Monday, May 17, 2010

Is Black Dog Doggin' It?

Dogging it
: "Working slowly or just pretending to work, when supposed to be working; particularly if others are working their fair share." (Urban Dictionary)

In all the years I've been writing about local foods, I have consistently declined to do restaurant reviews. It's just too small a town, and people are too thin-skinned. Find any fault with how someone operates, and, instead of appreciating a little constructive criticism, they are setting your inbox aflame, telling you never to darken the doors of their establishment again. Criticize someone's favorite eatery, and it's like you've dissed them personally.

In addition, after 35 years cooking and a brief stint working under a chef who was recently up for a James Beard award, my standards for both food and service are pretty high. Which means that I'm almost always disappointed at what you get for your money when you eat out. Order a steak medium-rare and have it delivered to your table way past well done. Politely send it back and have a replacement sent out 40 minutes later, after everyone else in your party has finished dessert and is fidgeting to leave. Wait staff who are rude, incompetent, or simply ignore you. Who needs the tsuris?

The last restaurant meal I thoroughly enjoyed was at St. John's, in London, more than a year ago. So I spare myself – and everyone else – the aggravation and eat at home, and eat pretty well too, even when I eat very simply.

But since the old Todd & John's re-opened as a barbecue joint, more than a year ago, people have been telling me that I HAVE to try it. Some friends even raved about it, saying they would eat there ALL THE TIME if they could. But there have been detractors as well, telling me they thought the food was nothing special. But it was suggested, darkly, that people would say that to me just to curry favor and that, if I hadn't tried it myself, I must be scared of the competition or at least of the comparison.

So, today, when my bud Perrigi and I had a ton of mulch to unload and 5 tons of compost to pick up, we did what real men do – when they're dogging it: we went out for lunch first. Perrigi hadn't been to Black Dog either, so we gave it a try. I tried the Burnt Ends from their brisket, which most people had mentioned as the best thing on the menu. The sandwich I got was not disappointing, exactly, but it was remarkable just how little flavor the meat had. I'm willing to believe that it was beef, but it had less real meaty flavor than Stan Schutte's pork. And despite the dramatic claim of being "burnt," they had almost no smoke flavor at all. Just a whiff of spice and smoke. The only real flavor came from the sauce, which was fine. But sauce does not make the barbecue. At best, the flavors complement the meat while acid in the vinegar cleanses the palate and leaves you hungry for more; at worst, it covers a multitude of sins in the meat or in the kitchen.

Since the menu claims that their briskets spend 12 hours in a wood-fired smoker, I'm at a loss to understand how the final result could be so bland. Pleasant, but bland. Last week, I sampled the best barbecue I could find between here and Memphis, and this was definitely a couple notches below that. And the best barbecue that Murphysboro and Memphis had to serve up was a notch below what I enjoy at home. And I don't claim to be anything more than a barbecue beginner. I think it's simply the case that if you start with great meat and do your best not to screw it up, the result will be better than just about anything you will find at a restaurant.

So, again, I'm not necessarily disappointed with the food. For $4.99, my meal was perfectly acceptable. You can certainly pay more and eat worse in town. Still, if I had my druthers, I'd pay twice as much for one of Farren's wagyu burgers any day.

What is both disappointing and a serious concern is the claim I keep hearing that Black Dog buys its meat from local farmers. This is simply not true. So today, at lunch, I asked our server if they bought their meat from local farmers, and she replied, "Oh, yes, we do buy some!" This she quickly qualified by saying, "We try to buy what we can." And, when pressed, "I know we get some meat from Triple S Farms." When I last talked to Stan Schutte and asked how much meat he had sold to Black Dog, his terse response was "ZERO." The closest he came was having them order some meat from him and then back out and leave him hanging when it was time to take delivery. I don't have any problems with places buying conventional meat and doing the best they can with it. But it is a problem if they are buying cheap, conventional meat and then misrepresenting it as coming from local producers. One bite will tell you different.


