Bite Me

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I sometimes regret that I was born a Yankee. Truly, I think a part of me (some piece of my insides mysteriously wedged between gut and gullet) was misplaced at conception -- put into a Rust Belt boy, but meant for a creature acclimated to gentler Southern latitudes.

It's like an extra organ, this piece. Something small and hidden from medical science behind one of those less interesting bits of internal machinery like the spleen or pancreas. But it beats like a second heart and hungers like an extra stomach, and when it gets down to doing its biological business, it makes me crave barbecue as only a Southern gentleman can.

When the fever comes over me, I stalk around the kitchen like a caged animal, eating Pop-Tarts and leftovers in an attempt to quell a non-specific craving for something I just can't put my finger on. I tear through the fridge like Yogi Bear through a picnic basket. I fuss. I fidget. Under normal circumstances, I am a fairly intolerable creature to live with -- cranky and loud, keeping unusual hours and always coming home smelling of whiskey, with sauce stains on my best shirts. But in the first stages of barbecue withdrawal? Forget it. My wife is in the market for a high-powered tranquilizer gun, if anyone out there is selling.

As the craving gets worse, I become more desperate. I'll sometimes go into a sulk and do nothing but sit on my couch watching Iron Chef reruns or old Barney Miller episodes for hours. At other times, I'll go out and pick up fifty dollars' worth of Asian takeout, hoping to find something to scratch my itch. But it never works, because there's really only one thing I want, and that thing is barbecue.

As I'm not just a Yankee, but also a straight blue-collar suburbia, fish-on-Fridays Mick, nothing in my socio-cultural makeup accounts for this wicked barbecue jones. My childhood memories aren't stocked with folksy recollections of Granny in the kitchen pulling pork or Granddad sneaking moonshine into the sauce. I didn't attend a lot of church picnics, and those I did go to were spartan, utilitarian affairs with weak coffee, bug juice and stale doughnuts as the penitential offerings at the communal table -- not potato salad, not cornbread, not fried chicken or huge platters of barbecue.

I can trace the first fluttering twinges in my Dixie organ back to Rochester, New York, sometime in the late '80s. There was this barbecue joint, called Hercules Chicken and Ribs by its fans (its true name having been forgotten at some point or just lost to my own spotty memory), that sat right on the edge of one of Rochester's nastier neighborhoods -- a frictive point between the punk holdouts and modern hippies of downtown and the post-industrial housing projects just outside. Hercules had a big yellow sign, battered plastic seats, and burn-covered Formica tables that looked like they'd been torn out of a McDonald's whole and just screwed right to the floor. For decor, there were two bullet holes in the ceiling over the cash register and mousetraps in the corners. And all you needed to know about the menu was contained in its name (official or not): Hercules did chicken and Hercules did ribs.

I loved this place with all the irrational exuberance of a misspent youth, and when I went there, I ate. I had my first ribs there, my first smoked chicken -- all of my first real barbecue experiences. And you know what they say: You never forget your first time.

While the food at Hercules was undeniably great (the meat smoked, if I remember correctly, in a giant oil-drum cooker out back that was filled with scrap lumber and held closed with cinderblocks), what I remember most about the joint was entering a world that was both totally alien and incredibly welcoming. I never felt weird walking into Hercules at midnight on a Saturday, never felt out of place even though I was. And while being a beans-and-wienies Irish kid hanging out in a black barbecue shack was Muslim-at-a-kegger odd, that experience also helped fuel my belief that barbecue drives culture, not the other way around. I now understand how the biggest blows struck for equality and civil rights in the Deep South (the home of true pit barbecue) were made not in the courtrooms or schools or on buses, but in the barbecue shacks. There were dining rooms, back yards and roadhouse juke joints in the South that were integrated long before any other public places.

At Big Papa's BBQ (see review), you still find all kinds bellying up to the counter: businessmen and kids, families and couples, neighbors in every shade of the gastronaut rainbow. And though things were a little different at Hercules way back in the day, I always got the feeling that somehow, the guys behind the counter understood why I couldn't stay away. They saw the gleam of the burgeoning junkie in me and knew that they were the only dealers in town.

In Denver, barbecue shacks of all description seem to be popping up across the landscape (though none serving that Carolina vinegar brine I'm so fond of). Before it was a year old, Big Papa's had spawned a second location. Brothers BBQ, the prosaic yet profitable venture of Brit brothers Nick and Chris O'Sullivan (two guys even more ethnically removed from the heart of barbecue country than me), already has four metro spots and plans to open a few more by next year. It's also getting into the franchise business as Blokes BBQ International. Over the past year, the kitschy, Elvis-heavy vibe of Joe's West of Memphis BBQ has been cleaning up on East Colfax, not far from Brooks Smokehouse, which I reviewed in January. And then there's Jim Walker's place, Dr. Daddio's Kitchen on Wheels, which operates out of a gas station on North Airport Boulevard. It ain't the best 'cue in the world, but I defy you to find a better rack of gas-station ribs within a hundred miles.

