Is it just me or does the woodsy, intoxicating smell of barbecue permeate the air at Smoke BBQ House? You would think it's coming from an honest to goodness barbecue pit. And the menu itself would bolster that quite rational assumption. So how is it humanly possible that the meats here barely taste like they've come within 10 miles of a smoker?
And that's a darn shame, cuz from the outside looking in Smoke looks like a real southern style barbecue joint, replete with cute red stools, barn board and red lanterns. But there ain't nothin' southern about how freezing it is inside. And if you don't want to take my word for it, ask the girl with her coat on eating gooey ribs with her sweater rolled half way down her hands.
Perhaps the place might feel a bit warmer if the open kitchen looked less like a theatre set with chefs who were actually cooking in it. Where are they? Who's on the barbie? There's no grill sizzle, no smoke wafting through the air, no clanging pots. The only noise we can make out is the sound of annoyingly loud rock.
Of course these petty complaints would be quickly forgiven if what they turned out was as sweet and succulent as the menu tantalizingly promised. But they aren't and it isn't. The problems begin with a pound of smoked wings ($12). Boy are they big, and with a gorgeous spice rub. But oddly enough there's nothing remotely smokey about them. And instead of being crispy, the skin is on the flaccid side. And yes, while its cute for each place setting to include its very own silicon sauce spreader, it's not really worth your wrist's effort for the so-so Texas, the vinegar-challenged South Carolina, and worst of all, a signature Smoke described as "a zesty white sauce loaded with flavour." You mean mayo spiked with sesame oil? Hmmm, I thought the theme was Southern, my bad.
Not to be catty (who am I kidding?), but a Caesar salad ($8) is more suited for a retirement home cafeteria and/or a rabbit cage. How teeny do you actually think you need to chop lettuce before it no longer poses a choking hazard? We're informed its gloppy dressing is made even more awesome with the addition of pork belly bits and parmesan dusted croutons. Where, please show me? We address the issue with our server who returns from the kitchen with the remark, "Apparently there is pork belly there." And apparently, I am Hugh Jackman.
Louisiana gumbo ($6/cup; $8/bowl) is described as "the real deal, Cajun style made with pulled chicken, spicy chorizo and shrimp." Not sure it's much of a deal with its one slice of sausage, no chicken, and a few overly chewy shrimp. And the amount of mushrooms used in this thick, spice-challenged creamy tomato base is staggering. The only redeeming qualities are the surprisingly superb and slime-less okra with a lovely crunch, and the accompanying piece of cornbread.
Now really, how hard is it to prepare an order of mussels ($12), also served with the aforementioned cornbread? Well the first mistake was serving them on a flat platter as if thrown out of a moving car. But the bigger travesty is a white wine and plum tomato sauce that resembles nothing so much as roadkill. Oh yeah, and these too were about as smokey as Rebecca Black's singing voice.
With openers gladly out of our sight, will mains save the day? When two teetering racks of baby back ribs ($25) arrive that could tip over the Flintstone mobile, we're all smiles. These ribs may have been slow cooked by a pro but certainly not flavoured by one. Meaty, moist and fork tender they are, so yay. But again, where is that elusive barbecue-smoked flavour? Stephen Hawking could have made these.
A huge mound of pulled pork ($12) is certainly serviceable, but it too relies heavily on a tomato sauce for its added flavour. It's as if the meat wasn't moist enough on its own, it needed a drenching. And where is our fresh coleslaw? About the only thing that truly merits any mention is the corned beef brisket ($15). Albeit greasy, it's the only dish with a wonderfully smokey flavour, exactly what you'd expect from this deli cut. But it is too little too late, even with flawless sides like a mac 'n' cheese, waffle fries, collard greens and good old fashioned baked beans with a slow-cooked sweetness that can only come from being homemade. All this and a maple cinnamon bourbon gelato ($6) with a taffy-like pull that will blow your mind. But not enough of it to make you forget what came before.
I've been told that first-time restaurateur Francesco Grandi also holds down a full-time day job. Well, you know the old saying? And while chef Tony Gallippi demonstrates some deft skills with meats and sides, I beg you to spend more time on the smoke before your business goes up in it. And for goodness sake, lose all those lame starters. Who needs a big build-up for BBQ? It's all about digging right into the gooey good stuff, juices and sauces running down your chin. Sadly ours remained completely dry.