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Wildwood is the barbecue wing of the BR Guest restaurant empire overseen by Steve Hanson, so you'd expect some pedigree here. He hired Big Lou Elrose, formerly of Daisy May's and Hill Country, as the executive pitmaster. Wildwood uses a pair of Ole Hickory pits and they're the first barbecue restaurant to use only all-natural meats.
The open space is the work of noted restaurant designer David Rockwell, famous for his creative use of materials. There's aged wood everywhere, unique seat constructions and slanted garage doors above the bar, which takes up nearly half of the long room. Wildwood doesn't try to make you feel like you've entered a hoedown in Texas, Tennessee or Missouri; the vibe is pure New York City and atypically upscale for a barbecue restaurant.
With a bar emphasis, there are several appetizers to choose from: chicken wings (smoked Jamaican jerk, rubbed/fried or slathered with choice of sauce), "bottlecaps" (deep-fried jalapenos), loaded nachos, 3-meat enchiladas, "spicy shrimp diablo" (bacon-wrapped, jalapeno stuffed) and three types of salads.
Wildwood's barbecue menu includes four kinds of ribs: pork babybacks, pork spare ribs, beef back ribs and a single "Prince cut" beef short rib. The pork ribs may be ordered as whole racks, half racks and in combination, with or without sauce. You can order the pork ribs sauced or unsauced. Beef back ribs arrive with sauce by default but can be (and probably should be) ordered without it.
Sliced brisket and pulled pork are available on sandwiches (with one side), as platters (no sides) and as "pit plates" (2- and 3-meat combinations with two small sides). There's also a smoked half chicken and smoked sausages. Sandwiches also include grilled chicken, soft shell crab, a pork/brisket/cheese variant and the Big Lou Barbeque Burger.
To add some flexibility, barbecue meats can also be ordered by the pound (or by the link for sausages).
I was fortunate to be allowed a sneak preview of Wildwood a few days before they opened. It was more of a tour than a meal, but I did get a chance to sample the wings, chicken and spare ribs, and I was impressed. My first real visit was about ten weeks after Wildwood opened, where I joined a party of three for a Sunday night visit. A month later, I returned on a Saturday night as a party of six. In the last few years I've stopped in once or twice per year, usually for weekend lunch visits. And usually with enough of a posse to allow a wide ranging survey of the meats, with repeat tastings of the key items.
Wings: Wildwood's original rendition ($9.50) isn't smoked, but these juicy behemoths are some of the better non-smoked wings you'll run across. I liked the flavor of the raspberry chipotle sauce on the wings, but thought the heavy handed saucing overpowered them. The savory dry rub wings were outstanding, with a pronounced crispness, plenty of spices and a strong salt finish. Even unsmoked, I'd order more of these on my next visit, but Wildwood introduced smoked wings (an addition, not a replacement).
Caribbean Jerk Wings: Wildwood upped the ante circa early 2010 with a smoked wing ($9.75) appetizer that's an explosion of flavor. Rubbed with both dry and fresh ingredients, these wings are not necessarily dead-on Jamaican, but are very flavorful, very smoky, very crisp, very juicy and very delicious. How delicious? After years of hearing pork compared to chicken, Wildwood's wings struck me as the first time chicken tasted downright porky, and that's the highest compliment I can give. Another high compliment is my 2011 Wings Rankings, where these took the #2 slot and best-of-NYC honors.
Chili: Presented impressively in a mini kettle ($6.95 a la carte, though not on Wildwood's most recent menu), this chili is adorned with finely chopped onion and a generous amount of a freshly shaved, high quality cheese. The flavor is much too sweet for my taste and too dependent on the finely ground beef. I'd recommend skipping the chili and getting a sausage or more wings instead.
Spicy Shrimp Diablo: An early 2009 addition ($8.95), this appetizer hits the table in a small skillet. The shrimp are wrapped in
crisp bacon to add some saltiness; a slice of pickled jalapeno inside evens things up with tartness and heat; a creamy
chipotle dipping sauce is the unifier that cuts both. This is the perfect marriage of
wedding food and bar snack.
Spare ribs ($25.95 per rack, $15.50 per half rack) arrive unsauced (standard on the early visits, selectable on later ones), moistened on the outside by a faint application of finishing glaze. Inside, the meat is bright pink and ready to emit juices upon contact. These are among the meatiest pork ribs I've ever encountered (good length, good thickness) and easily the most bodacious in New York City. I really liked the intensely porky, borderline cured flavor of the meat that's enhanced but not dominated by the conservative use of smoke and rub. With each visit, the rub was more assertive and the bark more pronounced. I was especially impressed by super fresh turnouts on back-to-back Sunday afternoon visits thar brought dazzlingly intense flavor and supreme juiciness. Getting fresh-from-the-smoker product on a dinner visit should never be taken for granted. Getting it not much later than noon on Sunday is a feat, and Wildwood came through brilliantly on multiple occasions. Wildwood's spare ribs are not only the biggest in the city—these reliably great ribs might be the best in the city.
