(01/21/13) (02/02/13) (03/17/13)
Located on a gritty stretch of Third Avenue that looks anything but restaurant row, Fletcher's Brooklyn Barbecue beckons with the aromas of smoke and two signs: the identifying one on top and an adaptable blackboard at eye level that quotes a ringing endorsement from the Village Voice. Inside, it's over-the-counter ordering with a display case similar to Fette Sau and John Brown Smokehouse—a good way to get a visual before you commit. The heart of the open kitchen is the red J&R smoker from which meats emerge periodically during every visit. A few stools and a few bottles comprise a very small bar; dining takes precedence here with four communal tables made out of impressively solid reclaimed wood.
The kitchen visionary is Matt Fisher, a well-known barbecue blogger-cum-pitmaster who previously roamed the pits at Wildwood and more recently RUB.
The meats, according to a blackboard sign near the counter, are from "farms utilizing humane practices in a sustainable environment." The source meats are "all natural, hormone free, organic and free grazing." On my third visit, the sign's content changed to promote some specials of the day.
The compact barbecue menu features a core list of items you can expect every time, plus a rotating ensemble of specials. There's the familiar (wet and dry St Louis cut pork ribs, sliced brisket, chicken, sausage), the mostly familiar (burnt ends, chopped pork instead of pulled) and the exotic (pork "steaks," pork with Asian flavors, lamb).
Initially, everything was offered a la carte, which is good for flexibility if not value. Daily combo deals have surfaced in an attempt to improve that value. Ribs that were once available only as full and half racks ($40, $22) can now also be had as quarter racks ($12) or on the combo.
Delayed until after they were open for a few months, I spaced three early 2013 visits over a two month span. These visits comprised a holiday weekend Monday lunch with my young bride, a Saturday afternoon with three hardcore barbecue enthusiasts and a late Sunday afternoon with my young bride and another couple who are barbecue restaurateurs. Although the pork steaks were tempting, I chose to focus most of my attention on the standards like ribs, pork and brisket.
Wings: Ordered as a savory dessert of sorts ro wrap up the first visit, the wings ($5 for 5) were chuckle-inducingly small on size but compensated with a sixth one to pick up the slack. These were coated with but not drowning in the same barbecue sauce as on the wet ribs. The exteriors were solid, the interiors borderline tender. On the downside, the wings were slightly cold. On the upside, flavor brought a delightful mix of smoky, chickeny and saucy, and that sauce was a sweet/heat combo well outside the supermarket realm and more along the lines of competition flavors.
Chili: Shredded smoked brisket cooked down into a finer consistency with very subtle but pleasing flavor struck me as something that would work well over a thick pasta (think wild boar ragu). Heat level came in surprisingly light, meat level A-okay, bean level nonexistent (more than A-okay) and eat level okay by me.
Vegetarian chili: An equally tame mix of mushrooms, beans and peppers was closer to spaghetti sauce, but if someone served me this on top of pasta (or not), I'd have no complaints.
Pork ribs: The first visit's half rack ($22 a la carte) split evenly among wet and dry drew photogenic gems on both sides. Individually cut bones standing side by side had great size, well developed crusts, good rub content on the dry, a restrained brick-colored coating on the wet, good moistness and breathtaking pink cross sections on all. Coming in, I was expecting the ribs to be very similar to RUB's, but these were a cross between those and Daisy May's. Doneness was perfect: fully tender, just a hint of a bite required to get them off the bone. If you're considering commiting a crime immediately after taking a first bite, think again, because your dental records will be indentifiable from the Flintstone-like bite outline. That said, the freshness on the first visit was just a bit off, as if these had been sitting around a while. What might have been full-on juiciness another day, or perhaps a short while earlier, was merely moist here. Flavor more than compensated, however, as these were easily among the best tasting ribs I've tried, and by far the most balanced. The smoke level was high but not pushing the envelope the way RUB's sometimes did; the rub level was potent but not over the top crazy like Daisy May's or Fette Sau or RUB ribs have been. Porkiness was off the charts, and that's the flavor that came through strongest. I came away thinking that these had the potential to be the best ribs in New York City if not the region as a whole.
The dry ribs needed no sauce. The wet ribs had a competition style shellacking that delivered a complex mix of sweet and heat. I often use baseball analogies to describe restaurants and ribs, but these ribs were more like the gymnast who submits a near-perfect routine, messes up the dismount (in this case, the freshness) but still gets the gold for earlier brilliance.
