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First Impressions: Neely's Barbecue Parlor » the strong buzz, by andrea strong
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“First Impressions: Neely's Barbecue Parlor”

Many of you may “know” Pat & Gina Neely from their Food Network hit show, “Down Home with the Neelys.” I’ve never personally seen the show, but from what I hear, it’s a fun one. Pat and Gina are just a couple of lovebirds who love to cook messy, saucy Southern food and have a great time doing it. The pair are known in Memphis for their barbecue restaurants, more joints than full on restaurants, and now they’ve come north at the luring of Abraham Merchant (of Merchants and Southwest New York) to open a barbecue parlor right here in the Big Apple. Lucky for those folks who live on the Upper (way) East Side, it’s located on the site of the former Merchant’s space, on the corner of 62nd and 1st. For anyone else wanting to eat there, it’s rather a schlep. Then again, I live in Brooklyn and most people consider coming to visit me a haul, too.

I was surprised to learn that the Neelys are not doing the cooking at their restaurant, but I guess that was rather naïve of me. They have lives (and TV shows) after all. Instead, they consulted on the menu, but left the bear of executing it all to Texas native  and Merchant’s executive chef Wade Burch. To his credit, he’s doing a fine job serving the barbecue-crazed masses, for the most part at least.

In particular, with the baby back and pork ribs and with the pulled pork sandwiches. The man is from Texas and he can rub a rib and sauce up some smoky pork. We also loved his candied bacon: slabs of smoky, sticky sweet bacon that sort of tastes like it’s one part molasses and one part meat, in a good way. He also knocks the pinto beans out of the park, simmering them with gold nugget-sized hunks of smoky pork that turns those beans into something just shy of a meaty winter chili. Fantastic!

His mac’ and cheese is good too, served in a case iron pan bubbling with béchamel and creamy cheddar cheese. We could not finish out portion and so Emily (who is now 2) enjoyed our leftover the next day for lunch. "This is good, Mommy!" she said. I do not lie. Speaking of kids, the place is ideal for an early dinner with your brood. The food is served at lightening speed and the atmosphere is fun, loud, and casual, so if the kids scream or make a mess, no one will really notice.

While Chef Burch is doing fine with most of the menu, he's having trouble with a couple of things. The dishes to stay away from are the smoked brisket which is gray and dull; not a good combination in really any scenario. Also, the collard greens aren’t really worth it. They are, at the same time, watery and greasy. Why?

My biggest disappointment was dessert, all of which are, well, just shy of awful. Red Velvet cake is tasteless and the icing is far from cream cheese, it’s more like glue. Blackberry cobbler was just a plain old flavorless purple mess. Like a waste of food coloring. The pecan pie was fine, but really, it should be better. Maybe they can get someone to eavesdrop on the pastry kitchen at the Dutch where they are serving the kind of desserts that would do wonders at a Neely’s – flaky slices of summer fruit pie.

At the moment, there's enough to enjoy, and in time, I am sure (and I hope) those desserts will be better.

Neely’s Barbecue Parlor is located at 1125 First Avenue at 62nd Street, 212-832-1551, www.neelysbbqparlor.com

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