Blue Smoke is the barbecue wing of Danny Meyer's restaurant empire that includes Union Square Café, Grammercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park. A partner in the operation is three-time Memphis in May winner Mike Mills, who trained Blue Smoke pitmaster Kenny Callaghan. It was Blue Smoke that in 2002 kicked off the New York BBQ renaissance that continued with Daisy May's, Dinosaur and RUB.
Blue Smoke is pretty slick. Looking at the beautiful space with high ceilings, a second dining level overlooking a huge bar area and a large main dining room with greenhouse windows, you'd never know you were in the city. This is a fun place equally suited to a date or a boys' or girls' night out. In the basement below is Jazz Standard, where you can see live entertainment while enjoying the barbecue.
On my first visit, I ordered the Rib Sampler ($24) consisting of 2 Texas salt and pepper beef ribs, 3 Kansas City spareribs and 3 St Louis ribs. I thought the beefs ribs were the best, with nice crispness and very good flavor in the meat. These weren't nearly as meaty as most beef ribs, so there wasn't the tender and juicy meat to counterbalance the crispy crust. On the plus side, they weren't as fatty as most beef ribs either, and the flavor was fantastic. The Kansas City ribs were very meaty and very tender, but felt and tasted reheated, with a lot of sweet sauce as a cover up. Not much smoke, crust or flavor. The smaller St Louis ribs, with a mustard based sauce, were firmer but better tasting. Overall, the ribs were just OK.
The table had squeeze bottles of both the sweet and mustard sauces. They were both good and with the consistency I like, closer to maple syrup than ketchup. There was also a jar of "Magic Dust" spice mix, but the meat was already well covered. Sides weren't included with the sampler, so I ordered a side of collard greens. These were served in large pieces, perfectly cooked, with bacon flecks throughout. Nice, but fairly mild.
On my second visit, I tried the burger I’d heard so much about ($11.50, includes fries). I ordered it medium rare and it was cooked exactly the way I like it, with the outside bordering on overdone (but not so) and the inside bordering on underdone (but not so). It was juicy, well-seasoned and made from high quality beef. Bacon on top was also perfectly cooked: crisp and still chewy. Fries were thin, hot and very crisp. A side of baked beans was pretty good, with a light smoky flavor and noticeable meat. They were very tomatoey though.
Then I grabbed a pulled pork sandwich to go ($10.50). There was a good amount of pork in the grilled bun, along with a strong dose of sweet sauce (I prefer a vinegar sauce). The pork pieces varied in size, moistness and texture. Some bites were dry, some moist, and some extremely fatty. Overall, just an OK sandwich: not great, not bad. The side of cole slaw was outstanding, with crisp cabbage, mildly tangy dressing and some celery or mustard seeds on top.
Blue Smoke has some nice touches. The huge wet nap was served warm, and there's a large communal sink outside the restrooms to wash your hands. The servers seem to really know the menu and my soda was refilled twice without my having to ask.
The array of desserts at Blue Smoke is impressive, with a few different pies and some interesting sundaes. I’d like to try one of them, but for dessert I much prefer subsidizing Danny Meyer at Shake Shack in nearby Madison Square Park. Shake Shack's
crème brulée frozen custard may be the best dessert money can buy. But I digress.
The bottom line: Blue Smoke is like the Bert Blyleven of barbecue: closer to all-star caliber (if that) than hall of famer, but worthy of a spot in your rotation. For New York City BBQ, I’d rank their food behind RUB and Daisy May's (and on a par with Dinosaur BBQ). But for an all-around restaurant experience, with a date or a group of people who don’t all necessarily crave barbecue, Blue Smoke might be your best bet.
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