Friday, July 20, 2007

Hill Country NY

I must admit that I greeted the news that a new barbecue restaurant would be opening in midtown with disdain. Not because I don't like barbecue, far from it but what seemed so abhorrent to me was the way it was described - a barbecue restaurant with live music and a market place seeking to recreate the Texas road house experience. I remember commenting at the time that the only thing that could make the whole concept worse was if Dolly Parton's name was affixed to it in some capacity, frankly the whole idea wreaked of theme restaurant. It turned out that Hill Country's opening coincided with the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party and I was able to sample some wonderful offerings from their smoker at the event. Despite being newcomers to the BABBP Hill Country produced some of the finest food I ate at the whole event. Their beef ribs, smoked over Post Oak were wonderful, deeply flavorful, a crisp caramelized exterior gave way to a moist succulent interior. They also pulled out a few rib roasts for the lucky few who happend to be around and this dish was equally captivating.

So, heartened by my experience at the BABBP I decided to venture in to Hill Country. Occupying a large space on 26th St in Manhattan the interior is tediously designed to replicate Kreuz (pronounced "Krites") in Texas. In other words they spent a small fortune to make it seem as if they spent nothing at all. I find the whole theme restaurant utterly tiresome, just give me good food in a comfortable environment. The more you try to make it seem as if one is in anywhere other than NYC the more one is reminded that that is exactly where you are. I much prefer the decor at RUB and Blue Smoke, for example, sparse modern rooms that focus on the food. It is not that the space here is pretentious as much as it is just a bit tacky, the t shirts, barbecue sauce and other merchandise on sale reinforces the theme restaurant vibe, the only thing missing is a life size cardboard cut out of Dolly Parton.

The system for ordering and paying they have established is absolutely the most ridiculous, convoluted one I can imagine. Upon entering you are presented with a meal ticket ala Katz deli, you then queue up at various stations - meat, sides, desserts and drinks and then seat yourself at communal tables. Sounds like a cafeteria but unfortunately there is no unified line but rather there is an individual line for each station. The meat station, the logical starting point for ordering is actually furthest from the entrance way. There are trays available but they are craftily hidden away from the meat station and the servers simply hand you your food on big sheets of butcher paper. The whole system would be far more efficent if there was one line that went from station to station as oppsed to the chaos that must ensue when the restaurant is packed. When you sit down the service gets slightly schizophrenic as numerous bus boys and waiters buzz around getting you water and taking drink orders. Yes you can get your own drinks but you can also get table service which makes for further confusion when it comes time to pay, who do you tip? Obviously if the waitress gets you drinks you tip her but what of the bus boys? They are generally fastidious in clearing your rubbish and keeping your water glass full and certainly deserve something. There is a tip jar by cashier but I always leave a few bucks on the table instead. Once you finish eating you then take your meal ticket that has been marked at each station and head to the cashier at the exit.

But logistical complaints aside what of the 'Cue? I ate there numerous times in the past four weeks and while it initially met the expectations set at the BABBP there has been a precipitous and alarming decline in quality as of late. When I first ate there the pitmasters I recognized from the BABBP were all over the place, carving brisket, pulling racks of ribs off the smoker, generally overseeing everything and maintaining quality control. Lately it seems that wage workers are handling almost all the duties. Consequently, the food is uneven in execution. Too bad because for the beef lover the offerings are bountiful - ribs, moist and lean brisket, shoulder, prime rib and sausage.

Moist brisket, beef rib and sausage.

The beef ribs have almost always been outstanding when they are available, however twice in the last few weeks they were completely sold out. This beef ribs is a welcome addition to the NYC barbecue landscape. Formally the only beef ribs generally available in the city where the enormous Oklahoma beef rib from Daisy May's USA and the salt and pepper beef ribs from Blue Smoke. While Daisy May's rib is superb it eats more like a brisket than a rib having so much meat on it that it requires a knife and fork, I have always found the Blue Smoke ribs to be over cooked with precious little flesh, often coming off more like jerky than 'Cue. The Hill Country beef rib is a good mid point between the two, offering a generous amount of meat but also a lovely crispy, crunchy exterior. The beef has an impressive smoke ring and a hearty flavor. They are moist enough that they do not require sauce. Indeed the sauce they do serve at Hill Country is humerously called "If you gotta have it." It is actually closer to a steak sauce than a barbecue sauce and it is tasty albeit superfluous.

