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.