If you’ve ever smoked a perfect rack of ribs, it’s easy to understand how a thousand barbecue joints have been launched. The beauty of a pink smoke ring and juicy shards of freshly pulled meat inspire a confidence that you were born to bring the gospel of barbecued meat to the masses. But opening a barbecue joint is different from being a confident weekend warrior.
Producing a toothsome rib with a lacquered crust for hundreds of people requires remarkable patience and consistency. Far from a cooking dilettante, Michael Kornick is a seasoned chef with quite the pedigree – he owns MK and with partner David Morton also runs DMK Burger Bar, Fish Bar and Ada Street – and has incredible command of Chicago’s culinary history. When Kornick and Morton announced their first barbecue restaurant in Little Italy, County, I wondered whether they’d have the luck of a one-rib wonder or the heart of a southern pitmaster.
The scene: This address used to house Italian red-sauce joint Gennaro’s. Kornick and his partners kept the original Gennaro’s bar and the rich, dark wainscoting (Kornick said, “I have this desire to preserve historic things about Chicago. I was chef at the Pump Room. I love old joints.”), but they outfitted it with a trophy-mounted deer and vintage American flags, giving the place a Northwoods man-cabin feel.
The meat: Veal brisket ($12), a cut chosen for its tenderness and flavor, was parchment dry. Considering the portion size?three strips of veal, a tiny tangle of cole slaw and a few pickles?this plate was pretty pricey. (When I later asked Kornick about it, he said it should’ve been a 6- to 7-ounce portion, so mine may have been an anomaly.) Rib tips ($10), inspired by Kornick’s childhood stops at Lem’s BBQ with his dad for rib tips before going to Sox games, were meatier than average, but were also dry. The hot link ($4) was spicy and juicy with a nice snappy casing.
The sides: Side dishes were much better. Fluffy corn pudding studded with scallions ($5) wafted a beautiful buttery perfume. Crisp, tangy cornmeal-dusted wheels of fried green tomato ($6) were complimented well by a minty whipped goat cheese dip. The bacon and barbecue parfait ($3), a little shooter of cloud-like mashed potatoes and tender braised and smoked bits of juicy rib flap meat, was a glorious savory pork sundae?like an American response to shepherd’s pie. Collards ($3), made with executive chef Erick Williams’ grandmother’s recipe, Kornick said, were undersalted and a little tough.
The drinks: The Rye Smile ($9; rye, ginger syrup, lemon juice and a touch of soda) was refreshing and balanced. The sidecar ($9; cognac, triple sec and lemon juice) burst with citrus, had a honey-like finish and was a spot-on execution of the classic cocktail.
The service: County’s bar takes up a large portion of the dining room, and there’s a good chance you’ll end up sitting at it. Bartenders are rarely known for their food knowledge, but mine was tirelessly enthusiastic and never stumped by my questions.
Bottom line: County is a great night out if you want attentive bar service, solid drinks and cheffed-up gourmet sides. But the heart of a barbecue restaurant is its smoked meat, and right now, that’s what needs some work.
Mini-review: County Barbeque
1352 W. Taylor St. 312-929-2528
This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.