Previous reviews: (05/06/06) (09/01/06) (04/21/08) (12/07/08) (11/08/09) (11/06/10) (01/29/11) (02/20/12)
This review: (12/28/14) (04/01/15) (04/19/15)
Blue Smoke is the barbecue wing of hospitality king Danny Meyer's restaurant empire that includes Union Square Café, Grammercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park. The original phase featured a multi-regional survey of barbecure that was the collaboration of three-time Memphis in May winner Mike Mills and chef-turned-pitmaster Kenny Callaghan. It was Blue Smoke's 2002 arrival that kicked off the New York BBQ renaissance continuing with Daisy May's, Dinosaur and RUB.
In 2014 Blue Smoke entered a new phase, as Executive Chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois took over the reins, infusing the menu with new life and new flavors from his native Louisiana. Blue Smoke today is as much a Southern restaurant as it is barbecue. Even the woods have changed: Blue Smoke now uses hickory, oak and maple. The smoker is an Ole Hickory.
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 of pitmasters 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.
While some online articles have claimed Blue Smoke is no longer a barbecue restaurant, the "From the Pit" section of the menu features seven barbecue options: spare ribs, babyback ribs, pulled pork shoulder, seven pepper rubbed brisket, pastrami rubbed shortrib, barbecue chicken and the "Rhapsody in Cue" combo with spares, pork, chicken and sausage. All are meat-only with sides available a la carte. Sausage is also available as an appetizer. A pulled pork sandwich is served at lunch and brunch. A brisket sandwich is served at lunch, replaced by a burnt ends and eggs sandwich at brunch. Smoked meats also make their way into the Louisiana-influenced "Pastalaya." Beyond barbecue, there's fried chicken and biscuits, a burger, wings, oysters, beef jerky, a few vegetarian dishes and a couple of salads.
For this review I made three visits to the new incarnation of Blue Smoke: a Sunday dinner with Young Bride, a Wednesday lunch with prolific NYC blogger Sachiko Nagata (Cutie Patroller) and a Sunday brunch with Young Bride (threatening a vegetarian blog) and Hungry Cousin (no blog; he just eats).
Sachiko is also a marketing coordinator for Tabelog, a website similar to Urbanspoon that's big in Japan and is just beginning to make inroads here in the US. It's very blogger friendly, so as I've done with Urbanspoon, I'll be posting mini reviews and links to my full reviews there.
Just being transparent: unbeknownst to me, the blogger I met on the lunch visit contacted Blue Smoke's executive chef on the way over. Although the meal wasn't comped, we did receive a tableside visit and a few extra side dishes to try. Not my preferred way of doing things, but sometimes things happen. I purposely delayed this review until I could get one more visit in under actual game conditions.
Wings: According to a server, the wings are the same now as prior to the 2014 menu change, so my previous tasting is still representative. 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 wings 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 (now $12) 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 brine, the rub, the sauce and the 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. The server on that visit said that the wings were fried, not smoked, but I recently learned that they are smoked. These are good enough to make my next Wings List now thatthey qualify.
Deviled Eggs: Pretty standard but pretty good. Or pretty good but pretty standard. Take your pick.
Madeleines: Tried on both the lunch and brunch visits, these are molded cornbread mini cakes in a Madeleine shape. Cooked to order, they're served warm, with a slightly crisp exterior and moist interior. Even more warmth comes from a dipping sauce made with Louisiana-sourced Steen's cane syrup and butter. I'd call these a must-try.
Oysters: This appetizer ($16) employs roasting rather than grilling or smoking, but the barbecue component is not missing entirely: garlic is smoked and put into the butter infused into these morsels. Panko breadcrumbs have some Parmesan to them and the lemon served with the oysters adds a refreshing citrus component. But the smoked garlic is the star of the show here, even with the arguable over-assertiveness of the Parmesan.
Biscuits: On the weekday lunch visits the chef added a pair of biscuits to the Rhapsody in Cue combo. Mine felt quite dense upon lifting, but to the bite was light—even while being very buttery—and very flaky. The texture and moistness from a glaze reminded me of a cheese Danish, only more savory. Flakes of salt on the top add another dimension entirely and a nice contrast to the sweet. A trio of biscuits ($8) at brunch duplicated the experience, this time with a ramekin of high octane berry preserves. I enjoyed these a lot.
Pork Spare Ribs: These ribs from the belly of the beast ($20 for five; $28 for two on the Rhapsody in Cue platter) are still lengthy and still voluminous but now have a thin glaze of shiny red barbece sauce covering the entirety of the meat, similar to a Chinese American takeout rib. Speckles of rub poke through and the glaze does not overpower the pork. The flavor on all three visits has been intense, melding pork, stronger smoke and more noticeable rub. Though tender each time, the meat clung to the bone on the night visit (slightly dry) and lunch visit (slightly moist). Surprisingly, it was the brunch visit that brought the freshest, most tender batch of all—the luscious meat released substantial juices and yielded fully to the bite without resorting to the dreaded "falling off the bone" tenderness. Whether that's because brunch was the most recent visit and they're improving, because pit selections at brunch aren't available 'til noon, because it was ordered as a quintet of ribs rather than a mixed meat platter, or simply due to the inherent randomness of barbecue, is not yet known. I hope to have an answer a year from now, but I suspect all of the above.