  1. Well...those of you that visited Triple S Farms booth at the farmer's market last summer might remember seeing flyers from Black Dog advertising the specials we did featuring Triple S pork. We have never claimed that we buy all of our meat from local suppliers, like our server said, we buy what we can. Those of you that attended our Whole Hog Beer dinner last September might remember seeing Stan at one of the seatings, we used the hog we bought from him. We did buy turkeys from him last fall, and we have bought some chicken from him as well. If you heard that we buy all of our meat from local farmers, someone has misconstrued that from the fact that we buy some meat from local farmers. One of the many nice things about being located in downtown Urbana is being so close to the farmer's market. We have slowly tried to buy products from local purveyors. We buy some honey from Campbell Apiaries, we just started to purchase mixed greens from Blue Moon Farms, and we have had some fantastic goat cheese from Prairie Fruits Farms.

    If anyone has any questions feel free to ask me at the Black Dog(or email me I will be happy to answer them.

  2. Laurence, obviously you're entitled to your opinion of the Black Dog's food (which differs from mine, by the way -- I'm one of those people who rave about the place). But what concerns me is the fact that you make false statements in your post. My husband and I attended the Whole Hog dinner at the BD -- it featured Triple S pork -- and I know that the owners have bought meat from Stan on various occasions. They're very interested in serving locally raised meats and produce whenever they can, and I commend them for that. (My husband and I know Stan pretty well, by the way; we've bought all of our meat and poultry from him for the past four years.)

    You mention constructive criticism in your post, yet I didn't see anything constructive going on at all. If your review here is representative of what you've done in the past, I can see why people become "inflamed" and have strong negative reactions.

  3. Thanks, Michael, for weighing in and setting me straight if I’m mistaken when I said categorically that it’s “not true” that you are buying some meat from local suppliers. As Lisa says, anyone who is making an effort to source their meat from local farmers deserved to be commended instead of finding themselves pilloried.

    I was relying on what Stan Schutte has told me, and if I ate out more or paid more attention, I might have been aware of the events you’ve had to feature local meats and known to ask Stan more questions. I was fairly confident of my information, because the subject has arisen several times.

    The first time it came to my attention was when Stan asked me if I’d be willing to take some meat off his hands that he was stuck with because he had it processed specifically for the restaurant only to learn that you no longer wanted it when the meat was ready. That represented at least a $100 loss for him. When I asked him later if things had changed, and Black Dog was buying any meat from him, he told me “no.” As recently as this spring, I relayed what I had been hearing to him and asked how much meat he was selling to you. As I reported, his answer was “ZERO.” (The capital letters are his.)

    If you’re really buying as much as you suggest, it’s a little surprising that Stan should be so emphatic in his denial. So, Stan may be mistaken or I may have misinterpreted what he said to mean that he had never sold you any meat, but please note that it is not making “false statements” to report what I was told. Michael, any chance you’d be willing to go on the record and tell us what percentage of meat you’ve bought for the restaurant has come from local farmers? And let me just preface that by saying that any percentage – no matter how small! – is great.

    As for my comments on the food, there’s no point in re-hashing them with fans who are pre-disposed to see any criticism as “negative” rather than “constructive.” Personally, I don’t think it’s dogging anyone to say the barbecue was too bland for my taste. Good or bad, that’s what my taste is: MY taste. In general, the response has been interesting. While Black Dog has many fans, I’ve heard from other avid cooks who also thought the food “ain’t nothing to write home about.” Even if the barbecue didn’t do it for me, there will always be a soft spot in my heart for any place that carries North Coast Brewing Company’s Old Rasputin Imperial Stout on tap.

    So, I do apologize and take responsibility for any errors in what I wrote, and I’m glad people are using this space to respond and try to set the record straight. It would be valuable if this led to a more general discussion on local meat in local restaurants, since my sense is that meat is the most under-represented of all local foods on local restaurant menus. Except for very rare “specials,” I only know of one restaurant in town that regularly has local meat on its menu. What about the rest of you?

  4. NCBC Old Rasputin Imperial Stout? I see your taste in beer doesn't match your taste in meat. That's the worst Imperial Stout out there. No subtlety at all to that one.

