Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blue Smoke: Not a Fan

My evening at Blue Smoke started interestingly enough. I was photographing the outside of the restaurant and jazz club, when a gentleman tapped me on the shoulder.

“Miss,” he asked. “Can you tell me what’s so interesting about the outside of this restaurant?”

My dad, as any proud papa would, jumped in immediately and shouted, “My daughter is a food blogger!”

The gentleman, not a tourist at all, but a very important fellow behind the Blue Smoke empire, considered this, took a business card out of his pocket, and told me to give it to the host, who was now following this exchange curiously from the other side of the window. “He’ll take care of you,” the gentleman promised.

A very nice gesture, but, as I insisted to the pleading faces of my dining companions that evening (Dad, my brother Bill, Lori and Todd), to give that card to the host would be committing the cardinal sin of food blogging: using your “power” (I use that word loosely given the 40 or so visits I get on my blog each day) to receive special treatment once inside a restaurant. No—to play that card would compromise the integrity of our dinner.

This, while sound logic, did not sit well with said dining companions, who wanted the free shiznit.

Do it,” my brother whispered to me more than once, as we waited for our table. It was 7:45 p.m. Our dinner reservation was for 8:00 p.m. I felt the crisp edges of the business card in my pocket, and hunger pangs in my belly.

At 8:25 we were seated, and to Blue Smoke’s credit, we were told to choose any appetizer off the menu as an apology for our wait.

The plan for the evening was to take advantage of New York City Restaurant Week: Winter 2010, and enjoy a 3-course dinner for $35.00. But this didn’t happen. The choices just didn’t seem like a $35 value. For instance, one of the entrees was the Kansas City Spareribs. On the regular, non-NYC Restaurant Week menu, a half-rack ran $14.95. We did the math, and it didn’t seem plausible for the Restaurant Week appetizers (I remember one being a braised veal cheek), and the dessert (one was a chocolate silk pie) to add up to the remaining $20 you would need to total $35.

So, while all five of us strongly considered the Restaurant Week menu (it was the impetus for our visit); all five of us ultimately decided against it, and went with the regular menu, which seemed like a better value.

First, let’s take a look at a highlight of the evening. Here’s the complimentary Crispy Chili Crusted Calamari with Charred Red Pepper Mayo ($12.95):

[First, my apologies for the bad photography to follow. I put a candle next to most of our dishes, hoping for some added light, but all it really did was eff with the white balance to make my shoddy photography harder to fix in Photoshop later.]
I don’t know if it’s because everyone at our table was starving at this point, but this dish went over quite well. The calamari were well-cooked, not greasy or rubbery; there were deep-fried lemons in there that added a welcome zing, and the mayo had a delicious kick. A promising start.

Before we get to our orders, I’ll mention the service at Blue Smoke. I was very surprised at the lack of personality. Blue Smoke is one of famed restauranteur’s Danny Meyer’s restaurants. And Danny Meyer is all about hospitality—he’s written books about this philosophy, and his empire has been built around it. Heck, the lady who took my order for a ShackBurger at Shake Shack actually made me feel good about waiting almost two hours for a burger. At Blue Smoke, however, I don’t remember anything about our waiter other than he kept telling us to lift up our menus in order to set stuff down. And that he made himself scarce for the rest of the evening.

Onto our dinners.

For the most part, we didn’t like them.

Unless your name is Todd. We’ll address another highlight for the evening, his meal, the Filet Mignon with Chipotle Bernaise Sauce, Mushrooms, Leeks, and a crispy goat cheese potato cake ($34.95):
Todd’s not a dessert person, and he had already had his share of calamari, so he figured why not use his $35 Restaurant Week budget on something he really wanted. Enter the Filet. My problem with this logic (at the time) was that we were at a rib joint. I was worried he might be setting himself up for mediocrity.

But turns out, Todd’s filet was just about the only thing that was smokin’ at the rib joint that night. The filet was tender and juicy, with a nice seared finish, the mushrooms tasted as if they were sautéed in the drippings from the filet, and the potato cake? Suh-weeeeeeet. Pile all three elements together, with a dollop of tangy and buttery Chipotle Bernaise, and you have a darn near perfect bite. Better than Morton’s (although that’s easy), better than BLT Steak.

Here’s a picture of Bill with his Pulled Pork Platter with Pit Beans and Sesame Slaw ($18.50):
Not only does this picture illustrate the effect of three Chimays, it also provides a useful scale to fully appreciate just how much pulled pork was on Bill’s plate. It was a silly amount.

Bill took a couple of bites and deemed the pork “ok.” I agreed. It was a little dry, but not off-putting—it just wasn’t something I would want to eat a lot of. The beans were nothing special, but the Sesame Slaw was incredible. Different and refreshing—had a bit of an Asian twist. I think there might’ve been some rice wine vinegar in there as well as sesame oil, which gave it a clean finish.

Here’s a picture of the half-rack of Kansas City Spareribs ($14.95).
They’re described on the menu as “big, juicy, spicy and sweet,” but the juiciness translated to greasiness at our table. No one liked them! Surprising, after all I’ve read about them, and the restaurant’s reputation. I’ll stick with Warren’s ribs, thank you very much.

We also ordered side dishes, since nothing came with the ribs (another reason we weren’t feeling the Restaurant Week menu): Macaroni and Cheese ($7.95), Hush Puppies with Jalapeno Marmalade ($3.95), and Cornbread ($3.50):
The mac and cheese was totally lackluster. And this is coming from a gal who loves mac and cheese. It reminded me of Velveeta’s, although I like Velveeta’s—so this was like bad Velveeta’s mac and cheese.

I’ve never had Hush Puppies before (I believe it’s a cornmeal-based fried bread), so it’s hard to judge, but it tasted a bit like fried grits. The jalapeno marmalade was too sweet for me, as well.

The cornbread was a travesty. It tasted like eating a stick of fried, greasy butter. I couldn’t even taste the corn. Even though there were only two pieces for our table of five, there was a whole piece left when our check came.

Bottom line: I’d be willing to write off Blue Smoke completely, if I didn’t enjoy stealing “perfect bites” from Todd’s plate so much. It was a terrific filet. Still, I doubt we’ll be back with so many stellar restaurants in the city.

Blue Smoke dining companions: you were cracking me up all night with your assessment of our dinner. What am I missing? Leave your own point of view below!

And Happy Birthday, Paw!

Blue Smoke
116 E 27th St
New York, NY 10016
(212) 447-7733


  1. Right on the mark Sharon... Two thumbs up for the review. On the positive side, I did like the overall atmosphere and with the very notable exception of the Men's room (can't imagine when it was last cleaned!) the rest of the restaurant appeared very clean: something I generally notice immeadately. The company was SUPER. Thanks for a great birthday. - 'Paw'

  2. It's odd that the service wasn't all that, given that it's a Danny Meyer place, like you said. My mouth is watering for that goat cheese potato cake. I do love me some goat cheese... mmmmmmmmm....

  3. I think this review is accurate. Although, I do remember you saying that the cranberry juice from the bar was "good." :-) I thought the hush puppies were average. I mean, I'm not an expert on them, but I feel like they were the same as I used to get at the HoJo's when I was seven or eight. I think we need to pick another place and go out again!

  4. Yup, your assessment is right on. Although, truth be told I did love the Mac n Cheese!!! But then again I've always had a soft spot for Velveeta. When I was growing up, my family use to have it at least once whilst on week long sailing excersions. So I'm not sure if I had a taste to memory flashback, but I can assure you I'd order the Filet and Mac n Cheese again in a heartbeat. I LOVED my meal (each bite was a perfect bite), but HATED everyone elses.