"Hi, I'm your server, and I'll be right back!"
Well, that was quick. Our blur of a waiter was frazzled, but nice enough. And he did pause again at the table several minutes later, visibly perspiring on this bustling weekend night at the Lucky Well in Ambler. He wasn't ready yet to talk food but reassured us that a special order had been placed: At any moment, we should expect ice for our lukewarm, somewhat funky water.
Opening a major full-service restaurant is hard enough, let alone for the first time. Trying to open one that serves great BBQ is even harder. The fact the Lucky Well was struggling with something as elemental as serving cold water was a warning sign.
But hydration troubles were only the beginning.
The Lucky Well is an absolutely appealing proposition. Perfumed with the heady aroma of smoked meat, a wall of 150 whiskeys glowing amber, it is a handsomely wrought magnet of a space that strikes just the right tone of casual suburban-urban style for the heart of rising downtown Ambler.
The decor has polished curb appeal - with tall communal tables and white subway-tile accents in the bar, hardwood floors, earth tones, and dark-wood tables - that brings to mind the image of a Pottery Barn attached to a smoker and shelves of bourbon. Given the rustic roots of the cuisine in question, the upscale look inevitably has a double-edged effect: at first a pleasant surprise ("this is nice for a BBQ place!") followed by suspicion at the lack of soulful personality ("this is too nice for a BBQ place").
Of course, all that really matters to BBQ obsessives is the carnivore's quarry - those slabs of spice-encrusted meat - and the primal power they can hold after a slow trip through the smoker. And owner Chad Rosenthal has a modest pedigree to stoke expectations.
The 39-year-old Ambler native abandoned a more lucrative career in book-printing and junk-mail sales for his lifelong love of the pit, launching a modest Rosey's BBQ spot in Jenkintown five years ago, followed by another popular branch in Ambler.
Both were closed as Rosenthal prepared to open this far-more-ambitious, 160-seat, full-service space, replacing the Shanachie last fall. It has been goosed by the national attention of his TV turn as one of the final four on a recent Next Food Network Star, the show that once gifted us with Guy Fieri. And the local crowds have come, possibly lured by the impressive list of brown spirits (from Angel's Envy to Hibiki) and sweet Mason jars of Kentucky Tea.
I don't doubt Rosenthal's passion for BBQ. I could taste those good intentions on the St. Louis pork ribs, the bones dusted Memphis-style with spice, the pink-haloed meat clinging just right. The Lucky Well's chicken wings also wore their smoke well enough. But I should have stopped there.
Food Network notoriety is no guarantee of culinary genius, a fact made abundantly clear by two meals in which virtually everything else fell flat.
Rosenthal's kitchen goes through what sounds like the proper motions for BBQ magic - rubbing meats for 24 hours with a signature 15-spice blend (and brining for the birds), then letting them ride for up to 15 hours in a Southern Pride smoker fueled by hickory and white oak.
But somewhere between that smoker and the table, the rest of the meats that arrived here on paper-lined metal trays simply lost their oomph, their smokehouse imprint faded from flesh that was no longer juicy, nor, in some cases, very warm. The half-chicken was dry. The pulled pork was flecked with good charry bits of bark, but its overall personality was dimmed by too much of the Lucky Well's sweet and tangy sauce. The brisket was adequate, but too lean and not very tender. The house-smoked sausage might have been more compelling had the base link been better than corporate food service quality.
Rosenthal concedes that consistency in holding meats at their peak is his biggest challenge ("I can serve anyone stuff right out of my smoker, and they're going to be in love"). But it can be done. A neighbor last weekend catered a party with Fishtown's Fette Sau, which left aluminum trays of meat warming over Sterno. Two hours later, I still couldn't stay away.
My favorite meat item here, aside from the ribs, was the Lucky Well's signature burger, a still-juicy patty with onion jam.
The pulled pork found a promising second life studding the gooey core of the Lucky Well's deep-fried mac-and-cheese balls. But the brisket's cameo over a "Texas poutine" was still not convincing, the bland beef cubes paired with too-cold cheese curds, and barbecue sauce over frozen fries. It was still better than the spinach-cheese fondue, a crock of sludge barely melted by the tea candle our frantic waiter lighted tableside with a Bic. That item has wisely been replaced with a fondue that might actually work - whiskey-and-cheese with house-made pretzels.
There was an appealing mahimahi with corn and tomatoes for the non-BBQ-believers, but at $24, it was too skimpy, and clumsily overcooked. The Lucky Well also makes a modest effort to feature produce, although calling bell peppers "a seasonal vegetable" is a stretch. The colorful roasted beets over whipped goat cheese with celery-root chips was a far better example. The weirdly acidic smoked-tomato soup, a potentially promising vegetarian option into which the kitchen needlessly slid a long strip of chewy bacon (not so easy to eat with a spoon), should be another candidate for menu rehab. The doughy fried pickles should be cut thinner, too. Make the kale Caesar dressing less gloppy. Add fewer gratuitous hunks of bacon to the Brussels sprouts. Tone down the sweetness in the beans. Try not to burn the corn bread, and, please, stop bottle-squirting globs of honey butter on top that, from the wrong angle, looked almost obscene.
The sweetness here is best left to the ringers, some excellent Southern-themed pies brought in from friends of Rosenthal's. Sweet Ruminations in Warminster makes a fine pecan worth ordering. But especially go for the occasionally available Baltimore Bomb. This decadent variation on chess pie is made by Rosenthal's onetime competitor on Next Food Network Star Rodney Henry, of Baltimore's Dangerously Delicious. It's good enough to make me think a reverse road trip from Ambler to Baltimore is worthwhile.
Chef-owner Chad Rosenthal introduces the Lucky Well at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.