May 12, 2008 | Insatiable Critic

Wildwood Barbeque Plays to City Slickers

 
Juicy baby backs, lamb ribs and fat-streaked short rib are triumphs. Photo: Steven Richter

        Faux smoke and applied grime in the illusionary glass roof above Wildwood’s raucous 50s bar and a bold mix of rustic barn siding with industrial iron suggest that pit barbeque belongs to the big city. Or so restaurateur Steve Hanson hopes to prove in the sprawl that was once his wildly successful Park Avalon and later, the short-lived Barça 18. Of course it must be already abundantly clear that the irrepressible carnivorean hunger of urban dudes and even urbane babes feeds the city’s surge in barbeque spots as well as its steakhouse frenzy. 

        We have the obligatory dish towel napkin and such passion for detail as iron horseshoes holding up blackboards listing bourbons and beers. Maybe the tableware is a tad too citified for the hog pit image but Hanson didn’t build his feeding empire discarding perfectly fine china just because he changed the house’s theme. Every chair at each table is different, designer David Rockwell's trick to suggest flea market whimsy, or more likely, to utilize Hanson’s warehouse.  I’m just guessing. The lighting is a gift too. The house is shadowy, dimming after 7:30. But hooray, we can see our food! That iron desk lamp clamped to the table in our booth even lets our over-forty eyes read the menu sans flashlight.

 
Steve Hanson’s Wildwood draws serious eaters and frivolous drinkers. Photo: Steven Richter

        On our first very early visit, fans of Texas brisket, Southern pulled pork and Memphis dry ribs - amateur and professional - are piling in to check out the smoker pitwork of “Big Lou” Elrose, the former cop from Ozone Park, self-taught on the ‘Q circuit, recruited from Hill Country. His deftly balanced, not too sweet baby backs, savory lamb ribs, irresistible slices of juicy brisket and the mammoth short rib on the bone are worth the hike, and the spicy ribs are a must.

        It’s early, though, and at this point, the dry ribs dusted with Lou’s own rub are just that - too dry - and the sausage is unremarkable. A splash of Lou’s own bottled condiments helps. The chili skimps on cheddar and onion and needs to be less sweet. But we love the sweet potato fries and the salt ‘n’vinegar chips. The macaroni and creamed spinach are good enough too. There are the usual creative cocktails, a roster of bourbons and a dozen beers on tap, unremarkable salads for sissies and sensational beer-battered fried jalapeño slices for chili-heads - I forget I vowed to eat just one.

 
Spicy wings and beer-battered jalapeno slices for those who love the torrid.  Photo: Steven Richter

        One week later, the dry ribs are already juicier, the brisket as luscious as remembered and the lamb ribs could be our favorites. Hanson rushes by, spies my guy, and asks how we like everything.  I smile enigmatically (at least I hope that’s what my lips are doing).  I figure I’d be paid thousands as a restaurant consultant yet I would never do it as long as I’m still a critic. But the Road Food Warrior feels no such restraint. “The chili is too sweet and needs more cheddar and onions,” he says.  Hanson frowns, picks up the offending chili and speeds away, George C. Scott as General Patton.

        About dessert… If you’ve already gone whole hog, not even the sanity of sorbet will save you. Be advised that pastry star Elizabeth Katz’s creamy frosted carrot cake is for real. My fork collides with Steven’s, a sorbet-zealot normally immune to the call of sugar. But the chocolate wedge that looks so impressive – a slightly stunted tower compared to the ultimate chocolate layered skyscraper at The Strip House - is not even a distant relative.

225 Park Avenue South between 18th and 19th Streets. 212 533 2500

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