It's like in high school — would you rather be one of a small group of kids that only you yourselves know is cool? Most people have never heard of the music you listen to; that's what you like about it. Or would you rather be Miss Congeniality — someone that everybody likes?
French-cuisine-trained Ryan Odette moved from one concept of cool to the other last month when he closed his tiny MamO Bistro and opened a crowd-pleasing barbecue joint. No more roasted apricots and fig jus: Now it's ribs, wings and pulled pork, playing to a full, and much bigger, house.
The analogy isn't really apt, though, because Odette, who practiced first in New Orleans and Nashville, brings the same high standards to catfish that he did to duck medallions with arugula. As I tasted my first mouthfuls of St. Louis cut pork spareribs, I had a When Harry Met Sally moment that had neighboring diners inquiring.
These ribs appear unpromising: rather black and dry-looking, with a startlingly pink interior. There's even a warning on the menu: "Long slow cooking over hard wood imparts a pink hue to our meat. It ain't raw, it's supposed to look that way!" But in the mouth — I've never tasted such a multifaceted chunk of meat, a combination of smoke, tenderness and earthy animal goodness surely unrivaled since our ancestors accidentally dropped a haunch into the fire. You may even hesitate to risk spoiling the effect with one of the three squeeze bottles of sauce; but don't.
There's a slightly sweet, mostly tangy tomato-based barbecue sauce; a chipotle; and a runny mustard that's the most unusual and complex of the three.
It's a marker of the staff's eager-to-please (Miss Congeniality) mind-set that when I told our server the ribs were better than Slows', she immediately ran to the kitchen to tell the cooks, reporting back gratefully that all were thrilled. (Note that this was not fair to Slows, since the only time I've been there recently, the place was so standing-room-only with presumably happy customers that I ducked back out without ordering.)
Wings are not an afterthought at Smoke & Spice. My party agreed they were the best we'd had. Industrial poultry is tasteless, but these birds were luscious and meaty, smokier than most wings, which tend to taste just of sauce. "The smoke is more like an ingredient, like salt and pepper," Odette told a Windsor fan.
Pulled pork and beef brisket are the other two main meats, though there's also a mild and tender catfish with remoulade and spicy breading, and an apple wood-smoked half chicken worth checking out, if the wings are an indication.
The pulled pork is meltingly rich, creamy almost, though no fat is evident. The brisket I found less tasty, good enough, but not on a level with the pig products.
As to sides, Odette makes his chili with chunks of beef, of course, not ground; it needs more spice. His beef soup is a strong broth of the kind I picture a 19th-century doctor ordering for a patient who needs bracing up (this is a compliment). Collards are sharp and pungent yet mellowed by the chunks of ham they're stewed with. Barbecued beans are sophisticated (!) — almost winey with a little fire. Cole slaw is mostly very fresh cabbage, with very little binder, the way I like it. The potato salad, on the other hand, is mushy, and the mac and cheese is pretty ordinary.
The "Bistro Salad" harks back to the MamO days a bit, though goat cheese is hardly an exotic ingredient anymore. The salad's mixed greens are sprinkled with whole and half pecans, the cheese is noticeably creamy, and the honey-mustard dressing is more tart than sweet. It's worth ordering if you can tear your attention away from the animal protein.
Desserts are not in made in-house, at least not yet, but our party enjoyed a slice of bourbon-laced pecan pie, though it was too small for its $6.50 price tag (but not too small for post-pig-out). We were told that deep-fried cheesecake was also possible — talk about a crowd-pleaser!
Smoke & Spice's soundtrack is a mix of country and blues, some of the latter too raucous and electric. Though Windsor is the "Great White North," as the website puts it, it would be worthwhile to put more thought into music from barbecue's historic roots.
Smoke & Spice would be worth a trip in any case, but your dollars now go further in Canada again, trading at $1.18 Canadian in mid-October. See the menu at smokenspice.com.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].