There is a brisket recipe that functions like gastronomic heroin. Drown the thing in ketchup, mustard and Coca-Cola. Cook it long and slow. Stand back and watch gastronomes melt into submission. You have tamed them with the triumvirate of addictive tastes: sugar (in the ketchup and the Coke), salt (in the mustard) and vinegar (also in the mustard). Add meat; the town is yours.
Doubt this? Try to get a table at Barque Smokehouse. Cynics may argue that buzz can be manufactured on the internet. But Barque has real buzz. It takes a week to get a mid-week table, there are already diehards going back for more … and more … and more.
So what is it?
It's meat. Great big honkin' hunks of meat. With sugar. An amazingly simple formula.
Barque is the child of David Neinstein (who joins us from the world of advertising, having not previously been a restaurateur) and Jonathon Persofsky, also a refugee from the corporate world. One can easily picture two good-ol'-boy buddies in their suits hatching this bid for freedom from the concrete canyon. Little did they know how complicated it would be running a restaurant that went gangbusters in a short two weeks..
One weekday evening we have a 7:30 reservation (made a week previously). It's 7:34 and we're not there. We start calling to tell them not to give away our table. They don't pick up. Ten minutes of unsuccessful frantic re-dialling later we're there and they tell us they gave away our table because we were late. We cool our heels a while at the bar, where there's a staffer giving a lesson (right beside us) to a newbie on where to put the dirty glasses. Half an hour later, there's a staffer polishing cutlery. Do we mind? Kinda.
Not that Barque is a pretentious or formal restaurant. It is cleverly designed, an expansive and generous room. There are other barbecue joints in town (Drake BBQ, Highway 61, The Stockyards, Phil's Original BBQ, Black Camel, Back Alley, Lou Dawg's) but none is as stylin' as Barque, with its thick butcher-block tables, some high-top, some regular height. The walls are carefully distressed concrete and brick, in the suave manner of $250 jeans with holes. Lining one wall are unplaned rough wooden shelves with bottled preserves. At the back is a takeout counter wrapped around the open kitchen. At the bar in front there are always happy solitary diners chowing down on wings.
It's a feel-good joint, with a gigantic smoker at its heart: A 500-pound stainless-steel behemoth (from Tennessee) dominates the open kitchen, its maw forever fiery. It takes 12 hours for the barbecue champs to cook/smoke a brisket, which they sat is a cross between Montreal smoked meat and Texas brisket. I would go to Barque for the brisket. Again and again. It's succulent and juicy and just sweet enough.
Barque habitués are mad for the rest of the menu, although the chefs generally use more sugar than I prefer in my food. And more smoke. Coconut corn soup is inappropriately sugary. As are the barbecue wings - super tender, but too much sugar in the rub. Same deal for peel 'n' eat shrimp - too sweet. The garlic helps, but not enough. And besides, peel 'n' eat is a Gulf-shrimp thing from the southern U.S. Doing it with those nasty shrimp from Thailand is like making strawberry jam with winter strawberries. As for chicken tenders, does the world really need chicken deep-fried in batter with Buffalo wings hot sauce?
When the good ole boys do less cooking and more smoking, things go better. Smoked chicken is moist and genuinely smoky, blessed with a traditional barbecue sauce. Dry-rubbed baby back ribs are similarly smoky, assertively spicy, and (like so much at Barque) too sweet. Miami beef ribs are a thing of beauty: Big, tender, not too sweet, soft on the inside and almost crisp on the outside.
Sides show effort, creativity and the willingness to take a risk. Sometimes it works. There is great charm in Cuban corn slathered with anchovy and cheese butter. The bite of pickled daikon, beet, green bean, cauliflower and sweet peppers from the jars on the wall goes a long way towards cutting meat grease … and sweetness. The fries are great despite being slightly overcooked. Their Caesar salad is very garlicky and blessed with homemade, fat croutons and smoky bacon. Spinach salad has been cleverly cranked with crisp chili'd candied pecans.
We're guessing they bring in the ravioli. Not exactly their kitchen's style, but damn it's good: al dente, spinach and ricotta inside, sage butter outside. Same deal with the pecan pie, whose short crust is a credit to all things southern. Which one cannot say about the smoked pineapple that accompanies three fresh fried beignets. Why anyone would want to smoke pineapple is beyond me.
Maybe they were just taking the campfire thing to the next level. This seems to be the restaurant's niche. Adding Greg's roasted-marshmallow ice cream to pecan pie is like channelling the best camping trip in the world. Add it all up: All the wood on the walls and tables, the roasted marshmallow thing, the smoky everything, the popcorn on the bar - it's the ultimate Canadiana. Restaurant as camping trip. Is that why everyone loves it? Is it simply a matter of beloved imagery?
I think not. The camping imagery helps build warm fuzzies and good vibes, but what's propelling Barque all the way to the bank is that sexy trio: Meat, sugar and grease. You can introduce foodies to new exotica all you want, but the likes of wild leeks, fiddleheads and everything else vegetable can never compete with our atavistic addiction to meat. Add sugar, smoke and grease, and you won't be able to keep the crowds away.