My Rebuttal To Time Out New York's Hatchet Job Review of Wildwood BBQ
There are some reviews you agree with, some you don't. And then there are some that are so extremely positive, you're certain they're shilling, and some that are so negative that you can tell the writer had an axe to grind. Randall Lane's Time Out New York review of Wildwood falls into this last category.
Here's my paragraph-by-paragraph rebuttal tof that review. Lane's original review appears in black italics; my comments follow in red.
“Have you eaten here before?” That was the odd question posed by my server at Wildwood Barbeque, given that the latest addition to Steve Hanson’s B.R. Guest juggernaut hadn’t been open all that long. “Well, you know we’re the first barbecue restaurant where the meats are all-natural,” she gushed, later adding that Wildwood is also “green” in terms of recyclables and such. She wasn’t defensive—with her perky cheerleader demeanor, and T-shirt emblazoned with the motto rub me tender, she was actually quite flirtatious—yet I couldn’t help thinking that the script (also recited on Wildwood’s phone system) was designed to gloss over its late arrival to New York’s barbecue renaissance.
Asking if you’ve eaten there before isn’t odd at all, although it’s much more common to a chain restaurant than a local mom and pop operation. Sure, it hasn’t been open that long, but one of my dining companions the night I ate at Wildwood—before the T.O.N.Y. review was published, mind you—had eaten there seven times already. So offering to spare him the spiel is a good thing, not bad.
All-natural meats? That’s a good thing. Going green? Also good. Being late to the barbecue renaissance? Please. If that’s a crime, we'd have to dismiss every barbecue joint that opens from this point forward, and that would be stupid.
The very 2008 hook—organic and environmental—masks a one-size-fits-all barbecue style that in fact feels quite dated. New York barbecue has come into its own over the past few years through a combination of better smokers and a focus on regional styles. For the same reasons that Hanson’s catchall Ruby Foo’s, while popular, isn’t a very good Chinese restaurant, Wildwood is not a very good ’cue joint.
It doesn’t strike me that Wildwood is trying to mask anything. Just as organic and environmental are separate characteristics from being late to the party, they also have nothing to do with barbecue style.
Yes, Wildwood is an amalgam of regional barbecue styles, but that in and of itself doesn’t make it “not a very good ‘cue joint.” Is Babbo not a very good Italian restaurant because it serves dishes from a few different regions of Italy? If it’s Wildwood’s execution you have a problem with, fine, but make your case there.
“Big Lou” Elrose should know better. Wildwood’s pit master (the former cop’s actual title is “corporate pit master,” which says in a nutshell what’s wrong here) comes over from the No. 2 slot at the outstanding Texas barbecue spot Hill Country, part of a wave of specialists, along with Kansas Citycentric R.U.B., that have helped make New York a respectable place for low-and-slow cooking.
You're right, Hill Country focuses purely on Texas barbecue, and they are excellent. And Big Lou can justifiably claim part of the credit for its success. I’m glad you brought up Hill Country. Back in the second paragraph, where you talk about better smokers? Hill Country and Wildwood both have Ole Hickory pits. Oh, and back in the first paragraph, where you slammed Wildwood for being late to the party? Hill Country wasn’t yet one year old when you dined at Wildwood, so are self-service and meat-by-the-pound their way of glossing over their late arrival to the NYC barbecue renaissance? As for “corporate pit master,” is the crime that Wildwood’s goal is more restaurants? If you ever spoke with anyone in the know over at Hill Country, they have the same plan of opening more Hill Country “units” in other parts of the country. RUB? Same plan. They’ve already opened in Las Vegas and began talks to open in the Palisades Mall in West Nyack. Even the legendary joints in Texas and Tennessee have multiple units. Although expansion often leads to compromises in quality, expansion in and of itself shouldn’t be a problem. So again I say, if it’s Wildwood's execution you have a problem with, that’s fine, make your case there. So far you haven’t.
The rest of New York City? They’re not exactly filled with regionally-focused barbecue restaurants. After Hill Country, Brother Jimmy’s is about as close as it gets to regionally-specific barbecue (North Carolina style), and I’m not all that fond of their execution. The first three joints to lead the barbecue renaissance—Blue Smoke, Daisy May’s and Dinosaur—all offer a barbecue tour of America, specializing no more than Wildwood.
Let’s get back to RUB—also excellent—which you cite as a regional practitioner, focusing on Kansas City barbecue. It isn’t Kansas City at all. Ask owner Andrew Fischel, and he’ll be the first to tell you they defy all regional styles in favor of what he simply calls “old time barbecue.” Sure, executive pitmaster (hey, that sounds familiar) Paul Kirk is from Kansas City, but their ribs bear no resemblance to the sticky, messy fare from Missouri. And their burnt ends also have no direct lineage to the Kansas City specialty but are instead an original (and fantastic) creation.
You started paragraph 3 by saying “Big Lou should know better.” Given all the erroneous facts and logic here, you should know better.
Inhabiting the carcass of Hanson’s failed Barca 18, Wildwood is everything you’d expect of a B.R. Guest barbecue joint: David Rockwell has filled the soaring space with reclaimed wood beams; the drinks list boasts 50 beers and 30 bourbons; and the music rotates between effete (Steely Dan) and roadhouse (ZZ Top).
Effete: good word.
