"There was never a doubt in my mind that I would wind up smoking anything and everything." —Robbie Richter
I first met Robbie Richter back in 2003 at the inaugural BBQNYC. The now-defunct annual barbecue picnic, which predates the Big Apple Barbeque Block Party, was my first exposure to authentic Southern barbecue. (That initial taste of slowly smoked succulent brisket straight from Richter's 17-foot offset Lang smoker also marks the birth of my meat and smoke-loving alter-ego, "Joey Deckle.")
If anyone had said seven years ago that Richter would one day be cooking barbecue with a Southeast Asian accent in Williamsburg, I'd have looked at them like they had three heads. At the time the only thing vaguely Asian about the Queens-born pitmaster was a penchant for Hawaiian shirts and the sign for his KCBS competition team, Big Island Bar-B-Que. That sign, which I have accompanied to such prestigious competitions as the American Royal and the Jack Daniel's World Championship, now graces the wall of Fatty 'Cue, the two-week old restaurant that Richter opened with Zak Pelaccio.
Like many I have been waiting for Pelaccio and Richter to open Fatty 'Cue for a long time—longer than most, in fact. I tasted their Southeast Asian spin on barbecue before anyone ever uttered the words "Fatty 'Cue." The two have been working together on and off since they met in 2005.
"I read about Zak barbecuing lamb and pork shoulders in the back yard of Five Ninth," Richter recalls. "At the time that was very unusual so I reached out to him." I've known both of them so long and have seen this groundbreaking new cuisine evolve over the past few years. I feel almost like an embedded reporter. Am I biased? Sure, but tasting Fatty 'Cue's food was just as revelatory as that first bite of brisket was seven years ago. What follows is an overview of my experiences in the past few weeks.
Southeast Asian ingredients like gula djawa, an Indonesian cane sugar, and fish sauce play a key role in Fatty 'Cue's food. A syrup made from smoked gula djawa and fish sauce is drizzled over the smoked blue crab soup ($15). Bobbing with roasted maitake and shiitake mushrooms and chunks of cold-smoked crab meat, the soup has an incredible depth, with layers of sour, sweet, smoky, and spicy flavors. This in no small part due to its complex recipe, which entails finishing the soup with a puree of smoked crab shells.
Corwin Kave of Fatty Crab Uptown describes the process: "We put it in a paco jet container and freeze it. Basically it's a frozen crab ice cream that you would never want to eat." When asked whether he ever thought he'd smoke shellfish, Richter said, "There was never a doubt in my mind that I would wind up smoking anything and everything."
"We took a Fatty Crab recipe and applied those flavors to barbecue," Andrew Pressler, Fatty 'Cue's chef de cuisine, said of the 'Cue Beef Rendang ($15). "We should have called it 'Ode to Fatty Crab Rendang.'" The hunk of beef comes with a sidecar of sweet yellow curry sauce for dipping. (I'd be just as happy drinking it.)
This luscious specimen came from Bev Eggleston of EcoFriendly Foods—meat that's seriously delicious and accordingly pricey. This attention to product sourcing is characteristic of Fatty 'Cue.
I don't do brunch, and Fatty 'Cue isn't open for brunch, but if I did and they were, the Coriander Bacon with steamed yellow curry custard ($11) would be first on my list: eggy custard I'd smear on the toast and top off with a chunk of bacon.
Smoked eggplant nam prik ($12) is like a kicked-up version of baba ghanoush. It's probably the only time you'll see an eggplant dip served with chicharrones and green mango.
Celery salad ($5) with yuzu, Tianjin preserved vegetables, and sesame oil is a counterpoint to all that rich, fatty meat. The smoky bone broth ($3), as far as I can tell, is made from the bones of almost every beast that walks the earth—I know this because I have seen Richter unloading the burnished carcasses of duck, beef, quail and other fauna from the smoker before turning them over to the kitchen to make the beguiling broth.
For some reason Pressler didn't want to look up while slicing brisket flat with his brand-new carbon steel chef's knife.
Richter has a long history of brisket-making. In 'Cue's American Wagyu Brisket ($18), slices of flat are served along with chunks of deckle that have been seared. Take a slice of flat and roll it around the Malaysian burnt end—yep you read right, Malaysian burnt end—place it in the steamed bun, top it with some aioli, a dab of chili jam, and bit of onion.
On my last visit my dining companion and I had meat for dessert, specifically the hand-pulled lamb shoulder ($18). It's served with goat yogurt and pita. Like the nam prik, this dish blends the flavors of the Mideast with those of Southeast Asia. Such cultural cross-pollination is hardly unexpected from the team that may have created the very notion of Southeast Asian barbecue. Our waiter applauded our choice of meat, instead of a chocolate bars or slice of pie, both $6.
"Whenever a restaurant has foie, I always get it for dessert," he said with a smile. Cold-smoked foie gras, now there's a fatty idea.