The city’s fast-improving barbecue scene now has a literal cock-and-bull story. The cock: Justin Timberlake, who, not content just bringing sexy back, now seeks to bring back baked beans at his Southern Hospitality. The bull (see “Bulled over,” page 64): a mechanical version, dispatching the drunk and the foolish for the amusement of diners at the Rockefeller Center tourist trap Johnny Utah’s.
Surprise: Neither of these places is the least bit authentic. Timberlake’s Upper East Side spot is little more than a sports bar—flat screens everywhere, deafening rock and a faux roadhouse vibe akin to Brother Jimmy’s a block away. Yet there’s a line out the door of rubes who seemingly hope that Cameron Diaz, or perhaps at least Lance Bass, might be here, munching corn bread while watching the Yankees game.
While the bar scene seems to favor Bud Light, Southern Hospitality’s vittles hew largely to the regional standards of Timberlake’s native Tennessee, and do one thing—ribs—surprisingly well. The giant beef bones are first-rate: The fleshy meat possesses the rich, yeasty flavor of aged flank steak. On the pork side, both the slightly charred Memphis style and firm baby backs, carry a nice hickory flavor. Another surprise: great fried chicken. Don’t expect panfrying, corn-bread coating or anything fancy. This is your standard KFC batter-and-oil execution, but the crisp coating encases moist, juicy meat.
The rest struggles against mediocrity (or perhaps embraces it). Watery pulled pork is spooned over a low-rent nacho platter that’s at best a guilty pleasure. Ditto the mac and cheese, which is more like fondue with a few flecks of overcooked pasta. The brisket is thick and rubbery, the coleslaw holding on to dear life after a mayonnaise overdose. The peach-cobbler crust was unforgivably bland, but Southern Hospitality’s pecan pie, a recipe allegedly borrowed from JT’s grandmother, forsakes the gooey usual for a crunchy rendition packed through with nuts.
Not everyone’s got a grandma looking out for them. Apparently, nobody told the Johnny Utah’s crew that a mechanical bull was a good idea sometime around 1980, the year Urban Cowboy came out. No matter. A quarter century later, there it is, the centerpiece of the industrial-meets-Western dining room, handily disposing of a parade of cowpokes game enough to sign the waiver acknowledging the risk of “permanent paralysis and death” so they can ride the beast.
When in Rome: I took my turn, hung in for a good 30 seconds, then got violently thrown, which also describes my dining experience. The food combines barbecue, Mexican, Tex-Mex and any other cuisine that could possibly justify a cowboy hat (which still doesn’t explain the name, derived from Keanu Reeves’s character in the surfing movie Point Break).
Johnny Utah’s fails miserably at all of them. There’s a stack of hickory wood, but it seems more for prop than proper use. Chef Marlon Manty spent some time at Blue Smoke, but there’s zero evidence of ’cue chops here. The ashen meat splintered off the bland, dry pork ribs. I couldn’t stomach a second bite of the mealy beef brisket without first drenching it in barbecue sauce. Two pieces of corn bread, perversely carrying a $5 surcharge, were as cold and hard as plastic.
Judging from the meal’s pace, each dish receives all the love of a McDonald’s burger. One meal saw the appetizers arrive within three minutes and the entrées, ten minutes after that; desserts, like a cloying banana pudding crowned with crispy vanilla wafers were, again, delivered almost instantaneously— keeping pace with my disdain. When a food critic finds himself pining for the days of Justin Timberlake’s barbecue, you know the rodeo’s over.