Prime rib

The "prime" rib is quite good but I am not as enthusiastic about it after eating a large slab as I was tasting it at the BABBP. Perhaps it was the novelty of the whole thing at the time but I prefer my prime rib roasted. I should note that "prime" rib is a misnomer here, and actually almost all of the time. A true prime rib is the rib roast section of a steer that has been designated as Prime beef by the USDA, anything else is simply a rib. If this was really prime rib it would cost a lot more than the $30 per pound that Hill Country sell it for. Never the less, the beef is served commendably medium rare, the flesh is juicy and tender with a deep smoky flavor.

The sausage from Kreuz market is actually a beef pork mix but I often find this makes for a good combination, the mild sweetness and tenderness of the pork juxtaposing nicely against the bold beef flavor. The sausage, especially the jalapeno cheddar variety is simply delicious but it was undercooked on one occasion. The other beef items have been less consistent. The shoulder, a unique menu item around these parts, is flavorful but a little too lean for my tastes, as was the lean brisket which was also a bit dry on the lone occasion I tried it.

Moist brisket

The moist brisket on the other hand can be excellent but more often than not it is completely untrimmed of fat, I assumed the moist moniker derived from the internal marbling of the cut not the external fat, apparently this is not the case. Seriously, a brisket needs to be trimmed, I don't expect to leave a quarter of what I pay for on the plate because it is pure fat. This leads me to another complaint, on a number of occasions the food has been far too greasy completely soaking the butcher paper. But when it is right the brisket here is as good as any brisket in the city, tender, moist and succulent with a bold oak flavor.

As for the sides they are a bit of a let down. While the barbecue follows traditional models in seasoning and flavor the sides are the work of Chef Elizabeth Karmel and thus they are contemporary urban interpretations of traditional sides. This makes for some odd choices, the coleslaw has raisins, the mac and cheese uses Penni, at least the baked beans with burnt ends tasted great and veered closest to traditional preparation. I am not sure why you would import beer, soda and ice cream from Texas, pattern you menu on a Texas institution and then mess with the sides, but there are a lot of things that I don't understand. One thing I really appreciate is the roll of paper towels and the mountain of wet wipes at each table, the wait staff is also quite attentive and helpful. What the restaurant lacks logistically the staff attempt to make up for with enthusiasm.

If this review comes of as hyper critical it is only because I have experienced some wonderful 'Cue at the hands of the Hill Country pit masters and thus recognize the restaurants potential. Certainly the ambitious menu has a lot of beef for the aficionado but perhaps it is a little too ambitious, the beef shoulder and the lean brisket for example are quite similar and I wonder how many people would really choose the shoulder over the brisket. But the alarming decline in the quality of the 'Cue needs to be addressed. I really think it comes down to quality control and having experienced pit masters at the smoker. I understand that this is a new restaurant and that there will be growing pains but one expects things to improve over time, not get worse. From the curious sides to the schizophrenic service to the convoluted ordering system there is a lot to work to be done but insuring that the kitchen lives up to the restaurants potential should be job one.

Hill Country
30 West 26th Street
NY, NY 10010
212 255 4454


J.B. Rynders said...

Dolly Parton is from Tennessee, not Texas.

Nick said...

Sorry about that, can I claim artistic license? I was alluding to the whole Dollywood theme park vibe.

Texan said...

"If this review comes of as hyper critical it is only because I have experienced some wonderful 'Cue at the hands of the Hill Country pit masters and thus recognize the restaurants potential."

But you didn't know that 'moist' brisket is called moist because of the big slab of fat on one side? Interesting...

Nick said...

Texan, you seem adept at quoting from my review, perhaps you could have quoted this statement:

"The moist brisket on the other hand can be excellent but more often than not it is completely untrimmed of fat, I assumed the moist moniker derived from the internal marbling of the cut not the external fat, apparently this is not the case. Seriously, a brisket needs to be trimmed"

Backyard Chef said...

I just found this review and appreciate how thorough and thoughtful it is. I love Hill Country, too, but find the decor and ordering system endearing. It is loud in there, though....

Glad you liked the food-- I think Robbie is a great cook.

At the Block Party, I brought my pit and ran the fire for I really appreciate that you enjoyed the experience....Cheers!