The barbecue gods are cruel.
On the day Brian Bruns's 2,800-pound, 500-gallon, custom-built smoker arrived, he couldn't locate the owners of the cars blocking its path into his new restaurant. "It's four guys and they had this massive forklift," he says. "They lifted it over a VW. It was just hanging over the car wobbling and I was about to have a panic attack."
The smoker, a 15-foot beast made from repurposed propane tanks, made it safely to the sidewalk, but just on the edge of the coming polar vortex, Bruns's contractor still had to knock out a 8-foot-by-15-foot hole in the brick wall because it wouldn't fit through the front door.
The chef had the assurances of his lawyer, architect, and contractor that once it was finally installed in the back of the dining room, alongside a live-fire Argentine grill, there wouldn't be any problems. But two days before opening in late March, the final city inspector took a look at the rig and all its potential firepower and said no way.
No one knows better the Sisyphean challenges of making good barbecue than Bruns. Twice a week for two summers, the Tru and Spiaggia vet and his wife Taylor trudged across the North Avenue Bridge to the beach, pushing wheelbarrows and dragging wagons full of produce from Green City Market to a small kiosk owned by the Park District, equidistant between Fullerton and North Avenues. They also brought their own oak wood and meat and a combination smoker-grill setup that they chained to the wall. The limitations of space and access encouraged creativity. Instead of adopting one of the more traditional barbecue models, Bruns took the opportunity to experiment with things like kimchi-cured pork belly banh mi, Italian beef brisket sandwiches, and pulled chicken with market corn and beans. "We were always struggling to have a good mix of different items and push people's boundaries as to what they thought barbecue was."
He got two distinct reactions. Some were annoyed that they couldn't buy a pound and a half of brisket on a cafeteria tray. Others embraced reasonably priced smoked meats and vegetables on tacos, sliders, and housemade sausages in a spot where there are no other options. (Yes, Bruns stored a sausage grinder in a deep freezer on-site.)
The latter group proved encouraging enough that the chef began looking for a proper restaurant space so he could flex the muscles he'd developed over the years on an increasingly larger series of smokers on his third-floor patio, on days and over nights when he wasn't working at Spiaggia.
The couple looked at over 200 spaces around town, most of which couldn't accommodate the firepower he was dreaming about: a custom-built FatStack smoker, built in the style of the reverse-flow smoker used at Austin's perpetually mobbed Franklin Barbecue. Bruns was about to give up and take a restaurant job in California when they found their spot on Fullerton—a Dominican restaurant that never got off the ground. It still needed a bit of work, but at least it was affordable. He and his father built all the booths and tables and decorated it with their own stuff, including Bruns's cookbooks and an oddly illustrated Charlie Trotter poster he was awarded after a summer peeling asparagus and pitting cherries in the great chef's kitchen when he was 11.
After adding some extra fire-suppression systems and committing to a monthly hood cleaning program, Flat & Point received an all-clear by the fire department and opened seven months after the harrowing smoker delivery. Flat & Point's initial counter service ordering model was in line with standard barbecue joint protocol (there's table service now). But what Bruns is doing with the gently billowing oak smoke his rig produces is not. You still can't order six pounds of brisket on butcher paper, but you can have a thick slab of Snake River Farm Wagyu brisket, usually a bit of the relatively meatier flat and a bit of the more marbled point, the entire piece laced with buttery intramuscular fat rendered clear and jiggly and suffused with gentle smoke flavor. Bruns knows that this sublime piece of beef requires no barbecue sauce, and he doesn't serve it with one. But you will get a side of potatoes and a vegetable. When I ate it, it was an artful potato gratin, topped with spinach creamed with smoked garlic and onion puree.
Apart from the beef, Bruns brings in whole pastured animals—pigs, chickens, and sometimes lamb, many from downstate's Slagel Family Farm—and he's shopping according to the season. For now he's sticking with an unconventional porchetta: whole pork bellies split and rolled around housemade sausage, sliced in a thick slab and served, in my case, on a bed of creamy polenta, dressed with spring pea shoots, purple sauerkraut, and gently sweet apple butter.
Bruns is doing an intensely beefy brisket burger ground from trim and dry-aged sirloin, and pulled chicken with ramp chimichurri and smoked black bean puree too, but the menu will change a lot (the latter will involve sweet corn come August). When I first ate there just after Easter, Bruns was taking advantage of the extra lamb he'd smoked for brunch to run a terrine special, wrapped in ramp leaves and served with pickled mustard seed. Drawing on his pasta skills, he'd rolled out fresh cannelloni and rolled it around pulled pork whipped with smoked garlic, pecorino, parmesan, and fermented ramps, topped with a smoked mushroom duxelle folded with pork jus and smoked carrot puree.
These remain on the menu, but Bruns will probably move on to something else before long. I'm guessing his potatoes will stay on forever. He gently confits Kennebec wedges in rendered brisket fat, until they look like pieces of dark chocolate, with a fragile crispness armoring a creamy interior. I'd dumbly push these into my face on their own merits, but they're served with a truffled parmesan cream that's just as worthy of their greatness.
Yes, the barbecue gods are cruel, but no one's nastier than petty Yelpers. Bruns continues to catch grief from people expecting cheap, traditional barbecue. To be fair, so much dreck has been passed off among the glut of new barbecue restaurants that have opened in recent years that people have cause to be suspicious.
But Flat & Point's pricing is quite reasonable relative to the high-performance, quality-sourced, and confidently creative food he's putting out. Here's a tip: Don't come expecting barbecue as you know it. Think of it as a gift from the gods. v