[Note: This review predates the arrival of Ray Lampe (a.k.a. "Dr. BBQ") as Southern Hospitality's executive chef (now departed) in late 2007.]
For New York City BBQ fans, the summer of 2007 will be remembered as the season that a handful of new joints opened their doors within a few weeks of each other. Arguably the most talked-about of that group was Southern Hospitality, and more for its owner than its chef or its menu. Most of the talk revolved around one central question: can pop star Justin Timberlake do barbecue?
The restaurant itself, on Second Avenue just a block south of Brother Jimmy’s, is a nice looking space that doesn’t really remind you of a barbecue joint. As you enter, you’re greeted not by the obligatory stack of wood but instead a giant glass case filled with Jack Daniel’s whiskey. The long bar is impressive, with three TVs. The main dining room has a mix of tables and booths, lots of dark woods, neon signs, more TVs and a giant red mural of Elvis Presley. The music—mostly 70’s oldies on my visit—is loud but not unbearable. There’s a smaller dining room further back that can be used for private parties.
From the minute it opened, Southern Hospitality has been packed, mostly by young girls hoping to catch a glimpse of the owner. I visited on a Sunday afternoon, when I guessed the crowds might not be a problem. I guessed right. What was my guess on the food? I had my suspicions, but I kept an open mind.
The menu at Southern Hospitality is a blur of barbecue, Southern fare and the pub grub you’d expect at your local neighborhood chain restaurant. The barbecue menu offers three kinds of ribs (babybacks, spare ribs and a beef short rib), beef brisket, pulled pork, barbecued chicken and pulled chicken. There’s not much flexibility, with only three pre-configured combos. All platters come with cole slaw, baked beans and a biscuit, with no substitutions (this is empasized throughout the menu). Sandwiches include the brisket, pulled meats and a 10-ounce burger. For the ‘cue-phobes, there’s fried chicken, grilled or fried shrimp, fried catfish and planked salmon. Appetizers lean toward the Southern and the fried, with fried pickles, chicken fingers, fried green tomatoes, onion strings, chicken wings, nachos and shrimp cocktail.
I dined alone, so I only tried one appetizer. The choice was a no-brainer: fried green tomatoes ($8.95). These were well breaded and served with a remoulade. At first glance they looked very pre-packaged, but I can't say for sure. I liked the fact that they were thick, allowing a good taste of the tomato. I didn't like the fact that the batter wasn't crisp. Some bites were tart, but most had no flavor and the majority of the tomatoes were mushy. The remoulade was good.
The entree was another no-brainer: the rib sampler ($25.95). Although the price was high, the portion was generous, with nearly a half rack of babybacks, two meaty pork spare ribs and a good sized beef short rib. All of the meats had a thick bark and arrived sauced, though not drowning in sauce. The spare ribs were somewhat moist, tender to the point of being a little mushy and very smoky, but didn’t present a lot of flavor despite the bark and smoke levels. These actually proved to be the best of the bunch. Babybacks were very dry, not tender and lacking in flavor. The smoked-then-braised beef rib was already falling off the bone when the plate arrived, proving the adage that one man’s tender is another man’s soggy. The meat was pink and the flavor wasn’t bad, but it was cold.
There was one barbecue sauce on the table in a squeeze bottle. It was pretty good.
Cole slaw was creamy and bland. The beans were firm and had a nice balance between sweet and spicy that I liked enough to call the dish the highlight of the meal. The biscuit that was supposed to be included on the plate wasn’t there, so I can’t comment on it.
The bottom line: I've got nothing against Justin Timberlake. Though I'm not a fan of his music, I don't have a problem with it. It's the barbecue I have a problem with: although the meats have most likely spent some time in a smoker, they taste like they've spent more time in other cooking aparatus, and not under the supervision of passionate pitmasters. The staff (both front of the house and the kitchen) seemed more intent on talking amongst themselves than with preparing and serving my order. The barbecue wasn't horrible, but you could do better a block up the street. Heck, you could do better at a chain.
Peter Meehan's NY Times review of Southern Hospitality
Gael Greene's New York Magazine review of Southern Hospitality
Andrea Strong's New York Post review of Southern Hospitality