By Elizabeth Keyser
10:20 AM EST, December 19, 2012
845 Canal St., Stamford, (203) 517-3272, dinosaurbarbeque.com
All that stuff you've been hearing for years from people who went to school in New York state, places like Syracuse and Rochester -- all that buzz about Dinosaur Bar-B-Cue being the most outrageous, awesome, ass-kicking barbecue you can find in the country? Well, I've just joined the "Dino" cult.
From the moment Dinosaur BBQ opened in Stamford's Harbor Point earlier this month, it's been pulling in the crowds. It's the fifth Dinosaur in the chain founded by John Stage in 1988 (George Soros owns 70 percent of the company). Stage and his 'A' team, including staff that have been with the company 18-years were on hand last week, to get the place on its feet.
My introduction to this cult favorite has resulted in the following: I finally "get" barbecue. It's about balance. It's not about overwhelming the palate with acrid smoke, vinegar and sticky sauces. Deep flavors are created slowly. First, the meat is rubbed with dry spices. Then it sits for 24 hours. Next, it's smoked low and slow over mesquite. And lightly glazed in barbecue sauce. The result is a balance of the four elements of flavor: smoke, spice, sauce and meat.
Let's start with ribs. But first, a beer. There's 20 of them, including five craft brews from Connecticut. Harbor Point is also home to the new Half Full Brewery, but we enjoyed a Hartford-based Thomas Hooker Hop Meadow IPA as we settled into a big, comfortable booth overlooking the bar (decorated with a very cool vintage neon "Liquor" sign that Stage discovered in an old electrical supply warehouse.)
The ribs arrived, covered in the coveted black crust known as the "bark." Beneath this smoky caramelized crust, the meat was plump, moist and tender, easily releasing from the bone. Burnt tips are Stage's favorite. He describes them as "sick." It's the fattiest section of brisket, re-seasoned and re-smoked. It was so tender, it seemed to dissolve beneath my fork. The meat was succulent, the charred ends sticky. Crisp, spicy slices of pickled jalapeno (made in-house) gave it an extra kick. The pulled pork slider is a harmonious handful, a wonderful mess of meat on a soft, squishy, sweetish potato bun with green-tomato relish, crisp, vinegary pickle slices, and a little barbecue sauce.
Even if you love hot spices, as I do, you'll see the virtue of ordering the mild wings. They come mild, hot, hotter and hottest. The jumbo-sized wings are smoked, then finished on the grill. The choice of flavors for the mild wings are honey bbq, Creole honey mustard, and sesame-hoisin. The sesame-hoisin wings were draped in a glistening, dark sauce sprinkled with sesame seeds. The sweetness comes through first, then the plump, juicy meat. Then the kick hits, a resonating heat.
Another interesting small plate was thick slices of meaty sausage with pimento cheese resting on house-made pepper crackers. The sausage is made with Dinosaur's brisket and pork shoulder and roasted poblanos. "We hang it and smoke it and then we resmoke it," Stage said.
But the dish that stayed in my mind for days wasn't meat. It was the fried green tomato topped with shrimp remoulade. The tender, lightly smoked shrimp, gently bound in mayonnaise, sat on a golden brown, crunchy disk that enclosed the soft, pleasingly acidy tomato. This is how to treat an unripe tomato! With its contrasting textures and temperatures, this small plate delivered big flavor. I'm still craving it. Vegetarians have fewer entrée options, other than salads. There's a smoked portobello with grilled zucchini, roasted peppers and melted Swiss cheese.
Stage doesn't sideline the sides. He admits he can get obsessive. "Don't even get me started on potato salad," he said. Then he got started, and told us all about it. The "Harlem" potato salad is the result of his explorations of Harlem's soul food joints. (Dinosaur opened in Harlem in 2004, and Stage lives there.) This potato salad is southern-style, the potatoes more mashed than sliced, and that means the flavor of the dressing, the vinegary mayonnaise, fully permeates the potato. The baked beans also benefited from Stage's devotion. The soft beans aren't cloyingly sweet, and there's a touch of counterbalancing brine. Mac and cheese uses the traditional comforting elbow macaroni that capture the creamy cheese sauce. The coleslaw is crisp. And crispness is just what is needed when you're eating all this soft food. The cooks mix the coleslaw in small batches to keep it fresh.
Located in a former Yale Lock factory, the space is vast and high-ceilinged, with giant pillars and concrete floors. They've used lots of reclaimed windows to create intimacy. The booths have comfy leather seats and are raised so to give a view of the action, and not make guests feel dwarfed. A major feature of Harbor Point is there's lots of parking and it's free.
Barbecue can be stuff-your-face food, and Dinosaur certainly does have dishes like the "Big Ass Pork Plate." Just remember it took a long time to make. Slow down and savor it.
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