Neely's Barbecue Parlor
1125 1st Avenue, New York NY (between 61st and 62nd Streets; map); 212-832-1551; neelysbbqparlor.com
Service: Very friendly, and extremely fast (our entrees arrived before we finished our appetizers)
Setting: Clean, well-designed, soulless. Like BBQ World, Epcot Center
Cost: Appetizers $5.25 to $14.75, Mains $15.50 to $25.95
The Neelys, of Food Network fame, are no strangers to barbecue. Long before husband and wife Pat and Gina Neely landed their TV deal, their uncle, Jim Neely, opened up Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Que in Memphis, Tennessee—a respectable barbecue joint by any standards. In 1988, Jim then went on to help his nephews Tony, Gaelin, Mark, and Pat open up their own barbecue joint, dubbed Neely's Bar-B-Que. There are now four locations of Neely's in Tennessee, two in Memphis, and two in Nashville. Neely's Barbecue Parlor in New York marks the first out-of-state foray for the family.
And if Neely's in New York were half as good as Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Que, everything would be hunky dory. But it isn't.
It's a concept restaurant to the core, a barbecue theme park of sorts; the kind of place that would feel right at home at Epcot Center. Having been to the original Jim Neely's Interstate, but not the younger generations' Tennessee joints, we can't say for certain that their barbecue has the potential to be any good. All we can say is that Neely's Barbecue Parlor feels like a Food Network restaurant all the way. Here's the concept: Food Network barbecue couple teams up with owner of large restaurant in Manhattan (Merchants) to rebrand and revive the space. They took the Food Network branding even one step further when they chose Wade Burch, winner of Food Network's Chopped to head up the kitchen.
All of this is to say that the restaurant feels utterly impersonal; and what's the point of barbecue with no soul?
That said, as a barbecue concept, it's not terrible. The appetizers are the strongest part of the menu. Sauteed Jumbo Shrimp and Grits ($14.75) pairs slightly gluey, but rich and creamy grits with well-cooked, well-seasoned, plump and crunchy shrimp. In general, their country cooking was more impressive than their barbecue.
We couldn't exactly taste the pork in the Pulled Pork Hushpuppies ($7.25), but they were plenty fluffy with a nice South Carolina-style mustard sauce. Hickory Smoked Chicken Wings ($9.25) lacked any kind of crispness to the skin, but at least they were juicy, coated in a sweet and smoky chipotle BBQ sauce.
Candied Thick Cut Slab Bacon ($7), on the other hand, resembled bacon jerky. Dry, stringy, and lifeless. We let ours sit on the table until the end of the meal.
Another reasonably good country cooking staple, their Chicken Fried Steak ($19.95) was too thick and covered in a fried batter that quickly turned soggy; but at least it was tender, moist, and well seasoned. The cream gravy, on the other hand, was gloppy and almost mayonnaise-like in texture. Chicken fried steak is a dish that can go wrong in any number of ways. This one went wrong in about half of them.
Surprisingly, the Kansas City-style ribs ($15.50/$25.95 half/full rack) were the best barbecue, even though the Neelys hail from Memphis. Memphis is home to lots of good chopped and pulled pork, but the pulled pork on the Pork Sampler Platter ($21.95) was amongst the worst we've had anywhere: lifeless, stringy bits of pig-flavored protein. Memphis Baby Back Ribs ($15.50/$25.95 half/full rack) were also bad: dry to the core with stringy, tough bark. Neely's might be one of the first names of Memphis barbecue, but it's not for food like this.
If you could get out of your head that the Texas Style Smoked Beef Brisket ($15.95) was meant to be barbecue, then you might find it mildly enjoyable. It's tender, moist, and well seasoned, but it's got nothing to do with good Texas barbecue: no smoke ring, no smoky flavor at all, no bark. It was well-marbled, juicy pot roast; it just wasn't barbecue.
Some of the side dishes were quite tasty. Spicy Pinto Beans with Burnt Ends ($4.95) were unusual and quite delicious (we wished some of those burnt ends found their way to our brisket), as were the Black Eyed Peas with Pork & Bacon ($5.25). The french fries were nothing special.
Desserts were no better. Pecan Pie a la Mode ($7) was goopy, and not even the accompanying scoop of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream could save it. Blackberry Cobbler ($7) was boring with pasty, undercooked topping. Only the Red Velvet Cake ($7) was passable.
And that just about sums up the restaurant: a nothing-special, pretty generic upscale barbecue joint in New York City that we neither want, nor need. What we do need is more real restaurants serving real, honest food by people who actually cook or appear at the restaurant every day. Neely's is a conceptual, barbecue-by-numbers kind of restaurant, and it's hard to imagine anyone in the kitchen feels like they live or die by each rib they send out.
It's truly disheartening, because normally, when someone opens up an ersatz barbecue joint in New York, it's because they don't know any better. But in this case, the Neely's come from serious barbecue lineage with a history of real, solid barbecue joints in Memphis. How weird is it that they then come to New York and open up a barbecue joint that has almost nothing to do with real barbecue?
—Ed Levine and J. Kenji Lopez-Alt