Pulled Pork: For the most part, New York City's best barbecue joints have made their name on the strength of their brisket while the pulled pork sandwich is practically an afterthought. Blue Smoke's pulled pork is taken seriously and is one of the city's better examples. The meat is highly seasoned, very porky, smokier under the new regime and as soft as can be without being mushy. Beneath the light dressing with smoked vinegar, the true moistness of the pork is the only variant: fully moist to the point of juicy on the dinner visit, moderately moist on the lunch visit and only slightly moist at brunch. The high end bun for the pulled pork sandwich ($14, lunch and brunch only) is toasted without butter and somewhat imposing.
Brisket Sandwich: Ordered on the lunch visit to complement a Rhapsody in Cue combo (it's the only major meat left off), this sandwich ($14) arrived in a fresh roll looking far more highbrow than the store-bought variety, cut in half for easy sharing. The brisket itself, ordered "marbled"—you can choose lean, marbled (more fat) or mixed—was dark brown, with good crust, piled fairly high. The meat was nominally moist, though in fairness, I should say that the table conversation delayed the first bite to an extent that the juiciness was probably compromised through no fault of the restaurant. Flavor, not similarly impacted, was decidedly beefy, with the light char from the crust a key player in the mix, which included light smoke and lighter rub. Overall, the brisket was solid—while it's certainly not going to crack my NYC top three, it's possibly in that next tier and easily among the upper third for the region as a whole.
Burnt Ends and Eggs Sandwich: A brunch-only item served as a hold-me-over until the pit items were ready, but it comes from the pit as well: glazed, double smoked cubes of brisket deckle made specifically for this sandwich. The surfaces were extra crispy; the sweetness from the sauce made it taste more like pork. A bit dry but still tender, and tasty even with a lighter dose of smoke. Oh, and there are scrambled eggs in there too. I hear this sandwich is occasionally offered as a special on Mondays.
Beef Ribs: Historically, the back cut beef rib had been my favorite item at Blue Smoke and one of the best examples of this cut anywhere in the region. Sadly, these were a menu casualty about two years before Chef Bourgeois took over. As many a barbecue restaurateur will tell you, they're just too challenging to source.
Sausage: Three visits, three different sausage configurations. The night visit's beef sausage on the Rhapsody in Cue platter disappointed: sliced in half like a banana and sliced in half again, it was as skimpy as it was waxy. Andouille sausage on the lunch visit's Rhapsody featured thick slices with large chunks of pork. This was more moist, more smoky and more porky. The brunch visit's maple sausage is a patty similar to the rolled sausage "fatty" popular among backyard barbecuers and competitors. It had light smoke in the meat, complementary sweetness in the maple puddle below it and a delayed heat (like 20 seconds after biting) that kept things interesting.
Chicken: A leg/thick quarter on the Rhapsody in Cue platter had borderline crisp skin, good moistness and a chickeny flavor on both the night and lunch visits. Tenderness excelled at night and came a little firmer at lunch. The smoke profile is more noticeable now than in years past, as hickory is one of the woods of choice. Rub, too, gets a little more attention. It's an interesting mix that's not your usual barbecue profile, so its assertiveness in concert with the other components creates a welcome layering effect of flavor.
Bacon: Available at brunch as a side order ($5 small, $8 large), Blue Smoke's house made bacon is one of the best kept secrets in New York City barbecue and a must-order. The texture is exactly what I look for in bacon: fully crisp but fully pliable. Smoke is pleasing and the cure flavor is off the charts. One fatty strip was a discard, but the rest were superb.
Squeeze bottles of sauces are no longer on the tables, but fear not: that's because the new homemade sauces have no preservatives, so they're individually served—and served warm—by request. There's a sweet/tangy sauce and a smoked vinegar sauce, both fairly thin and both good.
Broccoli: A straightforward treatment supplies chile pepper heat in every fourth stalk or so. That's it.
Mac and cheese: This baked, slightly blackened version in a mini skillet is one velvety dish, sure to please those who like it very creamy and very thick—so thick it defies gravity like a DQ Blizzard. What I also liked was the faint backdrop of thyme and a few other goodies lingering in there to add just the right amount of nuance and no nuisance. I don't know why I hadn't tried it before, but this mac and cheese is right up there with the best in New York City and the best I've ever had.
Collard greens: A fairly simple preparation, unless you count the 36 hours of preparation that go into the pork shoulder, which is both cured and smoked. The slices are cut and crisped up to look and feel like bacon.
Sweet potatoes: Here's another dish that's every bit as velvety as the mac and cheese, only with less viscosity. The dessert-level sweetness and nuttiness are nice touches that don't obscure the vegetable.
Steak fries: These are a huge upgrade from what they served in the past. They're now wedges, crisp on the outside, fluffy in the center and doused with a topping of garlic lemon mayonaisse (props for not calling it "aioli" like everyone else does) and scallions. It renders ketchup unnecessary and adds a bit of elegance along the way.
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 used a baseball analogy, so let's try another. Blue Smoke's barbecue might have fewer home runs (bacon, pulled pork and
the most recent ribs might qualify) than some other joints around town, but they almost never strike out (beef sausage might qualify). Everything's at least solid flavorwise, with the smoke and rub stronger and more compelling in recent visits. On the days when textures keep pace, they're a legitimate long ball threat again. But the real power lies in the Southern snacks, appetizers and sides that
truly set Blue Smoke apart. There's a level of refinement here that certainly has a place in barbecue; that and some killer biscuits will earn some regular plate appearances from me.
My 2006 review of Blue Smoke
My 2012 review of Blue Smoke
Cutie Patroller's review of Blue Smoke
Yelp reviews of Blue Smoke
Tabelog reviews of Blue Smoke
Urbanspoon reviews of Blue Smoke
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