First Look: Butcher Bar in Astoria
"I got sick of driving to Brooklyn for good meat."
So says pitmaster and butcher Matthew Katakis, and so began Butcher Bar, an effort to bring quality meat and serious barbecue to Queens. Though Astoria is hardly lacking in good eats from an infinitude of cuisines, American barbecue doesn't have much presence (newcomer John Brown Smokehouse excepted). Unlike its Brooklyn smokehouse neighbors Fette Sau and Fatty 'Cue, which also tout responsibly sourced, high quality meat, Butcher Bar is designed to be a butcher shop first and a restaurant second. As it happens, barbecue was added to encourage thrifty Astorian locals to pay a little more for non-industrial meat. It's a hell of a carrot to complement an already carrot-like stick.
Butcher Bar's first commitment is to its meat, an ethic that rings clear through its butcher case and barbecue offerings. Beef comes grass-fed or grass-fed grain-finished; pork and poultry come pasture-raised. Most of it is locally sourced, and organic when possible. Later in the year, lamb will join the meat case, but not until it comes from somewhere closer than New Zealand. Freshness is also paramount; there's no freezer here, so there's no concept of old meat.
The barbecue itself is serious stuff, spiced and smoked with enough restraint to let the meat shine through. Some dishes are certainly stronger than others; ribs and burnt ends are just about perfect, but the pulled pork comes overly sauced and sweetened. Chef Orlando Sanchez (whose resumé includes stints at Austin's Uncle Billy's and Williamsburg's Mable's Smokehouse) plays fast and loose with his 'cue styles. The menu journeys from Texas to Kansas City to St. Louis to—yes—Philadelphia (a Philly cheese brisket sandwich. Believe.). Along with the traditional barbecue come steaks and burgers, one of which is an 80/20 blend of brisket and bacon. As Katakis (an Astorian born and raised) is quick to point out, Butcher Bar is about getting good meat into the hands of his neighbors, not barbecue doxology: "we're Astoria barbecue."
Butcher Bar occupies a cozy space. Wooden walls add aesthetic warmth, but they're also an homage to older smokehouses that used wood for insulation. An added benefit: the walls absorb and radiate aromas from the smoker in the open kitchen, in effect turning the dining room into a meat spa. There are fewer than ten tables, but a wide patio space in back yearns for summertime. At the far end of the patio lurks a 5 foot rotisserie, which Katakis promises will roast whole pigs and lambs. The liquor license should be ready well before then, all but a guarantee that Butcher Bar will be a popular summer hangout spot.
The year is young for Butcher Bar; both the kitchen and the butcher shop are still figuring themselves out. Beef is dry aging now after the last batch was lapped up in the restaurant's first few days, and Katakis is always seeking out top-notch sources of meat and poultry. Though it's primed to become a citywide barbecue destination, it has all the charm of a beloved neighborhood joint. We're excited to see what comes next, though it seems pretty obvious that Astoria's 2012 is already looking bright. And smoky.