    As for local meat, I don't think it's a coincidence that this is the most expensive item to source locally. Unfortunately when opening a restaurant in this town, you have to account for the price point at which you will not get patrons. For BBQ, I think Black Dog could get away with charging slightly more, but I'm not sure they could charge what it would cost to get all local meat and draw enough customers. I realize things are changing, so maybe in another couple of years this will be possible. The higher end restaurants should ALL be serving local meat, though I don't think a lot do.

    And personally, I really like the Black Dog. I think it's clear that they never misrepresented themselves, though others in town might have. I admit the burnt ends have been disappointing on a couple of visits (great on a couple of others). However, my favorite is the pork belly on Saturdays.

  5. "The worst"? "No subtlety" – "at all"?! OK, Johnada, bring it on!

    Let's put our barbecue and our beer where our mouths are. The next time I barbecue a beef brisket from Stan, you bring over a six-pack of YOUR favorite imperial stouts to wash it down! I'm not shy about putting my stuff to the test, and anytime someone teaches me to appreciate subtleties of flavor that I missed out on before, then, in my book, they've doing me a big favor.

    Much as I appreciate the big, bold flavor of American barbecue and American beers like Old Rasputin, Avery's beers, or Bell's Two-Hearted Ale, I think I'm someone who also appreciates balance, subtlety, and finesse in what I eat and drink. If you think there are better beers to go with barbecue, I'm all ears – and mouth!

  6. Oh, and I contacted Stan Schutte of Triple S Farms to get more details, and here's what I learned:

    While I was wrong to suggest that Black Dog had never bought meat from Triple S Farms, it hasn't been much. In 2009, Stan tells me that I bought more meat from him than Black Dog. Now, if I did this at a time when the Club was only supplying meat to a little more than 6 people a month (and Stan was not my only supplier), and Black Dog is serving somewhere around 600 people a week (I'm guessing) then is that sufficient to claim "we buy what we can"?

    As Johnada says, there are a lot of constraints on what restaurants can do, and the price they can charge their customers is a big one. Instead of making all the meat local, which I agree is not feasible, I wonder if customers would be willing to pay a couple bucks more for one item on the menu that used meat from a named, local supplier. It would be an interesting experiment, and if customers don't appreciate the difference in quality and aren't willing to put their money where their mouths are, then, agreed, there isn't much any restaurant can do.

    And, as I said in my follow-up comment, whatever a restaurant is able to do with local food is all to the good. If we'd like to see more on the menu, then we need to think about what all of us can do to encourage them.

  7. "The last restaurant meal I thoroughly enjoyed was at St. John's, in London, more than a year ago."

    Lawrence, judging by this I think your standards are just so much higher...than everyone else.

    Seems like you're also twisting your facts around to support your "story", and relying on your *misconception* about Black Dog's local meat claims. I'm also guessing you were one of the only people operating under this misconception, but perhaps other misinformed folks can chime in to support your misunderstanding.

    I reckon a handful of local "foodies" of your caliber might decide to shun the Black Dog because of this. Alas, the line will be a tiny bit shorter for everyone else waiting for Black Dog's awesome BBQ and draft craft beer.

    Let us know when you open your own place of business (business being the key word here). I'm sure there's a market for local meats smoked to your high standards and maybe some folks willing to pay the exorbitant price for it... I'm just not sure you'll have a line.

  8. Laurence —

    I must say, it takes quite a man to go on record and state that you feel that Black Dog is mediocre at best. And while I certainly respect the fact that you are entitled to your opinion, I'm going to go on record as well.

    I've read your most recent posts and even your comments above. WOW. It seems to me that you are God's gift to BBQ, and that no one else could dare come close to your sleight of hand, and perfect smoking techniques, yes?

    One problem. You are comparing your home BBQ to a restaurant's BBQ, and well, I shouldn't have to tell you that is like comparing the current Mayor Daley's job in Chicago with the former Mayor Palin's in Wasilla.

    I think you are a bit of a megalomaniac, or at the least, a narcissist. I should know; I suffer the same problems at times, too. We all do.

