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According to the website, Premier Palette is Manchester’s only soul food restaurant. To me, soul food implies that there will be ribs on the menu, and they’ll probably be pretty good, but they probably won’t be great and they almost certainly won’t be smoked. I was already eager to try this place, but when I saw the “BBQ Wood Smoked Meats” sign above the door, my pace quickened. Inside, Premier Palette is a counter service operation with plenty of room and plenty of seating. This isn’t fast food (Subway and Quiznos are within a stone’s throw if that’s what you want), so allow some time for your order to be prepared. Several checkerboards and checkers sets are available to get you into a Southern pace.
The pitmaster (pitmistress?) is Zelma McKinney, who grew up on a farm in Georgia where barbecue was an everyday thing. With a real smokehouse on the property, she learned the craft from some of the area’s finest pitmasters. Although pork was a big part of the barbecue of her youth, Zelma serves no pork in her restaurant today. Part of that stems from her religious beliefs (she's an ordained minister). Another reason is her desire to serve the healthiest food possible, using only Canola and extra virgin olive oil. With advance notice, she can customize the sauces and other preparations to accommodate diabetics and low carb dieters.
With no pork on the menu, the BBQ focus is strictly beef and chicken. Beef options include shredded beef, beef ribs and beef brisket. Chicken is available barbecued, pulled, fried and as a smoked chicken salad. Sides are a mix of BBQ and soul classics: cole slaw, "dirty" cole slaw with BBQ spicy sauce, potato salad, fries, collard greens, black eyed peas, mac and cheese, baked beans and rice (smashed potatoes are no longer available). Boneless meats are available as sandwiches or plates. Combo plates allow you to mix smoked meats and fried chicken. Ribs may be ordered as add-ons for $4.00.
On my first visit, I stopped in with a friend to sample as much of the menu as possible. They were out of brisket that day, so we went with the shredded beef, a big order of fried chicken, a beef rib plate, and an assortment of sides.
We started with the fried chicken, which was crispy outside, tender and moist inside, and lightly seasoned. We both really liked the flavor, and even the white meat was moist. It was also fairly light, which you don’t always see in fried chicken. I’d rank this fried chicken pretty close to the best I’ve had.
We moved onto the shredded beef platter, which came in thin near-slices whose tenderness was close to roast beef. This had a much better flavor than roast beef, though, both from the bold infusion of smoke and from the zesty brown sauce that balanced sweet and heat beautifully. The sauce was unique for a BBQ joint, even for a soul food place; it reminded me a little of some Asian sauces. Aside from the sauce, some of the pieces were a little dry, but most of it was very good.
Beef ribs had more of that spicy brown sauce and a more potent dose of smoke than the shredded beef. If you like extremely smoky meats, these might be right up your alley. If not, beware. The sweet and spicy sauce mitigated that a little, but I probably would have liked a little less smoke and a little more meat. Tenderness was decent.
We returned a week later to try the brisket and revisit the fried chicken and beef ribs. First the repeats: chicken was as good as the first time; the ribs were better, with a little less sauce and a little less smoke allowing the meat to shine. The brisket had hints of pink and more than a hint of smoke. I found the slices mostly tender, with a faintly sweet flavor that came from the meat itself, not the sauce.
It wasn't until later follow-up visits that I tried the smoked chicken salad, and I'm sorry I waited so long. Imagine a super smoky version of your everyday chicken salad, but prepared more perfectly than what you'd find at a diner.
On later visits the brisket was a little tough. The fried chicken, ordered every time, was always first rate.
Though not on the table, two sauces are available for the meats. Both the regular and hot versions are dark brown, full-bodied, made-from-scratch sauces. Both are good, but I prefer the spicy.
Sides were excellent and, aside from the fried chicken, the greatest strength of the joint. As I’ve said many times, I’m not a mac and cheese guy, so I rarely comment on it, but this was very good. Butter and cream were sacrificed to make it healthier and the result was a delicious cheese intensity you don’t often find in this dish. Similarly, the smashed potatoes didn’t have the creamy texture that many versions of this side do, but you could really taste the potato. This was intensified even more in the hand cut, skin-on fries, which were the best I’ve ever tasted. Collard greens had no meat but were loaded with flavor, and not from any additives, just the natural flavor of the vegetable. Cole slaw had an addictively pleasing condiment that tasted like a home made, gourmet version of Miracle Whip. The “dirty” cole slaw combined their regular slaw with a little barbecue sauce for a unique taste. I prefer the regular, but I’m glad I tried it. Beans were firm and loaded with flavor that was mostly spice with a little sweetness for balance. Black eyed peas were decent. Southern style cornbread here is made without sugar, providing an unexpected flavor. I’m still not sure if I liked it or not, but it’s interesting and different.
The bottom line: The waits and the lack of pork may be obstacles, but I like a place that's a little different. Call it soul food, call it barbecue, call it whatever you want; just call me if you’re going.