I can understand Ray Lampe's frustration. Around the barbecue circuit he is known simply as Dr. BBQ with a trunk full of trophies, stacks of awards, TV appearances too numerous to mention and no less than four cookbooks to his credit; he has certainly made an impact on the smoke scene. Yet despite all this success and all the accolades his latest venture, taking over the helm of Southern Hospitality, must seem like the barbecue equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield for SH really gets "no respect." Never mind the Dr. BBQ has probably beaten most any celebrated NYC pitmaster that you can name in competition. A Slew of less than favorable reviews, all preceding Dr BBQ's arrival late last year, followed the opening of SH, a restaurant that had it not been co-owned by pop idol Justin Timberlake would have received virtually no recognition at all for, aside from the 'Cue, it is essentially another generic Upper East Side bar. Indeed the flat screens TV's playing a dizzying menagerie of sporting events, the blaring music, the neon beer signs that line the walls and a boisterous bar crowd all make the place seem like a sports bar more than some genteel Southern smoke joint. Southern hospitality? hardly, the distracted hostess barely said anything as she shunted us to our table, past the frat boys and the stream of bus boys who scurry back and forth with heaping plates of food and who barely get out of your way. I am not expecting the doting I receive at a four star restaurant but the name Southern Hospitality will unavoidably raise expectations. To be fair our waitress was more bubbly than the hostess but hardly fawning. And the room just doesn't feel that Southern to me, despite the Elvis mural on the back wall. As I said if it was not for the barbecue this could really be another sports bar. I was also disappointed that despite the Abita signs on the bathroom wall the beer selection is far more pedestrian. The waitress looked at me in a perplexed manner when I asked for a Turbo Dog, apparently the sign is just a prop.
But what of the barbecue? Well I only sampled the two main beef dishes on offer, the brisket and a massive order of beef ribs. The brisket was beautifully trimmed, a real contrast to the sloppy, fat ridden variety served at Hill Country. While almost all of the smoke ring had been trimmed away I have to say that this brisket has the most distinctive and pronounced smoke flavor of any brisket I have had in NYC. Unfortunately it was far too dry and to add insult to injury was also a little tough as well. I also think that it is a bit expensive at just under $17. Granted you get a side of beans and coleslaw along with Texas toast and corn bread but frankly you can get a lot more 'cue for your buck elsewhere. The coleslaw was rather limp and bland but the beans, despite being a bit soupy had a hearty flavor. I don't know why you would need corn bread and toast but I suppose its cheaper than laying out more meat while still leaving your guests feeling satiated. I saw potential in the brisket but it was ultimately disappointing tonight.
On the other hand the massive, two to an order, beef rib was absolutely phenomenal and in comparison to the paltry serving of brisket a veritable bargain at $25, This is enough food for two or maybe even three people. It too comes with the same sides as the brisket which is a bit disappointing, most restaurants allow you to choose the sides and it would have been nice to add some variety since I shared both plates.
I would have to say that the beef rib is as good as I have had. Some of the finest dry rub I have tasted gave way to an ethereally succulent and tender inner flesh. Just as with the brisket it had a more distinct smoky flavor than other short ribs I have tried recently, such as those at Fette Sau, The Smoke Joint and the fledgling Wildwood. The latter impressed me particularly but I might have to give SH's incarnation a slight edge. While it lacked the thick bark and intense smoke ring it had more depth of flavor and was more meaty as well. It was also a beautifully marbled piece of beef that reminded me of prime rib. It may not be quite as tender as the one at Daisy May's but it was as good, which means that it borders on perfection. I should give special mention to the barbecue sauce which ranks as my favorite in NYC, it has the perfect mix of fire and sweetness although I could see that those with an aversion to spiciness might find it a tad picante. While the short rib really did not need it as it was flavor packed on its own it was equally good with it. On the other hand it did add need moisture to the brisket, redeeming it somewhat.
The real problem as I see it with SH is that it will be difficult to overcome the celebrity hype that surrounds it, and the negative reviews it received close to its opening. No matter how good the pit master might be, and it would be hard to find a more accomplished one that Dr BBQ, the hurdles may be insurmountable in establishing SH's culinary bone fides, being permanently dismissed as a celebrity restaurant. And that is too bad because there is clearly genius at work in the smoker. Personally I did not find dining at SH a salubrious experience. The room is not intimate in the least, even Hill Country with its communal tables offer more seclusion. The low ceiling does no favors to the sound levels and an adjacent private party room, which was packed when I ate there, tends to spill out in to the dining area. It is pretty annoying to be eating while people are literally standing over you having a loud conversation. And I think that the atmosphere more than anything is what will keep me from going back anytime soon. Certainly if I lived close by I would avail myself of their delivery and pick up options but I live in Gramercy Park, quite a distance. NYC is under going a barbecue rroaissance and there are so many options available that SH's failure to live up to its name, not form a culinary stand point, but from the other aspects that restaurant dining entails, make it difficult to recommend over its rivals. I would love to try Dr BBQ's offering under more agreeable circumstances, unfettered from the crux of celebrity and location. Until then I will be sneaking his sauce in to barbecues restaurants closer to home.
1460 Second Ave.
(bet. 76th & 77th Sts.)