Here’s a thought: toss some Sens paraphenalia on the walls, put a remote control on every table, move the keg of Beau’s a little closer, add an all-you-can-eat ribs component, and this would be a Guy’s Dream Restaurant. As it stands now, the seven-week-old SmoQue Shack is the Current Favourite Restaurant of the five lads I share a home with. Never have I seen my sons and the man responsible for their gender happier.
“You’ve got a great job, eh Mum?” says my 17-year-old, raising a shirted shoulder to shrug off the bourbon barbecue sauce from his chin. My husband nods in agreement, two hands on rib ends, one eye on the U.S. Open, the other on an NFL game.
Turns out I didn’t much want to talk to any of them anyway. Their attention firmly on the monster flatscreens on opposing walls meant I could polish off the baked beans without competition.
The new SmoQue Shack is a joint. It’s perfumed with wood smoke, but other than that pleasure, it’s not a place with much personality. I don’t happen to find televisions and steer skulls character-builders in restaurants. My sons would debate that.
But I will say this. Once you sink your teeth into the meat of this matter, your interest in the lack of ambience will weaken. It’s very good. Forearm-licking, can’t-stop-gnawing, hose-me-down-later, very good.
The man in charge of the SmoQue Shack is chef Warren Sutherland – formerly of the (currently) closed Sweetgrass Bistro and part owner of the Piggy Market in Westboro. He opened the Shack with three partners in early August, in the space vacated by Le Caveau de Szechwan on York Street. It’s off the Byward Market’s beaten track – you have to know it’s here to stumble upon it – but at both my visits it was well and truly found. Reservations are taken for big groups only. Ours wasn’t big enough. So we hung out at the bar, surrounded by a friendly, but disorganized staff (by visit two, the joint was running more smoothly in the service department) had a Beau’s (from a mostly Ontario craft beer list) and homemade lemonade while we waited for a table in the upper room.
Food comes out pretty quickly. This isn’t cooked-to-order stuff. It’s a style of smoking, slow cooking and saucing that takes its cues mostly from the barbecue belt of the southern U.S. and the jerk cuisine of Jamaica. The menu allows for sharing plates and we elected to go this route, to allow for maximum animal protein exposure. Meat arrives in black paper-lined baskets, the sides in white casserole dishes. On our crowded table: the pulled pork, Jamaican jerk pork, pork side ribs, beef short ribs, beef brisket, jerk chicken and an order of salmon, plus masses of chewy buns that come with everything and a slew of sides – potato salad, baked beans, southern greens, mac and cheese, corn bread, creamy coleslaw, tangy coleslaw, fries.
Let’s start with the beans – three different kinds, I believe, with smoky bacon. If beans can be called wonderful these were that. The greens were still green, still with some bite, and perfectly seasoned. Corn bread was moist enough and unsweet, the potato salad was a winner, the macaroni had a gutsy cheese flavour, a rich bÃ©chamel, and a crisp parmesan crust.
But it was the mains – the meaty matter – that were the truly solid pieces of work. Nowhere have I had better brisket. Or short ribs – mahogany meat clinging to splendidly large bones, perfect for the Great Dane at home, if you have one of those. But possibly my favourite, and one I had mostly to myself, was the jerk pork. The meat was moist, just fatty enough, permeated with the spices of a classic jerk, particularly thyme and allspice. Yes, it had some fire from Scotch bonnets – but it was the fragrance, the spice-rubbed sweetness of the pork that stood out.
For dessert, peach cobber or pecan pie – both are worth saving a speck of room for – with a superior bourbon vanilla ice cream from Pascale.
This is unfussy, ample, richly flavoursome food. Next time, I’d have it all to go. Or send the boys alone with a shopping list.