Note: Widwood Barbecue closed in January 2014. Shelly Fireman (owner of Redeye Grill and Trattoria Dell’Arte) will turn it into an Italian restaurant (yawn!) called Floriana.
The restauranteur Stephen Hanson generally sticks to tried and true formulas. So it’s no surprise that he has now opened Wildwood Barbecue, a few years after the barbecue revolution arrived in New York.
Hanson is known for commercializing cuisines without really mastering them: think Ruby Foo’s. Except for three-star Fiamma, Hanson’s eateries invariably seem flashy but mass-produced. As Grub Street wryly noted, it was telling that Hanson hired his interior designer (David Rockwell) before he’d hired a pitmaster.
Hanson quieted the skeptics when he hired Big Lou Elrose, formerly the deputy pitmaster at New York’s best barbecue restaurant, Hill Country. But Wildwood has a lot to prove, as great barbecue inNew York is no longer the rarity it once was. Hill Country, Blue Smoke, and R.U.B. are all short distances away.
Stephen Hanson tries to be funny: “Get Sauced”Ironically, Wildwood is located on the site of one of the few Stephen Hanson failures, Barça 18, a tapas place that even Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert, as consulting chef, couldn’t save. With Wildwood, Hanson has reverted to the kind of corporate restaurant he does best. If Outback Steakhouse had a barbecue chain, it would probably look like this.
The barbecue here isn’t beholden to any particular region or style. Though respectable, it isn’t as good as the better places in town. Prices are modest, with appetizers $5.25–8.95, sandwiches and salads $10.95–14.95, entrées $9.95–23.95, tasting platters $21.50–28.95, and side dishes $4.95–6.95.
We got a good sample of the menu by ordering two tasting platters, which came with two side dishes apiece. This was a lot of food for two people. We brought home part of the chicken and several ribs, and the sides were left half-finished.
The Rib Sampler ($28.95) included both the longer pork ribs and Memphis-style baby back ribs. The pork ribs were meatier and more tender. The baby backs seemed a bit dried out.
The “Best of the Best” ($23.95) included a half-chicken, three slices of brisket, and a scoop of pulled pork. The chicken was the star of the meal: pink, tender, flavorful. Elrose serves it with an apricot barbecue glaze. My girlfriend thought this was superior to the chicken she’d had at Hill Country.
The brisket, on the other hand, was disappointing. It was too thin, too lean, and too dry. This was surprising from a pitmaster who’d worked at Hill Country, where the brisket is one of the best things on the menu. The pulled pork seemed merely competent.
We loved the side dishes: Crusty Cheddar Macaroni, Kettle-Cooked Burnt Ends & Bacon Baked Beans, Sweet Potato Fries, and Baked Cornbread. The first two were especially good.
The sides dishes served with the tasting platters are smaller than the sides ordered separately. A couple at the table next to us thought our cornbread looked good to share, but theirs came in a cast-iron skillet, and was about twice the size of our portion.
There are wine and cocktail lists, but the highlight is a broad selection of beers and bourbons. A pitcher of Cold Ass — not a brand we’d heard of — was $22.
Service at Wildwood is better than most barbecue restaurants. Reservations are accepted for dinner. There is a coat check girl (who refused a tip), and there was even an employee outside to flag a taxi for us on a rainy night. But the space is too cramped, with hardly an inch to spare between tables. It’s neither as comfortable nor as authentic as Hill Country.
We had no trouble getting a table when we walked in at 6:30 p.m. on a Friday night, but the place was full by the time we left. Though there’s better ’cue in the city, we suspect that Stephen Hanson will figure out a way to keep the customers pouring in. He usually does.
Wildwood Barbecue (225 Park Avenue South between 18th & 19th Streets, Flatiron District)