3 out of 5 stars
1101 First Ave. S., St. Petersburg. Appetizers: $6-$13; entrees: $12-$75; desserts: $6-$10; beer, cocktails & wine: $3-$14. 727-443-7227, drbbqs.com.
There are no neutral reactions to barbecue. Which regional style reigns? Which meats lend themselves best to smoky seductiveness? And how much smoke is the perfect balance?
Visionary restaurateurs Suzanne and Roger Perry’s new restaurant with Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe spins global flavors inspired by his travels. Under the watchful eye of chef Anthony Masters and pitmaster Lee Jasper, the Dr. BBQ menu is extensive, and the Perrys understand atmosphere. They have a clear sense of the visual message they’re trying to convey. When you step into the space, you’re struck by the volume — and I don’t mean sound. The rustic, industrial restaurant is two stories high with a mezzanine and trophy case for some of Lampe’s many awards.
Opposite the mezzanine is a stunning bar with an impressive array of oversize Edison pendants hanging from a grid of beams. In addition to exuding great style, the bar is also well-stocked with a substantial assortment of spirits and cocktails. It’s a handsome, comfortable room.
The shareable starters have many gastronomic influences. There are kimchi fries, chorizo frito pie and street corn. We opt for three stalwarts with one-of-a-kind twists. Cornbread madeleines are a nice touch. Doing a Proustian take on a down-home staple of sweet and savory corn bread is inspired, and the bright pink prickly pear butter is tasty, despite looking like a Malibu Barbie condiment.
Brussels sprouts sautéed in beef tallow with sweet red onion and cabbage are underdone and not well-seasoned, which is a shame because this formerly shunned veggie keeps showing up everywhere in treatments that are quite tasty. Perhaps we’ve been seduced by crispness and balsamic glaze, but my entire table passes.
Reactions to the belly and buns are mixed. I’m a pork belly aficionado and a fan of bao, puffy Asian buns that look like the love child of a taco shell and a Stay Puft marshmallow. These bao are not very puffy and are obviously slightly toasted on the griddle as there are marks of caramelization. I suppose that’s appropriate for barbecue, but if you’re looking for the airiness that the steamed dumplings normally provide, it’s lacking. The belly in this case isn't crispy lush pork, but long pieces of strongly flavored lamb belly studded with fat. Lovers of lamb and/or pork belly will be excited by how the meat pairs with house pickled veggies, crisp purple slaw, a dollop of lime crema and hints of cilantro. However, one tablemate can’t stomach it. No problem, more for me.
The half rack of St. Louis ribs and the Texas Two-Step with sliced brisket and smoked turkey are pleasant, but not particularly memorable. Perhaps we made a mistake by going for the more conventional fare when the expansive menu teases of the unknown.
Check out more shots of what CL experienced from photographer Nicole Abbett
Gin salad and Sandi’s bacon and blue cheese slaw are fine sides. Yet the blue cheese crumbles that my taster craves aren't prominent, and the Waterloo No. 9 Gin seems to be hiding. Jack Daniels’ beans are plentiful, if unremarkable, while the fingerling potatoes are overwhelmed by mustard.
Stunt Pig is a sandwich of Dagwood proportions. My companions laugh when it arrives before me at the table. Not being a boa constrictor, I can't get my mouth around it, which is a disappointment. The joy of any sandwich combination is to taste the ingredients simultaneously to create a party in your mouth. It’s not even possible to cut into it.
I do enjoy the Stunt Pig elements, but they almost need to be eaten with a fork like a platter. Smoked pulled pork is piled with ribs, smoked sausage, bacon, roasted poblano, leek hay, purple slaw and melted pepper Jack — covered by Ray’s original barbecue sauce — all between two buttery slices of Texas toast. The meats are high quality, but the pulled pork is not as juicy as it would be at the perfect intersection of time and smoke.
The accompanying cone of fries is, sadly, underwhelming. They’re simply overcooked. Instead of being golden and crisp with a creamy center, they’re mostly brown, shriveled, lukewarm and flavorless. They don’t seem to have been seasoned, and there’s not ketchup in sight to help rescue this batch. To me, it’s a sign of a lazy kitchen. Fries are an ubiquitous order in our culture — so much so they’re often ignored, forgotten or past over as unworthy. But great fries are a joy that celebrates the versatility of the seemingly humble potato, which is capable of magnificent heights in the hands of a caring chef. I don’t expect Heston Blumenthal’s perfect fries, just balanced seasoning with a crisp edge and creamy center.
Dessert is more memorable than our main dishes. The appropriately named Epic Peanut Butter Pie is big enough for a family of four without teenagers. The creamy peanut butter filling studded with Heath bar and candy banana chips is light and fluffy in a house-made crushed Oreo crust topped with whipped cream, chocolate and caramel.
Sour orange pie is essentially classic key lime pie with the switch of citrus. The creamy wedge of orange filling in a graham cracker crust with whipped cream is a nice spin. The restaurant says the treat is great for one person, but it’s at least half as big (again) as most slices of pie and easily shared.
My wish is that the execution of Dr. BBQ's inventive menu will eventually catch up to the finesse of the decor.