    But if I were you, I'd just issue an apology. A real one. Trust me, you'll feel better about yourself and about being a part of the community.

    What you wrote was not constructive. It was you bragging about yourself and your abilities as a home chef, and spewing a lot of speculative "facts" about a local business that has quickly become as beloved as anything in this town.

    So, do the right thing. Time to man up again.

    Apologize. It's OK. Everyone will forgive you, and we can all go back to respecting what you bring to the community as well. I know I am a bit bummed by this whole thing. I know that a lot of people are. You should know that.

    That Mike Cochran, Pedro Heller and their crew are able to pump it out to almost universal local critical acclaim and long lines — well, it's a testament to their work ethic.

    Yes, work ethic. Go into Black Dog every day this coming week, and you let me know how many times you see Mike working. Not managing, not being dictatorial, but WORKING, alongside his employees, to turn out as good of a product as he can.

    That's called substance, Larbo. That's called character. The owner who not only manages his own restaurant but WORKS it as well is the type of place at which I want to dine.

    And my guess is that, in your most honest moments, you would agree.

  9. If there was a time I cost Stan money I apologize (I do not know what that is in reference to but miscomunication is always a possibility.), but I never refused a delivery and always paid when he delivered.

    As this is my first attempt at running a restaurant, I have learned plenty over the last year and a half and have much more to learn.

    We had moderate success in getting people to pay "a buck or two more" for the Triple S meat. We bought meat from Stan all through the farmer's market season last year and offered it as a special on Saturday as a way to tie into the farmer's market.

    We do have a few people that seek out the locally raised meat and they are loyal customers. The response from people who had it was very positive. The quality of the meat speaks for itself, but people have to order it. On a Saturday if we cooked two shoulders, we rarely sold all of it as Triple S. We sometimes sold it as regular pork so as not to waste it.

    I see this as a work in progress. now that the market is going, and the locally raised meat is available to us again, I am looking forward to trying out some of Stan's meats this summer. Given last year's experience I have some new ideas on how to get people to try it.

    The percentage of locally raised meat we use is low. We do our best to educate the people that are not seeking it out, or maybe haven't tasted the difference.

    That is one point where I wholeheartedly agree with you--one bite is all you need to tell the difference between an organically raised local product and its conventionally farmed counterpart. My plan is to build a business and slowly add in as much many locally raised products as I can. It may take awhile, but a little bit here and there will add up over time. It's a work in progress.

    I like real food(say what you like about them but we make all our own sauces and all of our sides) and especially real barbecue.

    I sought out the best version of commercial smoker I could find(amid all the suggestions to use the cheaper smokers that use pellets and/or use gas fired burners). There is no gas involved and we burn firewood sized logs. The briskets do spend at least 12 hours in the smoker, cooked low and slow. Come by and as many can attest I'll show it anyone who is even slightly interested.

    The best barbecue comes out of the simplest set ups, the backyard undeniably is the best place to get BBQ. Still I'm proud of what we've been able to accomplish here.

    As far as the beer goes, I try to make sure midwestern brewers are well represented here. That being said if we find a fantastic beer, we don't care if it has to come all the way from California. I'm in your camp on this one, that Rasputin was delicious.

  10. The last time was at Black Dog I had some smoked fish taco thing and I really liked it.

  11. For BBQ restaurants in the area, it's probably the best, but there certainly is room to improve.

    I've had some good food at Black Dog, and I've had some that wasn't all that special. I've had tender, smoky, moist brisket, and I've had plastic melted onto my meat (which when brought up elicited little response, and no apology from the staff).

    I appreciate any efforts that Black Dog and other restaurants make to serve local products, and I hope that the BBQ audience can pony up another buck or two to make it a more regular occurrence.

  12. Many thanks to everyone who’s putting in their two cents to make my case for me that anything less than a positive review of a local restaurant is guaranteed to have mad dogs foaming at the mouth.

