is the one I'm most looking forward to revisiting periodically based on pure curiosity.
Chicken: A leg/thick quarter on the Rhapsody in Cue platter had extremely crisp skin, extremely tender meat, good moistness and a simple, straightforward chickeny flavor. As chicken goes, it was fantastic and beyond reproach. As barbecue goes, I just wish it had more of a barbecue flavor profile. Although clearly smoked, it didn't have a smoky flavor or much of a barbecuey rub.
Chicken and Waffles: Blue Smoke's chicken and waffles were the main reason for a group brunch visit, but
unfortunately most of us were grossly underwhelmed. The waffles were
decent, the syrup was ordinary, raspberry jam offered an alternative and
two pats of herbed butter per waffle added a very nice touch. But the
chicken itself—even though plenty moist—was undercrisped, underseasoned and undersized (a very small 1/4 bird), especially when overpriced at $17.95.
Burger: On my second visit, I tried the burger I’d heard so much about ($12.50 with fries; bacon and cheese $1 each). I ordered it medium rare and it was cooked exactly the way I like it, with the outside bordering on overdone (but not so) and the inside bordering on underdone (but not so). It was juicy, well-seasoned and made from high quality beef. Bacon on top was also perfectly cooked: crisp and still chewy. This is definitely one of the better burgers at a barbecue restaurant, and it's no wonder: the beef is supplied by Pat LaFrieda, who also supply Shake Shack, also owned by Danny Meyer. If I lived in New York, I might come here occasionally just for the burger.
The table has squeeze bottles of both the sweet and mustard sauces. Both sauces are very flavorful without tasting chemically, and both have the consistency I like, closer to maple syrup than ketchup. There's also a jar of "Magic Dust" spice mix that adds some rub flavor to the meats. This is best on pork but can be used on anything with good results.
Blue Smoke was the first barbecue restaurant I ever encountered that treated sides as a la carte items. That's limited my sampling over the years, so this area will be brief.
Collard greens: These were served in large pieces, perfectly cooked, with bacon flecks throughout. Nice, but fairly mild.
Fries: The burger accompaniment fries were thin, hot and very crisp.
Beans: A very tomatoey side of baked beans was pretty good, with a light smoky flavor and noticeable meat.
Service is extremely professional. It can be a little intimidating for some, but having someone who knows the menu inside out and checks back periodically is a nice thing.
The napkins are cloth and the wetnaps are soft and huge.
Pricing is a bit high, with the a la carte concept not helping matters. I'll leave it at that.
Blue Smoke has one of my favorite bathrooms in barbecue. The highlight is the communal sink just outside the two bathrooms.
The Bottom Line
In my original review of Blue Smoke I called it the Bert Blyleven of barbecue restaurants, likening it more to an all star than a hall-of-famer. I actually enjoy Blue Smoke and would probably go more often if it were my neighborhood's barbecue joint. But just like Bert Blyleven, Blue Smoke has some talented rivals that earn a little more attention. So while Blue Smoke doesn't crack my top 5 for New York City, they'd probably make my top 40 for New York and New England.
My 2006 review of Blue Smoke
Yelp reviews of Blue Smoke
Urbanspoon reviews of Blue Smoke
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