Babyback ribs ($25.95 per rack, $15.50 per half rack) are lightly coated with the raspberry chipotle sauce, and its more restrained use here made it a little more effective than on the wings. On four separate visits, these were cooked to the point of being just tender enough to allow a clean bite. I liked the crisp bark and the strong porky flavor; just a smidgeon more tenderness and a slightly thicker cut are all it would take to push these from very good to great.
Beef short rib ($24.50) was also well executed, with a dark, crusty exterior and moist, pink, just-fatty-enough inner meat. The flavor was a nice blend of beef amid a backdrop of subtle smoke and spice. It's somewhere in the same league as its counterpart at Daisy May's.
Denver cut lamb ribs ($22.95 per rack, $11.95 as a half rack add on) are sadly no longer on the menu, but I'll keep the description, both for posterity and in hope that they'll be reprised down the road. They twice bore a fully developed bark outside and a beautiful pink smoke ring around the well marbled inner meat. The rub and smoke, both used more aggressively here than on the other meats I sampled, combined to supply the perfect foil to the gamey lamb flavor and fat-fueled succulence. I'm generally not a lamb fan, but their magnificence on two separate visits converted me, so much so that I'd probably rank them among my favorite barbecue items ever. It's a shame that they're gone.
Beef back ribs ($24.95 per half rack) is a recent addition that essentially a replacement for the lamb ribs. This entry is more akin to the beef back ribs at Hill Country and Blue Smoke. On a Saturday afternoon the beef ribs tasted reasonably fresh, and I was pleased with the quality of the meat itself: plenty of girth, hardly any fat and plenty of liquid rendered fat fueling the moisture and flavor. There was just enough savory/sweet rub and smoke to mingle with the beef, which sang lead. Smoke was moderate. Tenderness was nearly ideal, allowing a clean bite. The Wildwood rendition is significantly more meaty than the ones at the
aforementioned Hill Country and Blue Smoke, less rub dusted than at
either joint, not quite as crispy as the one at Blue Smoke and free of
the annoying membrane you get at Hill Country.
of three ordered the quartet of beef ribs with three unsauced ribs
and a lone sauced one for comparison (we divvied it up with forks and
knives). While I like Wildwood's chipotle barbecue sauce (the darker of
the two offerings), I'm not a fan of the house sauce that normally
adorns the beef ribs. It's too tomatoey and obscures the natural beef
flavor beneath. Make the special request and get these unsauced.
Pulled pork ($16.95 platter, $11.00 sandwich) has been the weak link of the meats so far. On the first visit, I chose a pulled pork sandwich that arrived with onion rings inside. The meat was a little overdone and the flavor was odd, as if the kitchen was working from a recipe that had a typo. On the second visit, the flavor of the pork on a pit plate was pleasing, if a little subdued, but the meat was again overdone. On the third visit, the texture was perfect but the odd flavor was back. On the fourth visit, both texture and flavor were both on the money. If you order pulled pork as a platter, it's plated as a large, bark-filled mound with two slices of white bread and a ramekin of vinegar and pepper mopping sauce (neither the sandwich nor the pork on the platter had this sauce). A few such platters I observed on neighboring tables had much more appealing pieces, with a higher bark ratio and a good looking texture. If you're a pork lover, sticking with the platter is the recommended route.
Applewood smoked chicken ($17.50) is a half bird glazed with an apricot barbecue sauce that's surprisingly elegant for a barbecue restaurant. This was moist and intensely flavored on one visit, less moist on another visit's "Best of the Best" pit plate.
Brisket platter ($17.95) nicely arranged on the first visit featured slices from both the flat (the leaner end) and the point (the fattier end), and the tenderness and flavor were both solid. The brisket that was a bit player on the second visit's pit plate fell slightly shy of that first batch but was still very good. I'm not ready to put this excellent brisket in Hill Country's league just yet, but it's close. Like the pork, I'd recommend that the brisket be ordered as a platter to ensure the best selection.
Brisket sandwich: Ordered for the first time on recent Sunday afternoon visit, the brisket sammy ($11.00) had the accoutrements omitted by request to allow the simpilicity of the beef to shine through. Everything was well above average—smoke ring, crisp edges, pleasing flavor inside and out, moist texture—but fell a little short of the now lofty expectations.
Bacon: Available on the Three Little Pigs pit plate, Wildwood's thick cut, house cured bacon may be its most underrated item. Pork belly may have become hipper than bacon of late, but this "double cut" bacon has all the positive characteristics of pork belly (rich flavor, good moisture, well rendered fat) without the negative in-your-face fat blobs.