    Anything less than flattery of someone’s “beloved” eatery, and you’re attacked as a snobbish “’foodie,’” a “megalomaniac,” a “narcissist,” a braggart, and shameless self-promoter. Thanks again, guys, for the lesson in what “constructive criticism” looks and tastes like!

    James, I am guilty as charged of having high standards for food and service, but if I’m at all disappointed I don’t call for anyone to “shun” the restaurant and I don’t feel any need to attack the character or taste of those who do like it. If you like it, that’s fine; eat there and be happy.

    St. John’s is an interesting example of a great restaurant because there is nothing fancy, snobbish, or very expensive about it. It’s located in a smokehouse, just a stone’s throw from the old Smithfield Market that used to supply it with meat. The walls are whitewashed, the tablecloths are paper, and the wait staff wear simple butchers’ aprons. And the service and food are excellent – if Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad is to your taste.

    Seth, if you had read my recent posts with a less rabid eye you would have seen that I do not claim to be “God’s gift to barbecue.” Exactly the opposite. I say right in this post that “I don’t claim to be anything more than a barbecue beginner,” and I go out of my way in my previous post to give all credit to the great meat I work with rather than to any skill of mine. Instead of being the self-promoting arsehole you make me out to be, my point is exactly the opposite: if you start with great materials, like the meat Triple S Farms strives to produce, then even someone as inexperienced and unskilled as me can probably make better barbecue at home.

    That’s unfair! you say, “comparing your home BBQ to a restaurant’s BBQ.” Huh? Isn’t that what we do every time mealtime rolls around: we ask where will we eat better, out or at home?

    If we can eat better at home, that’s not any knock on restaurants, any criticism of “their work ethic,” any attack on their “character.” If you re-read my post and my comments, you will see that I try to acknowledge the constraints that restaurants labor under. Running a restaurant is damn hard work, I know; too hard for me, I admit it.

    But just because you work hard doesn’t mean that you get a free pass, that you’re entitled to nothing but praise for what you turn out. And, frankly, I don’t think that I was too hard on Black Dog. I would give the barbecue I ate a score of 6 out of 10. For $4.99, that’s pretty damn good.

    Yes, gentlemen, that’s called standards. I try to lay out what my standards are – and flavorful meat tops the list – so that anyone reading my opinions can make up their own minds. And feel free to disagree with my standards; everyone can blog for free, and variety is the spice of life. But if what you really object to is standards in general, as something elitist, then, sorry, can’t help you. If what you’re really saying is that you can’t enjoy your food at Black Dog unless the “critical acclaim” is “universal,” then that’s your problem not mine.

    In contrast to such comments, dogging the heels of my post, I find Michael’s sincerity and humility as refreshing as a side of slaw. Like him, I feel that “I have learned plenty” from delving into meaty matters, and the most important thing is how “much more” there is “to learn.”

    And certainly any restaurant doing the best it can, making its own sauces and sides, and buying as much local food as it can afford, is worthy of our support. If customers won’t pay more for good, local meat on the menu, that’s a knock on us, not the restaurant.

  13. Laurence —

    I appreciate that you have standards, but your "musings" simply come off as snobby and boorish. And you know, mine have too, at times, so I can appreciate where you are coming from.

    But get real here:

    "Huh?" — are you serious, Laurence? Is that a real query? Do you honestly believe that people question whether they will eat better at home or at a restaurant? Don't speak for me, Laurence, because I know where I will eat better, and for less money. DUH. Most people do. Especially ones reading your blog.

    People dine out to interact, and to eat without having to CLEAN UP. So, when an affordable joint that serves good food like Black Dog opens up, and the lines are long, well, you know someone is doing something right.

    You would give Black Dog's BBQ a D- on your meal? I don't know what school you went to, but that doesn't look like high marks to me. In fact, if I saw that review as the aggregate on YELP, well, I'd likely never go there. But check out YELP on Black Dog, Laurence:

    Awwww. Tough to see, ain't it?

    If you've extrapolated that I somehow can't enjoy Black Dog without your approval, or anyone else's, well — that's just the silliest and most megalomaniac thing I've ever seen written. Step off the mountain, Larbo. Step off and come back down to earth now.

