It's easy to imagine the earliest form of cooking — throwing meat onto a wood fire, from which it emerges smoky and charred — evolving into what we now celebrate as barbecue, with all its attendant rituals. Despite our love of smoked and sauced meats, most local barbecue joints are places that don't encourage lingering: brick or steel oven smokers behind a counter where you order your ribs, brisket, and pulled pork with mild, medium, or hot sauce, and from where you flee back to your cave, clutching your Styrofoam boxes.
It had to happen here eventually: an attractive, chic, fashionable restaurant devoted to the art of barbecue. But not just any barbecue. In the spirit of New American cuisine, it's a reimagining of barbecue. It uses not just the inevitable local and sustainable ingredients ("when available," the menu hedges), but also upscale ingredients such as crème fraîche instead of sour cream, pickled shallots and cipollini instead of Vidalias, and pain de mie and ciabatta rolls instead of Wonder Bread. It's also in a somewhat surprising neighborhood, the Financial District, perhaps less so at lunch when you find yourself surrounded by backslapping suits who've already turned the place into something of a midday clubhouse. Matt Wexler, late of Levende, has opened Wexler's, where his chef, Charlie Kleinman (ex–Fifth Floor and Fish & Farm), is turning out amazingly delicious food inspired by Southern barbecue.
There are a few subtle and witty allusions to barbecue in the decor — there's a black-and-white photograph tucked in the back of an impressive spreading tree near another of stacked wood waiting for the fire, and an enormous rippling black wood sculpture attached to the ceiling we were told is supposed to signify smoke, but which at first we read as referencing the skeletons of the beasts we were feasting upon. Nothing else about the cool, modern, compact room — which seats about 45 — reads barbecue, Southern, or kitschy in any way. The spare, sharp-edged blond-wood tables; French metal garden chairs and stools; and bright red chandeliers could suit any style of food.
The one-page dinner menu bristles with "BBQ" and "smoked" in its descriptions, at times appended to surprising and uncommon dishes such as BBQ cured salmon with fried green tomatoes, pickled shallots, and crème fraîche ($12), and slow-roasted smoked sturgeon served with smoked lobster and cornbread cakes, parsnip mash, and corn vinaigrette ($21).
Expect the unexpected. The wonderfully smoky chicken liver mousse ($10) was as silky and sophisticated as anything found in a French charcuterie and came with buttery crusts of grilled levain, a tangy-sweet green-tomato chutney, and the surprising crunch of fresh caramel corn. BBQ Scotch eggs ($11) were a triumph: poached eggs wrapped in a thin layer of ground burnt ends trimmed from brisket and quickly deep-fried so the yolks remained liquid and spilled out to mingle with the housemade hot sauce and cooling sweet-tea gastrique ringing them on the plate. The plump and juicy BBQ quail ($10), which we ordered as a main, came with a creamy cole slaw enlivened by poppyseed oil. The Dungeness crab salad ($13), one of the few offerings that didn't contain a house-smoked element — even the buttermilk-ranch–drenched Little Gems salad ($9) comes with smoked cipollini — featured excellent ingredients (crisp frisée, slivers of bright-green Fresno chiles, plenty of crab, sliced nectarines) that somehow didn't entirely come together, mostly because the nectarines weren't quite ripe and sweet enough. And although we enjoyed its ingredients separately, an heirloom tomato salad special ($12) wasn't enhanced by its topping of tongue, sliced too thin for us to appreciate its velvety texture, and a couple of fried tongue croquettes.
But the smoked short rib ($19), tender slices of beef atop a rather thin potato purée, garnished with translucent dice of golden Macomber turnips and surrounded by a ribbon of dark, lusty BBQ au jus, was heavenly. Wexler's plate of pork ($19), a frequently-changing special, was a brined, smoked, and grilled pork chop with melting edges of fat, served with candied yams and ribbons of collard greens: a perfect amalgam of salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and savory.
The three pies on the five-item dessert menu (all $6) had different crusts. We loved the flaky crust on the chocolate fudge pie topped with crushed toffee and pretzels. The bourbon banana cream pie came in a graham-cracker crust and was topped with banana slices glazed with dulce de leche. The cheese plate changes frequently (we were offered a house-smoked blue cheese with a blueberry relish). Something of a stunt is the inside-out root-beer float featuring Humphry Slocombe root-beer ice cream served with housemade vanilla soda and topped with drifts of whipped cream and brandied cherries.
Even though the room was full, it was quieter at dinner than when we returned for lunch, when parties were waiting outside for a crack at an entirely different menu, heavy on sandwiches. The smoked chicken wings ($8), drenched in hot sauce and set on a bed of yogurt blended with chunks of Point Reyes blue cheese, were fat and tasty. Although we were told they'd been flash-fried, we missed the crunchy crust of their deep-fried Buffalo wing inspiration as well as the further crunch of the traditional accompaniment of carrots and celery. What Wexler's calls a bowl o' red and further describes as Texas-style chili ($9), strips of the house-smoked short ribs drenched in a tomatoey sauce with crème fraîche and topped with pickled shallots, also didn't jibe with our taste-memory and hunger for chili. But the pulled lamb sandwich ($12) was absolutely superb: moist hunks of meat, juices imbuing its crusty roll, with an unexpectedly delicious dipping side of watermelon vinegar as well as a tart red-cabbage slaw. Kleinman and Wexler are intelligently and passionately rethinking down-home food with respect and serving the results in a uptown setting.