I love eating barbecue in New York. There’s no shortage of it here any more, but there hasn’t been decent barbecue on the Upper East Side, near home, since Pearson’s left 70th Street many years ago.
So my excitement was pretty obvious when Pat and Gina Neely of Memphis, buoyed by their Food Network fame, announced a partnership with the folks behind Merchants NY to transform the restaurant on the corner of 62nd and 1st Avenue into Neely’s Barbecue Parlor, New York’s newest barbecue house. I had the opportunity with my friend, PS, to visit five days after its inaugural service and check out the menu.
The space is completely changed both inside and out, and looks a bit Smith & Wollenskyish now on the outside. The smoking room/cigar bar downstairs (across from the bathrooms) remains intact, too.
Reservations at such an anticipated new restaurant are essential, so I had dutifully secured one for their first Monday evening. Once PS arrived, we were shown to our seats on the main floor. The furniture is a little mismatched, like any great barbecue joint, but the chairs are way more comfortable than the usual random cafeteria seats. It’s very dim inside, with the table candles seemingly providing most of the available light (making for long exposure times, so please bear with the photography!)
As we perused the menu, I took pics of stuff. There are three Neely’s sauces — Regular, Sweet, and Spicy — and what I think was ketchup, plus the signature dry Seasoning, on every table. The menu doesn’t really list any non-alcoholic drinks, but rest assured you can ask for pretty much anything and they’ll have it.
Except sweet tea.
What barbecue joint worth its name doesn’t serve sweet tea? I threatened (only half-jokingly) to walk out when I heard this, but I managed to hold back enough to order unsweet tea for me, lemonade for PS, and a whole bunch of dishes for the table.
We started with two appetizers built for sharing. The fried pickles looked promising: around eight “chips”, deep-fried in a savory coating. The “Secret Sauce” turns out to be a horseradish-dominated creamy concoction, and surprisingly accented the pickles quite well, and frankly, beat the sauce on our other appetizer hands-down.
These “frickles”, as Yvo is fond of calling them, aren’t bread-and-butter chips either, but had some tang to them. The pickled goodness isn’t lost in the breading, either, though I’ll be honest, it was tough in the dim light to identify the actual pickle in each chip, even when we sliced them in half for photographs.
We naturally ordered the unique appetizer. Pulled pork hushpuppies? I mean, how can you not take a chance and see what these turn out to be? Yep, small chunks of the Neely’s pulled pork in with the cornbread batter for these five golf ball-sized pups.
The “Carolina style mustard dipping sauce” here was a vinegary honey-mustard which really was nearly pointless, and as I mentioned, if we dipped the hushpuppies, it tended to be into the horseradish-based pickle sauce.
I wound up eating the majority of these as PS simply wasn’t interested after the first. They weren’t particularly greasy, just not bumped up by the addition of varying amounts of pork. The hushpuppy pictured had by far the most meat of any of them.
Right on time, our BBQ Plates came out. Each had come with a side, and we added a third just to have a wide range from which to sample. The Pork Sampler Platter is in the foreground, with the Texas Style “12 hr” Smoked Beef Brisket in back. All our food barely fit on the two-top.
First up, the pork sampler, and the pulled pork. While this was well-seasoned, with a focus on black pepper, it was… missing something. Even setting aside that I knew it wouldn’t be eastern NC barbecue, it was quite dry and definitely served as a vehicle to try the various Neely’s sauces (go with Spicy; the other two are too sweet and ketchupy).
The spare ribs, on the other hand, were rubbed beautifully and developed a nice carbonization, housing tender pork underneath. A faint smokiness permeated the ribs, and I was a big fan of the half of the chunk of ribs we were given.
I didn’t eat much of the baby backs, but what I did eat was rather tender and tasty. These could have been greasy, but instead my rib was just solidly juicy. Obviously more saucy than the spares, PS devoured these in exchange for me taking one for the team and eating the bulk of the pulled pork. The sauces weren’t necessary for either set of ribs, and they managed to salvage this platter from being unorderable again. I’m hoping the kitchen just had issues with the pulled pork this day.
Side number one was easy to choose: Gina’s Collard Greens. These were prepared with ham in the vinegar-based liquid, though no ham made it into the heaping bowl. But no matter, these were beautiful. The vinegar gave this dish a tasty, tangy bite, too, which made it worth fighting over.
The Southern Creamed Corn wasn’t mushy and liquid-laden, which surprised me. No matter: the corn was crisp, really crisp, and there was a fine mince of both bell pepper and what seemed to be chili peppers in the “sauce”, giving it a savory, spicy counterpoint to the sweetness of the corn. Another big win for Neely’s! I devoured as much of this as I could get my fork on, too.
Alas, the cole slaw was incredibly dull. We had theorized that maybe the hushpuppy sauce could serve as a base for the slaw, but no, it was just your standard cabbage and mayo-based sauce. I’ll take a pass on this next time.
And we come to the Texas brisket. Evidently Neely’s serves lean brisket in this platter, and obviously it’s brought to the table sauced. Additionally, the pile in the background seems to be fried potato, as if peeled with a “Japanese mandoline” (thank you, PS) into a long ribbon. The plate arrived ridiculously hot and the potatoes were less than crispy; PS figured this was plated too early and as the kitchen waited for the pork, the dish was shoved into the oven to stay warm. If the potatoes were crispy they’d have been interesting, but as it was, they were forgettable.
The brisket, on the other hand? Fork-tender, still very juicy, had its smoke ring, tasted so meaty and tasty (and some of it had a thin layer of fat on it), didn’t need its sauce though it was actually complemented by it, and was served in a proper portion for the price. I counted this one as my favorite meat of the evening, with the spare ribs a close second. PS went with the baby backs as her top choice; basically, if we’d just gone with a rib platter instead of the whole three-pork platter, a lot of disappointment could have been avoided.
Oh, and the pickled okra, barely visible at left, was really, really good. I highly recommend pickled okra.
Room was left for dessert, so hello, blackberry cobbler! Alas, the blackberry slumped in the iron pot (whose lid was hooked over the rim into the dessert, weirdly) so one half of the pot was cake, one half fruit. Including the ice cream (likely not housemade) the cobbler was quite sweet and probably needed a little sourness, like a squeeze of lemon, to balance, but I liked it fine and it ended the meal on a pleasant note.
Our meal at Neely’s definitely wound up hit-and-miss. The brisket and the ribs were delicious and well worth ordering, but the pulled pork needed lots of help. The sides fared better: the collards and creamed corn were excellent, but the cole slaw was mediocre at best. There’s NO SWEET TEA. And the dessert was good, but not oh-ye-gods good. I consider the smoking lounge downstairs to be a good thing; unlike some commentary I’ve read, there was no smoke leakage to the upper floors whatsoever, just like when it was a Merchants, though yes, if you use the restroom you might actually smell smoke. The horror!
I’m willing to give Neely’s the first-week jitters as an excuse, because the food was either very good or had potential for the most part. And since it’s so close to home — and you’ll want to walk off your meal anyway — I really want Neely’s to succeed. Definitely give them a try and see if they’re improving all the time!