The barbecue’s greatest-hits menu mostly misses. Given his pedigree, Big Lou should be ashamed of the Texas-derived offerings. The brisket was dry, overly lean meat as bland as leftover pot roast. The menu promises a rub, but I couldn’t detect one, unless you count salt. The Texas-style smoked sausages were even worse. At their best, Texas links boast crisp skin that encases meat so juicy it squirts you in the eye. Wildwood’s version reminded me of the “sausage” you see spinning in the rotating heater at a ballpark.
Glad to see you’re finally talking about the food. The brisket I had on just one visit was moist. Now I’m just a lowly blogger, but I’m holding out for a second visit before I post a formal review. I’m wondering how many visits your review is based on, because while I can imagine the brisket being drier than what I had every now and then, I can’t imagine it being dry for three straight visits. So if you based your review on just one visit, shame on you.
I agree about the rub (I wish they’d use more) but that’s a stylistic choice they made, not an error of execution. My favorite joints in the area—RUB, Hill Country, Daisy May’s, Fette Sau—use a lot of rub, so Wildwood’s lighter treatment does stand out, but I’d hardly call the meats bland. I’ve tried more than a hundred briskets, both at restaurants and as a certified barbecue judge, and this was one of the best I’ve had.
Wildwood’s Carolina efforts aren’t much better. The pulled pork, which had none of the characteristic moisture or piquant vinegar flavor, was bone-dry, as if it had been pulled off a pig hours earlier then placed under a heat lamp.
Although the pork was the weakest of the meats I sampled, it was quite moist.
With the arrival of the ribs, the results began to improve, albeit erratically. The most successful: Memphis baby backs, which use the tasty organic meat to good effect, with firm flesh and a nice chipotle barbecue sauce. The pork spareribs were also solid. A salt-and-sugar rub created a glistening shell, and the pork itself had the kind of deep flavor you’d expect from an expensive piece of meat. Besides the glaze, though, there wasn’t much complexity: Find this on a pupu platter and you wouldn’t blink an eye. The “Denver” lamb ribs were also skillfully cooked, but again, the flavor just wasn’t there.
I agree about the deep flavor in the pork spareribs, as they were among the porkiest I’ve tasted. “Lack of complexity” is just another way of saying again that you’re looking for more rub. That’s fine, just don’t imply that there’s something wrong. If I found them on a pupu platter, I’d say it was a damn good pupu platter.
Sides at barbecue restaurants are an integral part of the experience (I’ve driven extra miles in the South for a great mac and cheese or dirty rice). At Wildwood, they seem too much of an afterthought. Baked beans with burnt brisket ends, a Kansas City mainstay, were atrocious. The meat was drowning in cloying gruel—if Calvin Trillin were dead, he’d be spinning in his grave. The flimsy vinegar potato chips turned to dust in our fingers, and panko-dusted mac and cheese, a fair amount of aged cheddar cheese coating the elbow pasta, was just passable, as was the wet, tangy slaw.
I'd stop far short of “atrocious” but I’m basically with you on the sides. I'd probably rank Woldwood's sides sixth among the group of “BBQ Renaissance” joints that also includes (chronologically) Blue Smoke, Daisy May’s, Dinosaur, RUB and Hill Country. But I'll take Wildwood's barbecued meats over half of that group.
Ironically, the things done best at Wildwood have little to do with barbecue. Take the half chicken. Okay, technically Big Lou smokes it, but the dish works because of a caramelized apricot glaze that, when combined with the bird’s robust, gamey flesh, tasted more like duck à l’orange than a breast-and-leg special. There are also vibrant chicken wings, fried with panko crumbs and coated in Frank’s fiery RedHot sauce.
Big Lou’s burger, shockingly, is nothing short of great, mixing sirloin, chuck and brisket meat into a pungent, firm patty. A large slab of bacon adds just enough fat to make the whole sandwich succulent. Out of nowhere, it’s one of the best in the city. Desserts also outperformed the main event, with a creative chocolate-covered s’more using peanut butter and Fluff, and a first-rate ten-layer carrot cake with luscious coconut cream frosting.
That some fine dishes get lost in a sea of mediocre barbecue underscores why Wildwood doesn’t work. With those wings and that great burger, along with the large-screen TVs blaring Yankee games, perhaps there’s hope for the place—as a sports bar.
Despite Big Lou’s pedigree (Daisy May’s, Hill Country), Wildwood is trying to be more like Blue Smoke than Daisy May’s or Hill Country. They’re trying to appeal to a broader audience, trying to be more of a barbecue restaurant than a barbecue joint, with enough elegance and menu diversity to be what I call “Saturdayworthy”—a place you can take a date to and still impress her. They’re probably trying harder to take business away from nearby Olives than to take barbecue business away from RUB and Hill Country. So it doesn’t surprise me that the chicken is a little more upscale than you’d find at a barbecue joint and that they’d have some dishes that go beyond barbecue. It also didn’t surprise me that the chicken I tried was delicious. But these beyond-barbecue dishes aren’t getting lost; they’re getting ordered on a regular basis. If they’re one of the reasons for the restaurant’s success—along with some very good barbecue—I’m sure BR Guest will take that.
Obviously you and I had different impressions of Wildwood, and that's okay. But your review seems to be a vendetta against corporate restaurants in general and an attack on Big Lou specifically. Maybe you had a run in with Lou in his previous life as a cop; maybe he just rebuffed you as a potential witness in a case. Based on your Wildwood review, your testimony just isn't credible.