Neely's Barbecue Parlor on Manhattan's Upper East Side gets its name from that loveable, saccharine sweet couple Pat and Gina Neely, whose verbal cuddlefest on their Food Network show Down Home With the Neelys is as memorable as the Southern dishes they prepare. Where the restaurant gets its food from is still being speculated. According to some reports, the Neelys themselves aren't involved other than lending their name to the restaurant in a pure licensing deal (the restaurant website describes it as run by Merchants Hospitality "in partnership with the Food Network celebrities Pat and Gina Neely"). According to the hostess I spoke with after noticing the endless loop of DHWTN on the outside monitor, the Neelys appeared for the opening but haven't been seen there in the eight weeks since.
The Neelys certainly weren't present on my visit, which isn't in itself a problem. Some of the finest restaurants in New York City and Boston are masterminded by chefs who are only occasionally onsite but have trusted lieutenants trained and qualified to execute their vision. The problem arises if the Neelys aren't involved but are being dangled electronically as bait for the unsuspecting stargazer clientele. Or worse yet, if the restaurant is not only not executing the Neelys' vision but has no vision at all.
Eager to learn of the opening date, menu and pre-opening activity, I "Liked" the Neely's Barbecue Parlor Facebook page early on. The usual can't-wait-to-open rhetoric was paraded and the usual opening delays were noted. Not exactly a departure from any other restaurant. Then things got interesting when, after the announced opening date was already missed, the Facebook page asked readers for menu ideas. Maybe it was just a marketing technique designed to boost interest and generate a sense of involvement among the adoring fans, who posted recipricol can't-wait-for-you-to-open gushings almost daily. Or maybe there wasn't any vision even if the Neelys were involved. I would have thought the restaurant would just roll out time tested classics from the Neelys' Tennessee restaurant and growing library of television shows—whether the Neelys were owners, employees or just collecting licensing money. But what do I know?
After the opening, I monitored the reviews on Yelp to gain some basic information and get a feel for how well the restaurant was being received. It was tanking. Most restaurants get their share of 1's (lowest score) and 5's (highest score) with very few in the middle, as there are rabid fans (or family or employees) on one end and haters (or jealous competitors) on the other. Neely's was getting far more 1's than 5's. Gripes ranged from the lack of the Neelys at Neely's, the lack of pork in the pulled pork hush puppies, the lack of proper temperatures in the food and the lack of management presence. Many of the comments were well stated and many more were just vicious. I found it hard to tell whether the complaints were legitimate or the ravings of crackpots with a vendetta.
Back on the Facebook page, spin control was in full throttle, but with
two distinct approaches. On one hand, they were asking satisfied customers to make themselves known on Yelp, to reassure scared prospective customers that the only negativity wasn't in actual experiences but only with negative people who had an axe to grind. On the other hand, they were also looking for feedback on ways to improve, as if acknowledging that there was a problem. Mixed messages for sure, but the one thing that was clear—although never explicitly stated—was, "We're getting our asses kicked and need to do something about it." The dual nature of the spin control took an interesting turn when some customers who posted feedback noticed that their posts got deleted.
I had tentative plans to hit Neely's earlier than I did, but postponed that visit to let the kinks get ironed out. After reading all the online praise and online slams that painted two very different pictures, I wanted in more than ever. I'd either be impressed by the food, champion justice and announce once and for all that the negativity was unfounded (my preferred outcome, since I like the Neelys and am always rooting for another great restaurant to make the rotation), or I'd experience the clusterfuck first hand and live to tell about it.
Neely's Barbecue Parlor has the look of an old school Southern mansion. A Beverly Hillbilliesesque curving stairway leads down to the restrooms and (pre-existing) cigar bar; another leads up to the dining level and main bar. Rather than one gigantic dining room, the space is divided into a handful of small, intimate rooms off a main hallway, some separated by sliding doors and one bordered by glass like a fish tank. That intimacy is enhanced by dim lighting, votive candles on every table and much of the seating replaced by cushy chairs and love seats. Oddly, the love seats are setup not to be occupied by one couple but by one member each of two adjacent couples. The tiny tables for two struggle to hold a tray of sauces and still have enough room for glasses and shared plates, and they're also too close together. Larger tables have more surface room and spacing. There's not a single booth in the place, which adds to the Illusion of dining in your host's house. The faux balconies with opening glass doors add another nice touch. The entry outside has a TV monitor showing an endless loop of Down Home With The Neelys.
The Neely's barbecue menu features four kinds of ribs (pork spare ribs, sweet and sticky St Louis cut spares, babybacks and beef ribs), beef brisket and pulled pork. There are no user configurable two- or three-meat combo plates, but fixed combinations include a pork sampler (spare ribs, babybacks and pulled pork) and a rib sampler (half rack each of spares and babybacks). Sandwiches include pulled pork, pulled chicken and a 10-ounce burger. For those not there for the 'cue, there's country fried steak, cedar plank salmon, BBQ spiced scallops and a cowboy ribeye steak.
Appetizers include wings, deep fried pickles, fried green tomatoes, fried catfish, crab cakes, pulled pork hushpuppies, candied slab bacon, pulled pork sliders and four different salads.
The cocktails menu is filled with Southern drink creations, many of them including Jack Daniel's and with many little anecdotes about Pat and Gina Neely. The Bourbon list is extensive, with nearly 30 selections
My young bride and I checked out Neely's Barbecue Parlor for a Sunday night dinner. I arrived curious and open minded.
