Ottawa Dining: There’s fancy barbecue at Lexington Smokehouse & Bar, but some bones to pick too
Lexington Smokehouse & Bar
344 Richmond Rd., 613-421-0219, lexingtonottawa.com
Open: Sunday to Thursday 5 p.m. to late, Friday and Saturday 4 p.m. to late
Prices: Sandwiches $16 to $18, mains $23 to $35
Access: One step to washrooms
The best ribs, barbecued chicken and brisket I’ve ever eaten were happily devoured outdoors at picnic tables, without any cutlery but with lots of paper towels on hand to remove sweet, spicy sauce from cheeks, chin and fingers. At those U.S. barbecue joints and events, decor was secondary to deliciousness — if it was even considered.
Lexington Smokehouse and Bar, which opened in June in Westboro, serves its ribs, chicken and brisket, among other items, in more upscale, even Westborovian, surroundings.
While the setting includes visual pointers to the down-home roots of barbecue and Southern food — distressed white-painted brick walls and a wealth of barn board, assorted knick-knacks and a vintage butcher’s sign from Lexington, North Carolina — Lexington’s space is more sleek than all of that. Its long, wraparound bar, rich teal chairs and banquettes, low-hanging Edison lights and copper accents provide comfort and chic. The ambience of the place helps to explain the crowds we’ve encountered, which in turn explain how loud the place can get.
Then there’s chef Thomas Painer’s food. Drawing admirably from producers that include local purveyors O’Brien Farms, Mike’s Garden Harvest and Terramor Farms, Lexington fancies up barbecue classics and Southern fare. I’ve had dinner twice here and found that the best of Painer’s attractively presented plates were pleasing, if not wowing, iterations with good flavours and yielding textures. But other dishes needed some tweaks.
Some of the best food we had — the “let’s-get-those-again” items, my wife might say — were simple but effective appetizers and snacks. At the top of her list were the panko-crusted and cleanly fried pieces of green tomatoes ($9) on a big smear of distinctive aioli. Our son was big on Lexington’s red-caviar- and aioli-topped deviled eggs ($5 for one).
I commend any restaurant that sells “burnt ends” — the charred, succulent meat candy made from the fattier point cut of beef brisket. Lexington serves a small skillet filled with burnt ends as a $12 starter, which I couldn’t help but. While they haven’t matched the burnt ends I’ve had from competition-level pitmasters, Lexington’s best chunks of brisket were meltingly fatty and beefy while others were puzzlingly lean. Either way, they had some smokiness and as much atypical sweetness as saltiness.
Perhaps the burnt ends — promising, pleasing, but also somewhat uneven — represents the overall state of Lexington at two months in.
At one dinner, before main courses arrived, our server brought us Lexington’s selection of barbecue sauces. The four choices, which tended to the runnier side, covered a lot of ground flavour-wise, ranging from a more generic sauce to a root-beer-laced one for those who like it sweet, and an espresso-spiked sauce that went in the other direction. A fourth sauce that tasted of cinnamon and cloves struck us as something that would pair well with tourtière. I give credit to Lexington for making these sauces in-house, but as barbecue competition judges are wont to say, it’s about the meat, not the sauce.
Main courses, which each came with two choices of sides such as fries, cornbread with apple-tomato jam, mac and cheese or potato salad, were a bit of a mixed bag.
A full rack of St. Louis-cut pork ribs ($35), glazed with Lexington’s chunky honey-peach sauce, was a sweet and eminently shareable crowd-pleaser, although I must say I like my ribs to skew smokier, spicier and saltier.
Four massive shrimp served on a block of grits ($26) were enjoyable, although shrimp described in the menu as “blackened” were not, and grits described as “creamy” fell short of that descriptor. The smoked half-chicken ($26) did deliver crispy skin and smoke-tinged meat, but a larger serving and more juiciness would have made the dish a winner.
At this very meaty restaurant — where even a very good wedge salad ($15) with a punchily chile-perked ranch dressing came garnished with delectable bits of pork belly — the vegan option was a casserole ($23) of assorted vegetables (sweet potato, Brussels sprouts, corn, charred onion) with smoked tofu. It was tasty enough, with well-prepared vegetables, although even the vegetarian at our table was underwhelmed by the smoked tofu.
An advance scout to Lexington told me to expect great things from its fried chicken. We ordered it in an open-faced sandwich ($16), and it was fine, and had massiveness and some crispness going for it, although the blanket of slaw on top of the chicken obscured some of its merits.
Excellent side dishes can do a lot to mitigate the shortcomings of main courses. However, we more often than not thought Lexington’s sides tended to the lacklustre. Corn bread was cold and lacked fluffiness. Fries served in a metal cup degraded quickly into mushiness. Coleslaw with a pronounced sweetness was just so-so. Better was the bacon and egg and potato salad, and best was the mac and cheese.
In all, Lexington served food that I liked but wanted to like more. For now, the bustling, happy vibe and cocktails and local beers seem like equal or more significant attractions compared to the dishes. Since my standards for barbecue and Southern food are very high, I’ll hope for better, even dazzling fare down the road.