Corporate 'cue? No, thank you.
Fri Jul 11 2008
Photograph: Jeff Gurwin
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>2/5
“Have you eaten here before?” That was the odd question posed by my server at Wildwood Barbeque, given that the latest addition to Steve Hanson’s B.R. Guest juggernaut hadn’t been open all that long. “Well, you know we’re the first barbecue restaurant where the meats are all-natural,” she gushed, later adding that Wildwood is also “green” in terms of recyclables and such. She wasn’t defensive—with her perky cheerleader demeanor, and T-shirt emblazoned with the motto rub me tender, she was actually quite flirtatious—yet I couldn’t help thinking that the script (also recited on Wildwood’s phone system) was designed to gloss over its late arrival to New York’s barbecue renaissance.
The very 2008 hook—organic and environmental—masks a one-size-fits-all barbecue style that in fact feels quite dated. New York barbecue has come into its own over the past few years through a combination of better smokers and a focus on regional styles. For the same reasons that Hanson’s catchall Ruby Foo’s, while popular, isn’t a very good Chinese restaurant, Wildwood is not a very good ’cue joint.
“Big Lou” Elrose should know better. Wildwood’s pit master (the former cop’s actual title is “corporate pit master,” which says in a nutshell what’s wrong here) comes over from the No. 2 slot at the outstanding Texas barbecue spot Hill Country, part of a wave of specialists, along with Kansas Citycentric R.U.B., that have helped make New York a respectable place for low-and-slow cooking.
Inhabiting the carcass of Hanson’s failed Barca 18, Wildwood is everything you’d expect of a B.R. Guest barbecue joint: David Rockwell has filled the soaring space with reclaimed wood beams; the drinks list boasts 50 beers and 30 bourbons; and the music rotates between effete (Steely Dan) and roadhouse (ZZ Top).
The barbecue’s greatest-hits menu mostly misses. Given his pedigree, Big Lou should be ashamed of the Texas-derived offerings. The brisket was dry, overly lean meat as bland as leftover pot roast. The menu promises a rub, but I couldn’t detect one, unless you count salt. The Texas-style smoked sausages were even worse. At their best, Texas links boast crisp skin that encases meat so juicy it squirts you in the eye. Wildwood’s version reminded me of the “sausage” you see spinning in the rotating heater at a ballpark.
Wildwood’s Carolina efforts aren’t much better. The pulled pork, which had none of the characteristic moisture or piquant vinegar flavor, was bone-dry, as if it had been pulled off a pig hours earlier then placed under a heat lamp.
With the arrival of the ribs, the results began to improve, albeit erratically. The most successful: Memphis baby backs, which use the tasty organic meat to good effect, with firm flesh and a nice chipotle barbecue sauce. The pork spareribs were also solid. A salt-and-sugar rub created a glistening shell, and the pork itself had the kind of deep flavor you’d expect from an expensive piece of meat. Besides the glaze, though, there wasn’t much complexity: Find this on a pupu platter and you wouldn’t blink an eye. The “Denver” lamb ribs were also skillfully cooked, but again, the flavor just wasn’t there.
Sides at barbecue restaurants are an integral part of the experience (I’ve driven extra miles in the South for a great mac and cheese or dirty rice). At Wildwood, they seem too much of an afterthought. Baked beans with burnt brisket ends, a Kansas City mainstay, were atrocious. The meat was drowning in cloying gruel—if Calvin Trillin were dead, he’d be spinning in his grave. The flimsy vinegar potato chips turned to dust in our fingers, and panko-dusted mac and cheese, a fair amount of aged cheddar cheese coating the elbow pasta, was just passable, as was the wet, tangy slaw.
Ironically, the things done best at Wildwood have little to do with barbecue. Take the half chicken. Okay, technically Big Lou smokes it, but the dish works because of a caramelized apricot glaze that, when combined with the bird’s robust, gamey flesh, tasted more like duck à l’orange than a breast-and-leg special. There are also vibrant chicken wings, fried with panko crumbs and coated in Frank’s fiery RedHot sauce.
Big Lou’s burger, shockingly, is nothing short of great, mixing sirloin, chuck and brisket meat into a pungent, firm patty. A large slab of bacon adds just enough fat to make the whole sandwich succulent. Out of nowhere, it’s one of the best in the city. Desserts also outperformed the main event, with a creative chocolate-covered s’more using peanut butter and Fluff, and a first-rate ten-layer carrot cake with luscious coconut cream frosting.
That some fine dishes get lost in a sea of mediocre barbecue underscores why Wildwood doesn’t work. With those wings and that great burger, along with the large-screen TVs blaring Yankee games, perhaps there’s hope for the place—as a sports bar.