This restaurant is closed!
308-310 Bleecker St (Grove St)
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 206-7817
Hours: Mon 5:30pm-10pm Tues-Sat 5:30pm-10:30
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Chef: Anita Lo
2nd Cuisine: Asian
Area: West Village
Entree Price: $15-$30
Payment: Amex Visa Mastercard
Trends are a curious phenomenon. I always marvel at how in the course of one month, four new high-end burger shacks, or a half-dozen new ramen joints can open. Or how suddenly everyone is living in Ditmas Park, or wearing skinny jeans and ballet flats. Where do trends start? How does it all happen? (See Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point for more on this.) And when a trend is growing and reaching its peak, is it best to refuse to follow or to get in line and be a sheep? Or is there perhaps a third possibility—a way to somehow follow the leader, but to do something new at the same time? Is there a way to take the road more traveled but to somehow make it seem unchartered?
Yes there is. And this is precisely what Anita Lo has done with Bar Q. She’s opened a restaurant that fits snugly into the barbecue bonanza that New York has been experiencing over the past few years (Wildwood being the latest entrant to its community), and instead of hopping on that honky tonk train and serving Ball jars of whiskey punch in a setting marked by red and white gingham cloths, rolls of paper towels on table tops, peanut-shell covered floors and Johnny Cash walking the line on the juke box, she’s done the opposite. She’s opened a decidedly feminine restaurant cloaked in cool white and chrome, with high-backed booths in pure milky leather and shiny tables the color of straw dressed with silver placemats and fine flatware. You’d never guess that inside, a chef was smoking and grilling. But she is, though she’s left the smoky brisket, saucy pulled pork, and sticky ribs of American regional barbecue to the able pitmasters of this city, and instead decided to turn her attention to the fiery and pungent barbecue of Asia—Korea, China, Japan, and Thailand. In short, she’s managed to open an un-barbecue barbecue restaurant. Nicely done.
The idea for Bar Q actually predates the barbecue explosion by some years. It was back in 1996, when she was the chef of a restaurant called Mirezi. It was a clubby Pan-Asian spot on lower Fifth Avenue that served dishes like spicy green papaya salad and Chinese barbecued ribs. And it was at this unfortunately ill-fated space (which is now Danal) that Lo conceived of an idea for an Asian barbecue restaurant. It took 12 years for her vision to come to life with Bar Q. I’m glad she didn’t give up.
Kathy, Julie and I met at Bar Q last week where we started off with one of Margaret Lo’s Margaritas (an ode to her sister, served on the rocks, infused with Kaffir-lime leave, with a chili-salt rim, $11), a Japanese Pickletini ($13)—Hendrick’s Gin, cucumber ice and Japanese pickles (very refreshing), and a Shiso Julep, made with Makers and Lime ($12). As we looked over the menu, Kathy gave me some tips on my trip to New Orleans’ Jazz Fest, where I was heading for the weekend. It was my first time and Kathy is a regular. “You’ve gotta stop by at The Gospel Tent. And in between the music you can have plates of crawfish, andouille, and beer,” she said. “It’s amazing.” Craig had given me pretty much the same description of Jazz Fest (with a few more food descriptions and a vote for lots of Zydeco), which I was very excited to experience on my own.
As we looked over the menu and sipped on our cocktails, the wire basket filled with papadams, flatbreads and rice crackers was obliterated was reduced to nothing but crumbs in seconds. The selection of appetizers at Bar Q can be a way to start a meal, or if you prefer, an entire meal. Whichever route you chose, I would order the unagi and scallion fritters—warm and fat, with a sticky sweet soy dipping sauce ($12). While I’m not sure I tasted all that much unagi in there, it didn’t really matter. I loved the greaseless puffs and the sharp flavor of the scallions and the sweetness of the sticky soy together.
The steamed buns are very good as well—a do it yourself plate of spit-roasted pork belly with cracklins, kimchee and green sauce, though for $13, I’d have expected more than two buns and a bit more than just two slices of that delicious pork. Tuna ribs ($15), marinated in yuzu and chiles with a bright cucumber and pickled onion salad, are a bold idea and one I’d never seen before. But on the night we had them we had them they tasted only of pepper and were gray in color, which made them sadly resemble something that should have been in the trash. Kathy had enjoyed them a few days earlier and was surprised at their taste and color. Apparently when she’d had them last time they were seared pink and rare, with enough meat to nibble off the bones with enjoyment, not frustration.
But lobster spring rolls ($16) are the complete opposite of those skimpy gray ribs. Huge claws of sweet buttery lobster meat teeter on rings of “spring roll”—pasta-like napkin rings of fresh rice noodles stuffed with sautéed greens. And entrees were also uniformly excellent. Some of them show off a flair for gentle tea smoking, with Long Island duck breast seasoned with lemon and chiles, and a more ambitious plate of tea-smoked chicken, which is a revelation. Crisped brown skin swaddles moist white and dark meat and a stuffing of Chinese sausage and sticky rice ($19, for a portion ample enough to share with a friend or two.)
The stuffed spare rib ($23) is bound to become a Bar Q signature that Anita will never be able to take off the menu. She splits a fat and tender lemongrass barbecued spare rib in two, filling its center with a slather of peanut and Thai basil paste, so it sort of resembles a spare rib and peanut butter sandwich. It beats PB&J hands down, plus it’s neat and tidy, no wet naps needed.
While meat is the main attraction on her menu (there are nine entrees and seven of them are meat), she does offer a vegetarian dish of miso-glazed eggplant, its flesh buttery and soft and tucked inside skin slicked in sesame ($9/$18). While an icy raw bar loaded up with oysters and sashimi makes up the bulk of the seafood choices, she also serves a terrific seafood stew that’s sort of a Korean bouillabaisse with a fiery red kimchee broth loaded up with scallops, mussels, shrimp, flaky white fish and fantastic fried cubes of silken tofu ($25), like miniature fuzzy dice bobbing in the soup.
Unlike most barbecue restaurants, her desserts offer a decidedly light and refined finish. They do not arrive in large troughs drizzled with bourbon sauce. Instead, there’s a frothy chilled coconut soup with seasonal fruit and mint ($8) and warm sesame mochi with caramel XO dipping sauce ($8). They’re about as unbarbecue as you can get, which is the point, I suppose. Trends can come on stronger than a Clinton on the campaign trail, but they can be fickle and quick to retreat. And while I think the barbecue phenomenon is here to stay, it’s likely that it will jump the shark at some point soon, and that some will be sweeping up peanut shells and packing up the Ball Jars of whiskey punch, while Anita Lo keeps on tea-smoking chicken and Chinese sausages, and splitting meaty spare ribs and slathering them with Thai peanut sauce in a Bar called Q.
Review By: Andrea Strong