Only wet ribs were available for the second visit, but the coating was very light—just enough to keep them moist and not what you'd call a saucy rib. These lengthy ribs had good bark, light rub and noticeably stronger smoke than the first encounter but a noticeably weaker porky component and more of that sitting-around-for-a-while feel. Tenderness was ideal, coming in about halfway between firm and fall-off. Below the sauce, moistness was only moderate—definitely not dry but definitely not juicy once again. While the second visit lengthened the ribs, the third visit also added some thickness and took away some tenderness; all other attributes were about the same. Visits 2 and 3 were well out of gold medal contention but arguably still podiumworthy.
After three tries, I'm still not sure what the fourth will bring. I think we're looking at some above-average ribs that have obvious home run power but have still not hit one out yet (see what I mean about baseball analogies?). At $40 per rack—which is pricey at first glance but not so outlandish considering the size and sourcing—I want better execution.
Sausage: A single hot link ($4) along the lines of chorizo had a shiny surface, good snap and refreshing pepperiness inside, though the overall texture was a little dry and a little stiff on the first visit. The second visit's link had all of the same characteristics with much better texture and moisture. The third visit's sausage was identical to the first, backsliding to dry.
Chopped pork sandwich: It may be pulled everywhere else, but Fletcher's take on the pork sandwich ($10) is chopped, Carolina style. From the tables, you'll hear the occasional rat-tat-tat coming from the cutting area; that's the pork being chopped, redistributed and molded into the perfectly even arrangement of meat and fat, of interior and exterior, of slightly tender and extremely tender, of fleshy and barky. It not only provides great theater but is a great way to diversify the porkfolio to ensure that each bite contains the same allotment of these components. The flavor in the first visit's chopped pork matched the ribs in that the rib and smoke were both noticeable but secondary to the porkiness that sang loudest. Again, I was expecting something similar to RUB's but wound up with a sandwich that was closer to Blue Smoke's in its "piggy" feel. Moisture was good, though I saw another customer's sandwich that had much more. Overall, a very solid sandwich.
Visit 2's chopped pork sandwich, which included the optional topping of cole slaw, had more moisture but much less flavor than the first, with a somewhat steamy consistency.
I paid close attention to the third visit's sandwich, also ordered with cole slaw. It started with a thick slice of pork shoulder that leaked juices as the knife slid through. Though mixed with sauce right before chopping, the pork somehow seemed to lose moisture rather than gain it. The end result was hardly dry, but the explosion of pork succulence that could have been never was. Flavor was again somewhat piggy, though somewhat muted, with light smoke. Texture leaned a little toward steamy with tenderness and bounce. Cole slaw added some crunch but proved more of a distraction than an asset. It was that first pork sandwich, minus the slaw, that satisfied most.
Brisket: Skipped on the first visit (didn't look good in the display case), the quarter pound of brisket ($6) from visit 2 arrived in a pile of all-gray slices with hints of fat and bark but nary a hint of moisture. Flavor was at least decent—lightly smoky, nothing special, nothing problematic—but moot because texture was a dealbreaker. As Simon Cowell might say, this wasn't their best performance.
The brisket got two looks on the third visit. Round 1 supplied a quarter pound of fairly thick slices set on their sides and wrapped around in a nested horseshoe pattern, showing off that the meat could bend without breaking. It made a nice display, showcasing the light pink meat accented with a darker pink smoke ring along the edge. Crusting was minor. It may have been nothing more than the thickness of the cut, but parts of two different slices came in very chewy, like a well done London Broil. Flavor was lightly beefy, mid-range smoky and underrubbed.
On Round 2, another batch of brisket arrived as a complimentary sample. Taken from a narrower end of the brisket, the reprise had a much thinner slice and was cut with greater precision. The fresher, crispier bark went all the way around the perimeter instead of just one side. No juices ran rampant, but each slice had a more noticeable sheen and a nice mix of snap and tenderness in the same bite. While the previous batch hovered right around average and the previous visit's well below, this one was well above average, probably top 20% even without the gushing juices and fork tenderness that have become the standard around town.
