Saturday, December 20, 2014

Blue Belly BBQ: Unconventional take on meats and sandwiches is worth a look.

Gallery: Blue Belly BBQ
Blue Belly BBQ Video: Blue Belly BBQ
About the restaurant
600 Catharine St.
Philadelphia, PA 19147
215-238-0615
Rating:
Neighborhood: Queen Village Parking: On street.
Hours: Entire menu Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, noon-8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 9 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Prices: $
Payment methods:
Accepts cash
Cuisine type: American; Barbecue
Meals Served: Lunch - Wed., Thu., Fri., Sat., Sun. Dinner - Wed., Thu., Fri., Sat., Sun.
Style: Chef Gene Giuffi’s smoker-powered lunch counter, just a few puffs away from his popular Cochon, is one of several new barbecue options in town, and also the most unconventional. Purists may balk at the plain meats, as smoke is used more for flavor than low-and-slow technique. But the limited menu offers other intriguingly cheffy riffs on unusual meats (venison; boar), plus a particular knack for unique and internationally flavored sandwiches.
Specialties: Sandwiches: Korean beef; pulled jerk chicken; smoked meat loaf with tempura onions; lamb barbacoa. Meat platters: homemade sausage; brisket; spare ribs; venison special with pomegranate barbecue sauce. Sides: mac-n-cheese; greens; fingerling potato salad; corn cakes. Sandwiches, $9-$13; platters, $13-$16. Three-course menu, $20. Cash only.
Alcohol: BYOB. Bring a cold and hoppy I.P.A., preferably in cans.
Weekend noise: The small dining room was rarely full, and thus a mellow 75 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)

If you are a chef or restaurateur, Yelp does not make for warm and fuzzy bedtime reading. This is doubly true if you're wired from the exhaustion of opening a second restaurant, where you're attempting the unusual with something as sacred as barbecue, and your late-night glass is brimming with a little too much Woodford Reserve.

Gene Giuffi, in the admirable tradition of decent people who've made and acknowledged some big mistakes, readily fesses up to it all: a toxic reaction to a Yelp review of one of his sandwiches, followed by an ill-advised (and undeniably rude) response via Twitter, followed by instant regret: Delete!

Unfortunately, he didn't delete his tweet soon enough. And as screen captures of his reply whooshed across Philly's soon-to-be-outraged legion of online citizen critics, the social media machine - in so many other ways a boon to restaurants - became a crowd-sourced bludgeon. Giuffi's fledgling smoked-meat counter, Blue Belly BBQ, suddenly saw itself boycotted by a noisy swath of Yelpistan. There were public apologies, and private apologies. And backlash chatter both ways.

"He felt really bad," said Giuffi's wife, Amy. "But we're beyond it. It was 'A Big Lesson Learned.'"

Unfortunately for Blue Belly, the episode was also A Big Opportunity Lost for its jerk chicken and kimchi beef gems. With the swift arrival of competitions both in the neighborhood (Growler's; Bainbridge St. Barrel House) and the barbecue genre (Fette Sau; Bubba's), Blue Belly's prime-time moment to make its case by feeding customers 'cue, not tweets, was quickly wafting away.

But with its unconventional takes on pit sandwiches and unexpected smoked meats, this modest gulp of a room, basically a counter with a handful of tables slipped into the former Little Fish, is worth a serious look.

Giuffi has earned five years of goodwill (and a devoted clientele) at his pig-centric French BYOB, Cochon, barely a block away. And his take on barbecue, not surprisingly, is a cheffy one, where the hickory and mesquite smoke from his Alto-Shaam is used more as a flavoring factor (followed by a sous-vide-to-grill finish) rather than traditional low-and-slow technique.

"Yankee BBQ," he says noting the "Blue bellies" is a reference to Confederate slang for Union soldiers. "I grew up in Brooklyn, where barbecue meant grilling."

This doesn't mean a lack of significant smoke. The meats can range from two-and-a-half hours on the spare ribs to 12 hours for the lamb shoulder. But traditionalists will not find the pink halo rings and conventional presentations they're used to.

Indeed, I found myself missing those familiar hallmarks on Blue Belly's more primal presentations - the platters of spare ribs pink and juicy, but lacking a genuine smoked-meat tug-and-chew; the pork shoulder not typical pulled pig shreds, but slices off a hunk of mahogany meat (in this case, all the better to highlight the good Berkshire shoulder.)

That said, I loved Giuffi's complex meat rub, a wizard dust of brown sugar and star anise, garlic, allspice and cinnamon. It was especially convincing on Painted Hills brisket, amped with more black pepper and coriander to work a pastrami-like effect. With a 72-hour cure and a four-hour smoke, the meat was tender and earthy from its crusty rub, but also moist enough to puddle growl-inducing juices on the brown-papered tray before me. If only there had been more: platters come with three sides, but the meat portions aren't especially generous.

There were other platter highlights, including a ruby-rare venison loin streaked with tangy dark pomegranate sauce. And Giuffi has experimented with other high-end meats, from duck to boar and "poor man's prime rib," though that slice of beef was a little chewy.

But the best reason to visit Blue Belly is ultimately its inventive sandwiches. That isn't surprising, since it was initially conceived as a lunch option for the Bella Vista-Queen Village neighborhoods it serves.

And I find myself craving a number of Giuffi's internationally inspired creations, at least with the appropriate sauce adjustments, as each one begged for just one more flavor flourish. A gingery Korean beef sandwich laced with spicy kimchi and crunchy fried shallots needed just a line of sweet barbecue sauce to be complete. The grilled jerk chicken breasts, aromatic with allspice, habanero powder, and the juicy pucker of pickled green tomatoes, demanded an extra spice-jolt of sambal-fired hot sauce. The slow-smoked cuminy lamb, so bold in its lambiness with radish and tortilla salad on top, needed vinegar sauce for moisture and tang.

There were a handful of lesser efforts: a dense falafel; and two deep-fried franks that were completely buried beneath a soulful pork stew. (Insert Philly hot dog rant here.)

But his meat loaf special - now an option on the new $20 three-course menu - was a thing of barbecued comfort beauty: a patty of smoked ground veal, beef, and pork dipped in tangy barbecue sauce, oozing melted cheddar and Swiss, and topped with the delicate crunch of tempura-fried onions.

It's unclear whether Giuffi will even read this praise (as part of self-imposed rehab, he's gone cold turkey on reading reviews). But I'm reassured by these truths: few are flawless in the quick-hit age of Twitter and Yelp. And the redemption of a great sandwich sure makes "moving on" easier to swallow. 


Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Pizza Brain and Little Baby's in East Kensington. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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