BBQ Brethren Bash With Ray Lampe at Southern Hospitality
Ray Lampe, known to millions of barbecue fans as "Dr. BBQ," took over as executive chef at Manhattan's Southern Hospitality late last year. Beyond his books and his TV appearances, the good doctor is also known as an active member of the BBQ Brethren, a barbecue community with an online forum that started as a small group of Long Island enthusiasts, eventually growing to include members throughout the US and other countries. Last Saturday, I joined a group of about 20 Brethren for a special dinner at Southern Hospitality, hosted by Ray Lampe and organized by barbecue competitor-judge-organizer-socialite Eric Johnson.
The spread of barbecue and non-barbecue treats put before us encompassed a good cross section of the menu, including some new items. Appetizers featured deep fried pickles, nachos, BBQ balogna and deep fried ribs. My favorite of this group was the BBQ balogna, a new menu item introduced by Lampe to "offer something to differentiate us from the other barbecue joints in the city." Served as wedges, with assorted cheeses and crackers for an accompaniment, this was crisp on the outside and as tender as butter inside. The deep fried ribs, served with a BBQ ranch sauce, were an interesting take, offering some non-BBQ flavors on top of the smoked meat.
When the servers brought out the main course, several large plates of ribs hit the table and the guests started sharing—until they were corrected by Dr. BBQ. "No, those aren't for sharing," he said. "Everyone is getting one of those plates." These included a few babyback ribs, lightly coated with sauce, a few dry-rubbed St Louis cut spare ribs and a single large beef rib.
The spares were the standout, offering thick meat with plenty of savory flavor and good moistness even without sauce. All three rib varieties were an improvement from what I tasted on my first visit last year. I tried the pulled pork for the first time, and it was tender, lightly smoky and loaded with bark. I forgot to try the pulled chicken.
We tried several sides, and my favorite was the collard greens: studded with bacon, cooked just past the point of wilting and flavorful without veering towards sweet or tart. The cornbread, baked in mini loaves, was among the best I've had. Baked mac and cheese, available as a side and as a main course, was very cheesy with a thick consistency. The bland cole slaw was the only disappointment.
Throughout the meal, Dr. BBQ introduced the dishes, described some of the techniques involved and mingled with the guests at every table. He made a special point of introducing many of the restaurant's kitchen team, who he says are responsible for the real day-to-day cooking. Although he was very hands-on at the outset, creating new menu items and doctoring (no pun intended) many of the old ones, Lampe acknowledged that he's more of an advisor and mentor at this point.
Beside the addition of the BBQ balogna and deep fried ribs, the menu has seen some extensive revamping. The dry-rubbed spare rib is a bold departure from their original preparation. The beef ribs, previously braised, are now smoked. The rib combo now features spare ribs and babybacks, with beef ribs available separately and some new combos available. Fried green tomatoes were cut from the menu because it was difficult to obtain the green tomatoes reliably. The macaroni and cheese, according to Lampe, was a pet project of co-owner Eytan Sugarman, who had him prepare countless versions until they got it right: it's now prepared with four different cheeses, including Velveeta, Asiago and two kinds of cheddar.
We all enjoyed ourselves at this meal. I know a special event like this, where extra attention was paid to ensure everything came out just right, isn't necessarily representative of a typical restaurant experience. Still, I can safely say that Southern Hospitality has taken a huge step forward since my last visit, both in the food peparation and in the service. My main issue on my initial visit (pre-Lampe) was that the food was well conceived, but the complete lack of effort from the kitchen and the front of the house not only affected the meal but also belied the very name Southern Hospitality. From what I saw Saturday, most of these problems have been addressed. Where Southern Hospitality will ultimately rank among the Manhattan barbecue titans still remains to be seen (I'll attempt an anonymous visit in the coming weeks), but I'm a lot more optimistic today than I was a week ago.
my Southern Hospitality review (written before Lampe joined SH)
BBQ Brethren thread on the Southern Hospitality Bash