    But on to the most important point here. It would be one thing if you out and out just said, "I don't think the food is good." That would be fine Laurence. Who among us wouldn't give you your space to tell us your opinion? Certainly, I would, and so would Lisa or any other blogger out there. That's the whole point.

    But you act like you didn't just come out and call Mike a slacker and a LIAR. You did. The least you should do is own up to it. Look at the title of your post. That's cold, brother.

    Especially since you botched the whole Mike-fucked-over-Stan-with-an-order part of the post.

    In the end, that's what everyone is taking away from your "musings": Mike fucked over Stan and doesn't use ANY of his meats EVER.


    It's like Fox News opened up a charcuterie.

    I still loved your pickled tongue. I just didn't care for this post. Anytime you call someone a liar, be prepared to feel some backlash.

    Here it is.


    @Cleverfood Jason — I wouldn't expect anything less from you.

  14. Seth, I'm not sure how to take that after all the lashings you delivered to Laurence...

    Having traveled from here through Kentucky, Tennesse, and into the Carolinas, I've sampled a range of BBQ and have come to understand that there are many types of good BBQ. Black Dog seems much more carefully made than the relative mass-production at places like Hickory River or Famous Dave's.

    It's been long enough that Black Dog has outlasted any hype that it had when it first opened, but people are still talking about BD with excitement. Really, if we're talking about the opinion of "the people," yelpers gave BD an average 4.5, Hickory River got a 4, and Famous Dave's a 3. Li'l Porgy's got 4 or 4.5 (depending on location, I've been to neither). Black Dog is the leader of the pack, but people like a lot of places. Dos Reales, Zorba's, and Antonio's get 4 stars, but none of those are really all that great.

    It may not be to Laurence's standards, and maybe that's his loss (though he has enough of his own to sate him and a small army).

    As for the question of local claims, it has been brought up in reviews and writeups.

    I don't know if it's a legitimate source, but this is a January 2010 entry mentioning weekly Triple S features:
    Lisa mentions in a head note that "Black Dog is now serving pulled pork made from Triple S Farm's Berkshire pigs every day."

    Her initial writeup mentioned that they planned on featuring Triple S at least once a week:

    So it's not completely out of the blue that one would think they regularly served local meat. Maybe that changed over the last year, and I would completely understand that. Maybe Laurence was hearing old news, and hopefully Black Dog will continue to feature local producers more prominently in the future.

  15. I will have to also request that this doesn't devolve into a fist fight like these Oregon chefs:

  16. Jason — 

    I have no intention of taking this online argument further. I stated what I did, and I stand by it. I really enjoy your writing and Laurence's as well, but I think that it's a really bad thing for our community to thinly veil an attack like this one by stating that it's in the spirit of "constructive criticism."

    Coming from you, someone who has criticized writers on Smile Politely for not doing an ounce of research with regards to food-related articles, I am surprised that you are so quick to come to Larbo's defense here when he is not only guilty of the same, but also went on record to state potentially damaging facts in order to denigrate a local business.

    All he would've had to do was ASK Mike about the situation, and Mike would have gladly responded, as he has in these comments.

    I am sure whoever was serving him was working at the moment, and wasn't prepared to conduct an interview with regards to where Mike buys his meat. Did the server even know that she was going on record? Or did he just flippantly ask them, "Where is this hog from anyhow?"

    Instead, he extrapolated a lot of very dangerous misinformation about a local business from a server who was currently doing her JOB (not doggin' it) — and took a short, "terse" response from another local business that so obviously has much to gain from said restaurant.

    So, please — don't take this the wrong way, but I just think this was cold and poorly researched and intended to do damage.

    It goes both ways, Jason — and you, of all people — should be able to recognize that.

    Certainly, you don't just believe everything you read, right?

    Best to you, sincerely.

  17. If you're going to name-drop a town to look like an expert, please spell it correctly to give the impression that you know what you're talking about. It's not "Murphysboro". Yikes. It's Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Three "r"s, no "y". Lots of "e"s.