Burnt ends: When I think of burnt ends, I think of the now-closed RUB, who not only pioneered the use of this cut in New York City but turned out the definitive version of it consistently and masterfully over the years. So it's no surprise that RUB alum Fisher made little if any change to this standard at Fletcher's: cubed brisket deckle (from the richest, fattiest part of the cut), twice rubbed, twice smoked, with twice the bark, twice the juice and twice the flavor of ordinary brisket. The Fletcher's version, based on my one sample courtesy of the pitmaster, might not have equalled its predecessor in rub dosage or jiggly juiciness, but it certainly came close and would probably take the top slot in my burnt ends rankings.
Chicken: I still haven't tried Fletcher's chicken. On visit 1, the two chickens in the case looked fabulous (possibly the best "appearance" score ever for chicken), but at $30 per bird or $16 per half bird, I balked—especially since young bride eats like a bird and we had already targeted other items. In retrospect, I realize I should have tried it. On later visits, the chickens didn't look as good and even with more hungry bodies available, the other meats took priority.
Beef rib: A special on visit 2 brought a lengthy, hefty shortrib with an impressive crust and decent tenderness. One of the common drawbacks of such a cut surfaced here, though beneath the surface: large hunks of unrendered fat that didn't get a chance to infiltrate the meat. The end result was a slightly bland rendition that that wasn't helped by the negligable rub and smoke flavor beyond the outer half inch.
Lamb shank: Available as a special on the most recent visit and offered as a complimentary sample, this well crusted, lightly sauced drumstick delivered some of the best bites of the meal. Like most of the meats, the lamb was inarguably tender, though coming in closer to turkey thight texture and moistness than the more typical drippy, lamby, fatty succulence. Flavor came through with a mix of smoke, lighter rub and refreshing lamb gaminess.
There's a single sauce available on all of the tables in plastic squeeze bottles. The ketchupy quality on first nibble out of the bottle gives way to more complex flavor and light heat that interweave nicely, and it's even nicer when warm and blended with the meat.
There's a jalapeno sauce, a carrot sauce and a horseradish vinegar sauce that I never would have known about had I not seen them on another customer's tray on the first visit. All were very interesting and very enjoyable, though I'm not sure how well they'd hold up to repeated use.
Cole slaw: Extra crunchy red cabbage slaw was super fresh on the first visit—so much so that the flavors hadn't had a chance to seep in yet. The second visit's slaw got a better soaking and brought a nice herbal quality.
Mac and cheese: As thick and creamy as it gets, the mac and cheese supplied rich, mild flavor and a hint of grit.
Fridge pickles: Thick cut, crunchy and tart from vinegar, these are a bit of a misnomer in that it's more of a cucumber salad, but as such it's a refreshing complement to the barbecue and a highlight every time.
Market pickles: The seasonably variable interpretation of pickled vegetables was cauliflower and red pepper on my try. The vinegar tartness hit higher heights this time. Another good complement to the smoky meats, but you need to like vinegar.
Baked beans: This rendition departed from the RUB blueprint significantly, with more tomato than molasses in the condiment and a mix of a few different beans. I liked that there was still just a hint of firmness in them even after serving time in the smoker. And more importantly, plenty of smokiness from that time in the smoker.
The staff is friendly and upbeat.
Of the meats I tried multiple times, only the brisket is trending upward.
Barbecue blogger Robert Fernandez, who's been known to be tough on barbecue restaurants on White Trash Barbecue, works at Fletcher's on weekends. I would love to read his review of this place had he not worked here—but only if he were on truth serum.
The menu at Fletcher's is very deep and constantly changing with weekly and nightly specials. I wonder how much better the execution might be if the options were pared down a bit. That said, there's something to be said for variey and versatility.
The elephant in the room—that is, when I'm not in the room—is pricing. Some recent menu tweaks have addressed this, but the tab can add up awfully quickly here. The brisket ($24 per pound) and ribs ($40 per rack with sides extra) might not technically be the highest in town, but regardless of sourcing, there are certain expectations on the finished product that need to be met and met consistently. I think Fletcher's sometimes comes close but has a way to go.
The Bottom Line
Fletcher's has shown some highs, some lows, some inconsistency and many flashes of promise that haven't fully translated into the wow factor I was expecting, but I've enjoyed my visits and it's still early in the game. I see Fletcher's as a good barbecue joint that could be great but isn't quite there yet.
I'll dispense with the baseball analogies and head straight into 1970's television: if New York City's newest breed of BBQ joints were Charlie's Angels, Fletcher's would most certainly be Kate Jackson—outshined by brighter lights perhaps, but hardly unworthy of being in the show. I plan on watching the show for as long and as often as I can. Maybe I'll be there for their best performance.
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