Our server told us that the sleek black smoker that sits out in front of Barn & Company, the new Lincoln Park barbecue joint and bar, isn't simply for decoration. And you could have guessed that actual food is cooked in it—from at least half a block away this smells like a place where you want to eat. It's an effective invitation to the restaurant, but passing by on an empty stomach must be torture.
There are a number of metrics against which to measure barbecue. For instance, there are technical details of religious importance to 'cue acolytes but less familiar to the lay critic: people search for the pink smoke rings that line the edges of well-smoked meat and discuss whether proper preparation involves a pellet smoker or an aquarium smoker. Here, the executive chef is Bob Zrenner (most recently of Hubbard Inn and 33 Club) but the pit master is barbecue-maven-about-town Gary Wiviott, whose love for the culinary form and firm opinions about its preparation are well documented (including in the pages of the Reader, where he's been an occasional contributor).
This is no roadside shack. The interior can best be described as—and I mean this as a compliment—inoffensive. Down-home details like wooden walls meant to evoke barns and drinks served in jars fade into the background, as do the sports-oriented wide-screen TVs. It's easy to focus on the food, in other words—especially if you're sitting on the lovely patio, enclosed by two brick walls. It's less easy, on the patio, to focus on your companions: particularly around rush hour, the nearby el is a conversation killer. Servers—who do a fine, engaged job—somehow seem inured to the sonic challenges. From simple starters, including a musky smoked mushroom-artichoke dip and delicious lightly fried pickle chips, the menu becomes ambitious—try, for instance, the taco platter, which features pulled pork, brisket tips, and barbecued shrimp, served with corn tortillas. It's notable not just for the meat but what accompanies it: pickled cabbage and a verdant roasted-vegetable salsa so deeply flavored it tasted meaty itself.
"Meaty" is possibly the best descriptor for the meat here, too, which tastes like nothing so much as a concentrated form of itself; products off the smoker have an exceedingly rich flavor that resists easy description. The best is the brisket, supple beef run through with a thick vein of fat, both chewy and particulate—you can feel each grain dissolving on your tongue. Chicken was juicy down to the bone, and pulled pork offered a diversity of textures: chunks of fat tangled with shreds of flesh to fine effect. There's also sausage from the Texas smokehouse Mikeska's, chewy and lightly spicy, and baby back ribs.
Barn & Company weakened my conviction that a respectable barbecue restaurant must have sides that at the very least complement the mains and at best match them in depth of flavor and overall excellence. Here they were almost universally a bummer. Corn bread, sweet and one-note, could have come from a box; nothing-to-see-here coleslaw, bathed in mayo, from a tub. Mac 'n' cheese was bland, and though baked beans were better—a little spicy, embedded with rough shreds of meat—they weren't strong enough to redeem the enterprise.
Likewise, it's a tribute to the meat here that it really doesn't need, and in fact, is often better off without, the three barbecue sauces that sit on the table: citrus seven-pepper, a Carolina-style mustard-based variety, and the house sauce, which is flavored with bourbon. The first two are complex, though a little fruity for my taste, and the last is decent. The sauces really shine, though, as contributors to other recipes, where they perform a wonderful alchemy: the pit master salad, for instance, dressed with a bourbon-barbecue vinaigrette, was one of the best things we tried. A sort of a southern niçoise, it featured greens, perfectly boiled potatoes and green beans, hunks of pulled pork, rich little croutons, and finally, happily, an egg that had been poached and deep-fried.
The seven-pepper sauce factors into the Country Mary, a drink I was initially suspicious of because of its mess of ingredients: vodka, bourbon, and Guinness, plus barbecue sauce, cilantro, Worcestershire, and sriracha. But it was fantastic—smoky, rich, and bitter in a way that caught me off-guard. The Mary tops a short and disappointing cocktail list, heavy on fruity drinks. Our server suggested to us that the American Mule, a vodka-based concoction with ginger beer and citrus elements, tasted like Sprite, and that was exactly right—provided your Sprite was flat.
Shelves of fine bourbons beckon from behind the bar here, though they're spendy. I asked our server for a less-expensive recommendation and she offered an ungenerous pour of Maker's Mark—at a cost, I learned later, of $9. Still, the food itself is a pretty good deal—combo platters, for $20 and $22, could feed a family of four.