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Where There is Smoke

June 12, 2011

Do not confuse this for a piece of journalism. The more and more I write, the more and more I think that it could be helpful to take a journalism ethics and standards class. Because this part about expecting a human being to be objective is a bit of a mystery to me.

But as I mentioned a few days ago, the folks at Classe Catering invited some bloggers over to their facility to meet Chef Jeremy Kane and sample some of the new dishes he’ll be making for Big KaHoona Barbeque.

And you know what? Those who claim that this experience will alter the way I write about the food are absolutely right. Having an understanding of what they are trying to achieve, talking to the chef, sharing my criticism, and hearing his response, and looking around the kitchen totally changes how I am going to write about their product.

In another situation I might have been a bit more rough. But today I’m going to be as gentle as I can.

Here’s the bottom line.

I think Chef Kane did a pretty great job given what he had to work with. Here he is trying to run a serious and upscale barbecue operation, but he only has one electric smoker. Granted, it’s a big one. But briskets, spare ribs and pork shoulders all should be cooked at different temperatures for varying lengths of time.

On top of it all, the tasting that he prepared for us bloggers was the smoker’s maiden run. For the record, The Crispy Cook, Wendalicious and 518 Bites and Sights were also in attendance, and their opinions may vary significantly from mine.

But I have pretty high expectations when it comes to BBQ. Especially when it is being presented by one of the region’s premiere upscale catering companies.

So why be gentle? Well, it seems like this is a work in progress, and Chef Kane sounds like he plans to tweak some of the recipes. Perhaps it would have been wise to work out some of the kinks before inviting the “social media” over for a tasting.  And given the constraints, the barbecue was good.

For the rest of the day I was left with a lingering smoky impression on my palate and on my fingers. And that’s what barbecue should do. But there was no smoke ring…on anything. Chef Kane noticed that too, and will be working on fixing this critical element that gives barbecue its deep penetrating smoke.

That said, the pulled pork was very tasty, especially the crusty edge bits, and was tossed in a tangy Carolina style sauce. I thought it was an unfortunate decision to try and serve pulled pork on a biscuit. The biscuit itself was really heavy and dense. I’m unsure if any amount of meat could broken past the overwhelming breadiness of the biscuit, but certainly the token amount on the sandwich was totally lost.

I was pretty pleased with the ribs, mostly because the chef cooked them to the point of being ready. To reiterate, that’s when the meat doesn’t fall off the bone, but rather comes off cleanly when tugged by your teeth. The difference is that one is mush and the other is meat. I like my ribs to eat like meat. If you like mush, that’s between you and your creator.

Chef Kane also opted for spare ribs, which keep the rib tips attached to the bone. The tips are all too often trimmed off in the service of producing St. Louis cut ribs. But I love the tips with all their fat and cartilage to chew on and in between, so that I can extract those delightfully rich nuggets of meat hiding within. It broke my heart to suggest that the chef consider ditching the tips in the service of a cleaner, more upscale, barbecue experience.

The brisket was tasty, but trimmed to the point where it was totally devoid of fat. The rendering of the fat is my tell tale sign for how well a brisket has been cooked, so without it I have to say that the meat was just fine. It made a great vehicle for the surprise of the day, which was a Dr. Pepper barbecue sauce created by the chef’s nephew. Pleasant piquancy balanced with a subtle sweetness made this the star of the four sauces on the table.

The burnt ends of the brisket went into the macaroni and cheese dish and were the best part of that side. I was surprised to hear another taster suggest it was a well-seasoned dish, because I found it to just the opposite. It needed a lot more of a cheesy punch and a lot more flavor overall. I found myself hunting for, and digging out those crispy, smoky brisket ends much like how Young Master Fussy would eat the cookie dough from a carton of his favorite ice cream if I let him have his way.

Jerk chicken was the only meat that wasn’t smoked. But I have very strong opinions on what jerk chicken should be, and it shouldn’t be bland.

Of the sides, the best was the corn bread. It was rich and sweet, with a bit of a crust on it. Ideally, I would like to see more crisp edges. But this specimen handily beats the pucks served at Dinosaur or the traditional version sold at Capital Q. Little Miss Fussy loved the beans, but she loves beans, and she loves sweets, so it was a match made in heaven. The collard greens were fine, but might be difficult to eat in an upscale setting without the toothsome greens being cut a bit thinner.

What really struck me was how beautiful everything looked.

Big KaHoona and Classe apparently have a staff of designers. There people were the unsung heroes of the day. Because the table really spoke of upscale barbecue: from the mini cast iron skillets filled with honey butter, to the demitasse spoons in mini mason jars used for barbeque sauce, to the raffia wrapped linen napkin and other rough-hewn accents.

I’ve got to comment on the name of this operation for a moment, and I know that at this point the name is fixed in stone. But a place called Big KaHoona Barbecue says one thing to me, and that’s Hawaiian barbecue. And that’s the one thing that nobody in the room seemed to know anything about.

Hawaiian barbecue isn’t about putting pineapple on burgers. It’s about putting brown gravy on burgers with eggs and maybe some spam, but definitely macaroni salad and white rice on the side. It’s proteins like Lau Lau, Kalua pork, and chicken katsu. It is also phantasmagorical delights like musubi. There is no Hawaiian barbecue in Albany, but it would be a lot of fun to see these guys try and do the real thing.

Anyhow, I’m not sure if I’ll be invited back, but I’d love to get a chance to return so I can taste what Chef Kane has done with the product after receiving some public feedback. If he can do a good job the first time out using one electric smoker for all the different meats, I’m optimistic that with practice, some tweaking, and perhaps some more equipment, it will only get better.

You can check some of it out yourself on June 16 from 4pm to 7pm at the Pruyn House. It’s a fundraiser to benefit The Food Pantries and Friends of Pruyn House. There will be live music, BBQ/beer pairings, entertainment and giveaways. Five bucks gets you in.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2011 11:49 am

    I unfortunately could not attend that event but was intrigued and remain further intrigued by what you’ve said above. I think you’ve done well to establish that your tone isn’t to just bash someone else’s work. Clearly, you’ve done a deal of research and have been exposed to enough to know what you like and, in a broad sense, what’s good. The criticisms you offer may be specific but offer a great deal of information to the people whose work you are speaking on.

  2. June 12, 2011 5:26 pm

    I think I got invited to the Big Hahoona thingy too… I just picture some PR hack sitting in an office google searching “local food blog” in hopes of creating a “buzz” on the “local food scene.” I would have serious problems sitting there and pretending that anyone really cares what I think about the product. I much prefer when people send me things so I can gorge on them in private…

  3. June 17, 2011 3:32 pm

    Hah, you got me, “neutral” was not the right word. Let’s instead say that no, I don’t find it believable either, which is unfortunate if that’s what you’re striving for. I just can’t connect with your opinion if you have very different circumstances, it’s like asking you what the best restaurant within 15 minutes is if you’re driving and I’m walking. If you would pay for the food you’re offered for free, then we’d be at the same starting point and I could believe and trust you.

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