We were perched at the end of the bar at County Barbeque, waiting for our table and perusing the drink list when I noticed a barrel-aged mai tai on the menu and threw out any expectations that County was a traditional barbeque joint. Of course, the plaid-painted exterior was my first clue, but it all makes sense when you consider that this is the latest restaurant from Michael Kornick and David Morton.
When the pair opened Fish Bar, their homage to New England seafood shacks, in 2011, they took the traditional menu and aesthetic of a fish shack and made it cutesy and hyper-stylized, but with rather solid food. The pair seem to have hit upon a sure-fire formula, because the exact same thing is at work at County, their new restaurant on Taylor Street. But you know what? I’m okay with it, because for the most part, the food is good, the service knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and the interior, filled with plaids, American flags, a mounted deer head and animal antlers, feels like a cozy lodge.
As soon as you arrive, order a cocktail, like that mai tai, which picks up roundness from the barrel, or a refreshing paloma. However, they don't really fit with the meat and sides, so have them first and then order beers like Metropolitan, Ommegang and Brooklyn, which are available in bottles, cans or pitchers, and are a much better pairing for barbeque.
You’ll want to get an order of the smoky bacon–topped deviled eggs, one of the items available on the bacon bar menu, while you’re deciding what type of barbeque to order. County, helmed by MK chef Erick Williams, covers each regional variation of American barbeque, from Texas brisket and hot links to St. Louis spare ribs and Kansas City burnt ends. We went with the tasting platter, which includes ribs, brisket, chicken and a hot link. At $18, it can easily feed two.
The hot link was juicy, with a crackly, snappy casing and great texture, and the chicken was nicely spiced. While the lean brisket had a perfect consistency, it didn't have much flavor. The pork burnt ends and ribs suffered the same problem. A shake of the housemade barbeque sauces helps. Stick with the house sauce, based on Memphis, Lexington and Kansas City sauces and the most balanced of the three. The spicy sauce uses three types of chilies but is mild, while the tomato/mustard/vinegar sauce isn’t remotely reminiscent of the North or South Carolina sauces it’s trying to emulate and is too sweet.
A great concept Kornick and Morton imported from Fish Bar and DMK Burger Bar was offering a menu of small, affordable portions. It encourages trying more items, so make sure you order the salty ribbons of collard greens and the sweet corn pudding. Skip the soupy grits, but leave room for the nostalgic desserts. There are spoonfuls of raw cookie dough and Snickers-laden ice cream that had us reminiscing about eating Snickers ice cream bars as kids.
So, County doesn’t feel like a traditional barbeque joint. Does that matter? What matters is that the side dishes and aesthetics steal the attention away from the meat. Until the meat is a little more flavorful, County won’t be a barbeque destination. But it will be a destination for a well-made drink, a fun dessert and a snug ambiance, and that isn't a bad thing at all.