Review Date: 06/30/15
There's some disagreement among the NYC barbecue cognoscenti as to whether Northern Bell is a barbecue joint, but I bet there'd be little disagreement about my observation that it's one of the most romantic. It's dimly lit (an understatement) with votive candles on each table (a vote of confidence here) and relaxed instrumental music—think the Meters, and if you haven't heard if them, think techno approach to 1970s porn film soundtracks (like I said, romantic; just trust me on this one).
The small space has walls of reclaimed wood and mostly hightop seating at similar wood tables. All are outfitted with barbecue sauces in flask bottles and water in antique pharmacy bottles. There's a small bar toward the back and a more spacious patio further back. A few TVs provide visuals but yield the soundstage to the music du jour.
The smoker is a Masterbuilt.
"Drums and Flats" (smoked wings) are the headliner among the appetizers, with a few sauce flavors available. The rest of the apps go Southern, with fried green tomatoes, fried pickles ("Frickels"), baked mac and cheese and a pimento cheese spread.
"From the Pit" selections include ribs, brisket burnt ends, boar belly, pulled pork on a plate or in a sandwich, a quarter or half chicken, a chicken sandwich and a smoked tofu sandwich.
There are no multi-meat combinations on the menu, but sometimes all you have to do is ask. The friendly staff had no problem doing a little mixing and matching to allow two meats on the first visit for a slight upcharge.
Non-barbecue entrees include burgers from several animals (beef, bison, elk) and non-animals (veggie), plus biscuits and gravy, fried chicken and biscuits, a BLT and three different salads.
Lunch is served on weekdays; on the weekends, it's brunch until 5:00PM.
I visited Northern Bell on a Sunday night with young bride and a Saturday afternoon with two barbecue cohorts.
Wings: On weekends the barbecue menu doesn't start until dinnertime, but the smoked wings are available around the clock. The first visit's wings had great visual appeal with a full but restrained coating of the maple-banana-habanero sauce (several sauce options are available, but this was the most interesting) that allowed the smoky and crispy visuals to come through. You couldn't ask for a better contrast between the outer crunch and the inner succulence, and the flavor brought a nice balance of smoky and chickeny, accented but not overpowered by the sauce that had banana out front, maple for a sweet nudge and habanero noticeable but further back.
The server noticed my enthusiasm and brought out a few unsauced wings to try for comparison. Those worked well even without the sauce.
Armed with reinforcements on the second visit, I tried full orders of those same two options. This time the sauced wings were nearly as good, though the unsauced ones were a little drier. Overall, still very solid. I noticed too late that they had a blackboard special: kimchee wings. But I'll be back.
Frickels: Thick pickle chips with an even thicker beer batter brought out the moistness (and the vinegar) of the pickle in its warmed state. The batter was a little greasy, but crunchy and flavorful, making for a good bite with or without the creamy dipping sauce.
Fried Green Tomatos: Totally different coating here from the Frickels, going the breadcrumb route. I didn't find the tomatoes to be particularly tart or soft, but they worked as vessels for dipping in the remoulade.
The ordering reflects the fact that Northern Bell had sold out of ribs and burnt ends on the night visit, and that the afternoon visit during brunch hours—intended mostly for wings follow-up—had ribs available a little earlier than expected. Normally I'd want to give the burnt ends a test drive as well, along with a second try of a few things.
Pork belly: Actually, it's "Canadian Boar Belly" ($16 with slaw and succotash), served in a long slab about two-and-a-half times the length, width and thickness of a strip of bacon. The exterior had a char from a grill finish as well as a light coating of sauce. The interior was tender, juicy in spots and moist throughout. Flavor had a touch of smoke and some welcome gaminess, along with the sweetness from the sauce. I'd definitely get this again. This is a fatty item, so know that going in, especially if you sit in the darker indoor area where it's harder to see what you're eating.
Pulled Pork: A molded pile of smoky, barky shreds ($8 upcharge to my boar plate) had a thin, sweet, almost clear sauce similar to a simple syrup, only lighter. Moistness was never in question, as the meat was pretty much immersed. Smokiness emerged through the sauce, while porkiness and other flavors were more restrained. Some pieces verged on soggy, with what I call a salmon texture, but more pieces were within range. I think I'd prefer the pork in a sandwich where some complementary flavors can come into play.
Ribs: Tried on the second visit, the ribs ($16 with a little slaw and a lot of fries) arrived well crusted and well sauced. For the crowd I was with, perhaps a little too sauced, but saucing and doneness are a subjective thing. About that doneness: these were very tender (I'd say too tender) and closer to that fall-off-the-bone doneness that's very popular in the chain restaurants. Smokiness was light—much lighter than the wings—but otherwise, flavor was pleasant. The sauce, which I think is different (more red) from the table sauce (more golden brown) had sweetness, tang and spice in great supply, making a cold beer a must.
Cole Slaw: A small serving in a small stainless steel cup with every order brings a small amount of flavor.
Fries: Also supplied with every order, these bring a large serving and large amounts of potato flavor and good crispness and seasoning. Fries aren't taken for granted here.
Succotash: What I'm guessing is a seasonal vegetable is a huge leap up from your mama's canned corn niblets. Good freshness, balance and complementary flavor from the okra and peppers.
Service was outstanding on both visits. Both times we had Carla, a little bundle of energy who alerted us that the ribs I missed out on the first time were suddenly available late in the brunch service the second time.
The Bottom Line
While I wouldn't put Northern Bell in the top tier or two for New York City barbecue, I'd put their wings—a clear source of pride here—with any of them. With a refreshingly different vibe, this is a comfortable neighborhood joint that I'd visit regularly if it were in my neighborhood.
Yelp reviews of Northern Bell
Zomato reviews of Northern Bell
Tabelog reviews of Northern Bell
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