Garages, gas stations, former motels and strip malls -- I've seen barbecue joints survive and thrive in the strangest locations. We're living in a fortunate time in the history of barbecue, a day when the generational knowledge and talents of the world's great pit men are finally starting to filter beyond the borders of the traditional Barbecue Belt.

The reverend Gene Washington, owner of Blest Bar-B-Que of the Rockies, was part of this barbecue diaspora. He learned his skills from his parents, with Mom bringing the heat of Texas barbecue and Dad the smoke of Oklahoma backyard grills. Washington began cooking for his parishioners on weekends -- doing all those racks and chickens that were so noticeably missing from my own brief and grim religious upbringing -- and eventually expanded his operations to include serving on weekdays in a spot on Prince Street in Littleton.

And the reverend was good. He had the history, the smarts and the instincts of a champion pit man, and they showed in everything he did. But now it's time to say a benediction for Blest, which had to close its doors when too many people failed to walk through them.

As penance, you sinners can all go eat Riblets.

Frog prince: Although I have no good explanation for why I developed such an atrocious obsession with barbecue, I do know where I got my hunger for French food: the kitchens. During my jungle years in the mid-'90s, I worked on line after line after line pumping out food that was a backlash to the plain, simple purity of classical French cuisine. I did fusion. I did California-influenced pan-oceanic. I did all manner of flailing Indo-Euro-Asiana, replete with all the vertical geometries and compound oils so hot in that day and age.

But when my work was done? I ate tarragon chicken, veal cheeks in sauce gribiche, stewed flank steak with root vegetables that otherwise would have been turned into nothing more useful than sculpted garnishes, and mountains of mussels in simple beurre blanc sauces kicked up with mustard or curry or precious threads of saffron. I was working for French, Austrian, Alsatian and Swiss chefs who hated everything about what they were being forced to do with their menus, who cursed every customer through the door and only served their sushi-fied fish plates and hideously sculpted and tortured entrees because it was that or unemployment. And when the last cover was cleared from the dining room and these guys were left alone with their ranges and the house supplies, they'd immediately fall back on la cuisine grand-mère and whip up the most wonderful staff dinners I've ever tasted.

What they were cooking was bistro cuisine -- ultra-classic and as pure a translation of real French cooking as you could find. It would be a few years before this food would make it out of the galleys and into the American food consciousness, but when it did? There was no one better qualified to cook it than I was.

Okay, so there were guys more qualified than me. There were plenty of real Frogs out there still doing their thing. But I saw the world across the pass rails of the restaurants where I worked, and to me, this food seemed like a revolution.

Flash forward a bit, and now there are French restaurants all over the place -- haute French, low French, French farmhouse and bistro and brasserie. As it always seems to, the canon of French technique and recipes has survived virtually unchanged, despite all the attempts at fusion and deconstruction by smart-ass galley artisans and showboating knuckleheads too clever by half. Which is great, because we need more places where the food comes first -- before the lighting plan, before the altar of the open kitchen, before the arrangement of tables -- and where the chef's name gets billing above that of the guy who painted the walls.

Which is why I'm excited to hear that Marco Colantonio has just picked up two young, serious, classically trained heavyweights for Steak au Poivre, his Creeker bistro that's taking over the Manhattan Grill space at 231 Milwaukee Street. The gentlemen in question? Yoann Lardeux, who recently left his gig as exec at Le Central and more or less fell into Colantonio's lap, and Tobias Burkhalter, Lardeux's sous chef, who came tumbling right along after. (As of now, the spaces in Le Central's line are being filled by Lardeux's other sous, Mathias Rouvray, and owner Robert Tournier, but new blood and reinforcements -- French, of course -- are expected shortly). Both Lardeux and Burkhalter are highly pedigreed, with European educations and constellations of Michelin stars on their resumés; in addition to being excellent cooks (as evidenced by their work at Le Central), they also have backgrounds in pastry, baking and charcuterie.

Better still, they're workhorses. When Colantonio said he wasn't planning to offer brunch at Steak au Poivre, the chefs wanted to know why. When they thought his menu was too small, they said they'd be happy to take on the extra work of bulking it out.

The two are willing to put in the fourteen-hour days, seven days a week, that it takes to make a restaurant succeed. Actually, they're more than willing; they're excited about it. "These guys, they have absolutely no attitude," Colantonio says. "They just want to do something. They just want a space to do great things in."

And now they've got the space, since the Manhattan Grill closed for good this past weekend. Now come three frantic weeks of tastings, menu planning, remodeling and cleaning, followed by a flash of panic, followed by grim acceptance, followed by an opening scheduled for sometime next month.

I can't wait.

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