For a place that's not officially open, Bulldog Barbecue, the long-awaited BBQ place from Top Chef celeb chef Howie Kleinberg, was pretty busy tonight. They had a full house when we got there around 7ish, though we were able to squeeze in at the counter (which has about 8 seats), and the place stayed busy the whole time we were there.
Despite the non-descript strip mall location, the room actually has a nice feel to it, with modern furniture and fixtures and some dark red walls. The soundtrack is guitar rock of the '70s and '80s, and when it's full of people (as it was) the room can get a bit loud.
The menu is already up on the website so I won't give the full rundown ->
We started with "BBQ Lettuce Wraps," which brought a pile of pulled chicken, a pile of shredded cheese, a ramekin of scallion studded sour cream, and a few big crisp leaves of iceberg lettuce for some DIY lettuce wraps. Not the most elegant presentation, but tasty, in a slightly white-trash-y, Bennigan's kind of way. I'm not knocking it, it tasted good. We saw some other dishes coming out that looked a bit classier, including a shrimp and corn chowder done w/ a cornmeal crusted shrimp w/ the soup brought out separately in a little teapot (to keep the shrimp crisp until serving, I presume).
Sadly, they would not do a half-and-half of the pulled pork and beef brisket - faced with this difficult choice, I went with pulled pork. It was good, not stellar, super tender but a bit bland - perked up quite a bit when doused with some of the neon yellow mustard-y bbq sauce provided, though (a milder red bbq sauce is also available). Tough to get a feel for how hard core low-and-slow they're doing their 'cue from this, I should have tried the brisket. Looks like they pull several portions of the pork and hold them at a steam-table type setup from which they do plating, which got re-loaded a few times while we were there. Also couldn't really get a good glimpse into the kitchen to see what the actual bbq set up was. A hot smoked salmon was also good, distinctly but not overly smoky, and cooked nicely to a medium so that it stayed moist and tender throughout.
Mains come with coleslaw (good but unremarkable), cornbread (ditto, though the kids loved it) and a choice of one side. We went with cheddar grits and mac & cheese, and added on an order of the sweet fries. The cheddar grits were interesting, surprisingly using what I believe was whole hominy rather than ground grits, held together with a nicely gooey white cheddar. Not at all what I was expecting but I liked it quite a bit. I'm still not entirely sure this wasn't in fact the "corn puddin'" also listed in the "fixin's". The mac & chee was of the neon orange variety (but not out of the blue box), and used a distinctly smoky cheese which I found overpowering and somewhat redundant, what with the smoked meats and all. The sweet potato fries were OK, a bit limp (tough to avoid with sweets) but tasted fresh and well-salted.
For dessert the kids went with s'more pie and milk & cookies. The s'more pie was a dense slab of chcoolate with a graham crust, topped with a generous shmear of gooey marshmallow which gets toasted with a blowtorch. A sweet, sticky guilty pleasure, though what I believe was some shredded coconut in the pie filling was an unexpected and unnecessary addition, which also contributed a disconcerting grainy texture. Milk and cookies was just that, about a half dozen home-made cookies (chocolate chip and butterscotch chip), which hit the spot for Little Miss F.
Beer selection was pedestrian, seems like a place that could really use even just a few carefully chosen microbrews to go with the 'cue. There are about a dozen wines, all nicely priced at under $25 / bottle.
Service was completely warm and friendly and food got out to the tables reasonably quickly; it looked like they were doing a good job of turning the tables throughout the restaurant, impressively so for a packed house and a soft opening.
I've voiced some kvatches here and there about a few of the food items, and I'm not sure based on what I ate that this is a place that will satisfy a bbq purist, but we definitely enjoyed our meal there and will certainly be back.