Wings: A plate of applewood smoked wings ($10.25) matched the double digit pricetag with a double digit number of wing pieces. Liberally coated with a dark, thick sauce, they brought no surface crispness and no smoky flavor. The inner meat was moist, but what saved these wings from being a total dud was the sauce that initially struck me as being too much, too thick and too gloppy. Although very sweet, it had a nice complexity, some subtle heat and a Louisiana-meets-General-Tso quality that I found surprisingly appealing. This sauce was better than the three table sauces, and would work well on the ribs. The accompanying blue cheese dipping sauce wasn't only unnecessary; it didn't go.
Catfish bites: A cornmeal batter brought just the right batter-to-fish ratio and the crispness that was missing in the wings to the assortment of various sized fish pieces. I'm guessing the recipe used here is different from the catfish as cooked on the Neely's show, because seasoning was very low. A little tangy remoulade and table salt did the trick. I liked the inner tenderness and the flavor of the fish itself.
Pulled pork: Pale, gray, barkless and very light of smoke, the pulled pork on the pork sampler ($21.95 with a quarter rack each of babyback and spare ribs, plus one side) arrived in
large chunks that had the same nominal moistness and texture as turkey thighs. It was served unsauced but needed the sauce—somewhat for
moistness but definitely for flavor, which was missing in the meat. I'm not so sure this pork was even smoked. But there's no question that this pork was in the bottom third of all pulled pork I've tried.
Brisket: The only way to get brisket at Neely's is on its own platter ($16.99). It's not available on a sandwich, not available on a combo, and substitutions are not allowed. Although a little light on portion, light of color (again with the pale gray meat) and overtrimmed to strip most of the bark away, the brisket delivered a lot more pink and a little more flavor (smoke, seasoning) than the pork. The texture was neither moist nor dry, though if forced to choose, I'd say it was closer to the latter. I liked that the small container of sauce was heated. I didn't like that the haystack onions had the consistency and flavor of cardboard. I know people often say that food tastes like cardboard, but in this case it's not an exageration. If you've ever accidentally taken a bite of a fortune cookie and wound up with the fortune in your mouth, you know what I mean. But back to the brisket: this one might have escaped the bottom third, but just barely.
Babyback ribs: A quarter rack (three bones) of babyback ribs on the pork sampler was very dry but somewhat flavorful and somewhat promising. Here's the
deal: as is my standard routine whenever ordering a rib sampler, I
requested the babybacks sauced and the spares unsauced, but the ribs
arrived the other way around. The bones were surprisingly lengthy for
babybacks, but not all that meaty, so combined with the leanness of the
cut and unsauced treatment, they were unquestionably dry. Not
ridiculously dry or anything, but certainly not moist. The meat this time did have
a noticeable smokiness and good all around flavor, highlighted by a
very liberal use of rub that I thought was good and had the potential to be very
good. I liked that all that rub was crisped appropriately. It had a little heat and a little sweet, but not enough of each,
not enough (if any) salt and not enough pop. Flavor again came up short, but this time with the potential for better things down the road.
Spare ribs: The quarter of St Louis cut spares on the pork sampler brought more thickness and more flavor. This time the meat was pink, moist and borderline juicy (even aside from the sauce), cooked to good tenderness that was probably a little past ideal but still well within the window to allow a clean bite. Smokiness was light but pleasant. Maybe it was the saucing, but these ribs seemed like they had less dry rub than the babybacks. Even though there wasn't anything to hang your hat on, the all-around competence would put these ribs at right around average.
Three squeeze bottles on the table offer Original, Sweet and Spicy sauces. The first two are very similar in color, texture and flavor, mixing the usual sweet, tangy and spicy along with the unusual hint of onion. The tangy component is more heightened here than in most sauces. The Spicy is darker, thicker and equally tangy, but swaps out the onion for some light chipotle heat.
I liked the spicy pinto beans with burnt ends even though I didn't find any burnt ends. It's possible that the beef broke down, because the sauce was thick, rich and subtlely smoky, with some good spices kicking up a mostly tomato flavor. Gina's Collard Greens were perfectly cooked to the point of just wilting, but were large of leaf and small on flavor, with a fairly plain, thin brothy condiment. Mashed and soupy, the black-eyed peas would have impressed if served over rice, but wound up just mashed and soupy on their own. Overall, the sides impressed more than the meats.
Other Thoughts and Observations
Error-free aside from the small rib sauce switcheroo, the service was solid from start to finish without being over the top. There was definitely a management presence, albeit a nervous one.
Neely's is one of the nicest barbecue spaces I've seen, with a rare and welcome elegance.
The Bottom Line
My feared and somewhat anticipated clusterfuck never came to fruition. There were no incidents, no disasters and no temperature issues. The food wasn't horrible, but it clearly wasn't good enough inspire me to right any injustices. Wings were soggy, pork was gray and tasteless, brisket was gray with a little pink and tasteless, ribs had a rub that was close but no cigar (no pun intended) and just-okay sides were the best part of the meal.
Within a day of my visit, the Village Voice issued a review that put Neely's Barbecue Parlor "in the top 10 barbecue joints in town." If "in town" is limited to Manhattan and further limited to anything uptown of 46th Street, maybe I can see it. If you're including all five boroughs of New York City, Neely's wouldn't even make my top 16. (And yes, I literally counted the 16 joints as an exercise during the post-meal cab ride.)
There are bound to be changes and improvements ahead, but on the night of my visit the barbecue was not good.
Village Voice review of Neely's Barbecue Parlor
Yelp reviews of Neely's Barbecue Parlor
Urbanspoon reviews of Neely's Barbecue Parlor