Fancy, Tasty Grease At Fatty 'Cue
Here's what happens when you barbecue duck over an oak fire: The skin slowly crisps, getting darker and darker until the hunk of flesh looks almost like a piece of charcoal, blackened and craggy but not burned. Crunch through the skin into a juicy layer of fat and then into coarse-grained, smoky meat. Dip the duck into a bowl of coconut-y red curry, and then double-dip because the place is dark and no one will notice. Curried duck is not a mainstay of American barbecue, but after you try the dish at Fatty 'Cue, you'll wish it was.
Fatty 'Cue is the long-planned, recently opened collaboration between Fatty Crab's Zak Pelaccio, his business partner, Rick Camac, Fatty Crab's chef de cuisine, Corwin Kave, and pitmaster Robbie Richter, formerly of New York's Texas barbecue joint Hill Country. The concept is simple but ingenious—quality meat smoked low and slow, plus Southeast Asian ingredients like lemongrass, chilies, palm syrup, fish sauce, galangal, and so on. Those zesty flavors are a naturally delicious counterpart to rich flesh—an American elaboration on existing traditions like satay, gua bao, and rendang.
The restaurant hunkers under the Williamsburg Bridge on a block that slopes toward the East River in Brooklyn. It rises three stories, a fun house of barbecue. The lower level contains the bar and several tables, the doors flung open to the early spring air. Meaty smoke drifts down the street and clings to your clothes, an aroma familiar to anyone who has hung out in a barbecue joint for any length of time.
On our first visit, a staff member ushered us up a flight of stairs and deposited us at a table in a high-ceilinged, darkened room, illuminated by a sparkly pig chandelier. The menu, listing "snacks" and "specialties," arrived, as did a cocktail called the 'cue—smoked pineapple, Tabasco, over-proof rum, and Pernod. The menu reads like a dream. Brisket with chile jam and bao! Smoked blue-crab soup! We were informed that all the dishes are family-style—perfect! We were four, the size of your average American family.
But not Fatty 'Cue's definition of family—here, you'd better be a brood of two. It turns out the portions are less family-style and more tapas-style. It's strange to be arguing for more food in this age of excess, but when four people share a dish, there should be enough for everyone to have more than one bite. Especially when these plates are not cheap—$14 for three spare ribs, $17 for a bowl of exactly eight clams. You might say that's not very expensive, but I say it is, relative to the amounts.
Yes, these ingredients are thoughtfully sourced, and the meat comes from responsible, eco-friendly purveyors, but from a customer's point of view, it feels like a rip-off, especially when the vibe of the place is so pointedly casual. And though the portion sizes work perfectly when shared between two, if you have healthy appetites, you'd do well to budget $80 per couple, before tax, tip, or beverages. Also, know that some of the "snacks"—like that amazing duck ($14), the coriander bacon ($11), and the lamb ribs ($12)—are just about the same size as the "specialties." The reason for the differing designations and prices is not obvious.
But as splurges go, this is a good one—as long as you don't mind the occasionally too-cool-for-school service. (And I don't, much, if the food's good.) There are several dishes in the snack category that are as thrilling as a two-out, two-strike, game-winning home run. One is that duck. Another is the coriander bacon, a preparation to cure your weariness of pork belly: The domino-size tabs of fat-striated meat are tasty on their own, but piled on triangles of Pullman bread with the yellow curry custard that comes alongside, they're stupendous. The custard is as jiggly and silken as panna cotta, and intense with turmeric, cumin, and coconut.
That squidgy white bread is baked by Dragon Land Bakery in Chinatown, and it shows up a second time, listed as "Dragon Pullman toast with master fat." "Sounds like a Harry Potter character," cracked a friend. It is almost magic: The thick slices come with a small bowl of pure lipids, the combined drippings from the smoker stirred together into a liquid distillation of barbecue.
For a break from all of that marvelous grease, skip the cucumber snacks, which are nothing special, and go for the barbecued eggplant nam prik, a pleasantly fishy eggplant dip modeled after the classic Thai condiment. It's presented with crudités that include green mangoes and strips of chicharrón, certainly a stranger to most raw-vegetable platters. But little things have not been thought out—what to do, for instance, with the bushy pile of Thai basil that sits alongside? Stem it and stir it in? We could have spooned the nam prik into lettuce leaves and sprinkled the herbs in as well, but there were only two pieces of lettuce to go around.
Of the other seafood options, that blue-crab soup sounds amazing, but ends up tasting like a bowl of vinegar and mushrooms, against all odds lacking any crustacean flavor. But the grilled mackerel is winning, smeared with a garlicky chile sauce. We carefully pulled all the meat off the bones, then our server came by to suggest that the kitchen fry up the skeleton. "Yes!" we said. The carcass came back fantastically crisp and salty, like fish-bone potato chips.
Last but not least, the serious meat. Lamb ribs arrive crusty, unctuous, and musky, suck-on-the-bones good. Pork spare ribs shine, lacquered with smoked fish–palm syrup, a sweet-savory bomb. Fat-capped slices of brisket are juicy and languid, tucked into a steamy bao and dolloped with chile jam. Swabs of lamb practically jump with woodsy savor and garlic. These things are delicious. But they make you wish the lambs were the only ones getting fleeced.
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