Sausage ($14.25 platter, $4.50 single link add-on) is good, with both the meat and smoke flavors very assertive. This sausage is very similar to the kind offered at Hill Country, only lighter and much less greasy. We went with the jalapeno variety and enjoyed the faint heat and peppery fruitiness.
Big Lou's Barbeque Burger: An 8-ounce custom mix of brisket and other secret cuts from Pat LaFrieda, who supplies Shake Shack, among others, is served with fries ($13.50). It's well-seasoned, juicy and flavorful inside and out, and they don't go crazy with the barbecue sauce. The crisp bacon brings both porkiness and saltiness to the equation; caramelized onions and sauteed mushrooms are a nice touch; the ordinary bun is somewhat out of place for this otherwise extraordinary burger.
On my fourth visit I noticed that Wildwood was offering a good assortment of lunch and dinner specials with items not normally on the menu, so I opted for a few of those. There was no way I wasn't going to try the venison rib tips on that Tuesday lunch visit. Cooked to a crisp outside and tender but slightly chewy inside, the tips were coated with an offshoot of the apricot glaze that's also used on Wildwood's chicken. There was some noticeable gaminess to the meat, and the glaze provided a nice foil. I also cut the sweetness by sprinkling on some of the tableside Rib Dust.
I also tried the quesadilla, made with Wildwood's smoked brisket, mushrooms, caramelized onions and plenty of diced tomatoes. This was a nice little appetizer, with plenty of beef flavor but not too heavy for lunch.
Duck spring rolls were executed competently and featured more apricot, this time as a dipping sauce. These have since been added to the regular menu, and I hope Wildwood considers doing the same with the venison rib tips.
Each table has a condiment caddy with Wildwood's classic barbecue sauce, Big Lou's secret sauce (raspberry chipotle), Dirty Dick's hot sauce and Wildwood's rib dust (dry rub). The classic has too much of a molasses and corn syrup flavor for me, but I like the raspberry chipotle sauce when used sparingly. It reminds me of the Blues Hog sauce that seems to always do well in competition. I'd also like to see the apricot sauce that's used on the chicken added to the caddy, and possibly also make its way into some other dishes.
Sides ($4.95 to $6.95 a la carte) are a mixed bag. Although I had no life or death issues with them, the sides generally didn't come close to impressing me as much as their counterparts at other top Manhattan BBQ joints or as much as the meats at Wildwood. Cornbread, served in a mini skillet, had a pleasingly coarse texture, with varying levels of moistness on my two visits. On the first visit they forgot to drizzle on the honey. The skin-on fries that accompanied the burger were thin and crisp. Baked beans were slightly al dente and more than slightly ketchupy. Calling the straightforward asparagus al dente would be an understatement. Cole slaw had a muted herbal flavor and a super thick condiment that might have had sour cream in it. Potato salad (no longer on the menu) was also fairly plain. Panko breadcrumbs made a nice counterpoint to the velvetty mac and cheese, my favorite of the sides I've tasted thus far.
There's no getting around it: with mostly a la carte ordering and high price tags across the board, the tab at Wildwood adds up very quickly. With tax and tip, one whole chicken wing winds up being almost $4.00. Big Lou's burger is great, but $13.50? Ribs are actually a bargain here, especially for the quality.
Wildwood is that rare place that has authentic barbecue but is also "Saturdayworthy" enough to serve as the perfect setting for a date. On my Saturday visit, there were actually several all-female parties, dressed in expensive cocktail dresses (probably drinking expensive cocktails), enjoying the barbecue as much as the mixed and all-male parties scattered throughout the room.
Although the pit plates offer a convenient combination of two or more meats and the implied value of the included (small) sides, the platters are the way to go. You'll pay a little more, but you'll get far better presentation and meat quality. For me, that's a better value.
The servers are mostly well informed and efficient. Even during busy times, the plates hit the table within minutes of being ordered.
Yes, this is a BR Guest establishment and, yes, they do have plans to open more locations. I'm as much of an advocate of the one-of-a-kind mom and pop joint as anyone, but when Wildwood is on its game, they're better than any mom-and-pop joint.
Sides are still a weakness.
The Bottom Line
The prices are high, the sides have been uneven at best and the vibe is anything but barbecue. But the caliber of the smoked meats here is equally high—sometimes wow-inducing high. Throw in some recent consistency and I call them one of the top four barbecue restaurants in New York City.
Rebuttal to Time Out New York's Hatchet Job of Wildwood
Beef Aficionado's review of Wildwood Barbeque
NY Post feature on Wildwood Barbeque
Restaurant Girl's review of Wildwood Barbeque
Time Out New York's review of Wildwood Barbeque
White Trash BBQ's review of Wildwood Barbeque
Yelp reviews of Wildwood Barbeque
Urbanspoon reviews of Wildwood Barbeque
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