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Barbeque with deja vu: Newly reborn Park Slope grill pit has smoke signals crossed

for The Brooklyn Paper
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The best fried chicken I’ve ever had was in the dining room of a department store in a weird little town in South Carolina.

The bird’s pieces were mahogany colored and a little greasy, slightly salty and generously peppered; I think it was fried in lard. The crust broke off in chunks, the flesh was moist and a bit gamey, like chicken used to taste before Perdue came along.

It was utterly sublime.

At Biscuit BBQ, Josh Cohen’s restaurant, which recently reopened on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, you get a lot of bird for your money: it’s greaseless with a very crisp “double-dipped” batter and juicy meat inside. The predominant taste, though, is salt.

When the original Biscuit was on Flatbush Avenue (it closed in September 2005), I wandered in and was disappointed with the food. I remember thinking that the rubs were dull and the mac and cheese was a travesty. I never returned for a second visit.

The experience was surprising, because a few years prior to the Biscuit debacle, I had a great meal prepared by Cohen at Williamsburg’s Relish, where he was the restaurant’s owner and chef. Delicious ribs in a complex, vinegar-heavy sauce and a sublime key lime pie were standouts.

I was hesitant, too, about visiting Biscuit’s new location. Twice over the past year I dined at that same location when it was Night and Day, an ambitious bistro and entertainment venue. The original owners, Judy Joice and Robin Hirsch (Hirsch is Cohen’s partner in this venture), went through several chefs before Cohen stepped in. The first time, the food was a disaster. My second visit, with chef Simon Glenn in the kitchen, yielded positive results but not a long tenure on Glenn’s part. Once a place goes through several staff turnovers and theme changes, it seems jinxed.

Biscuit BBQ retains much of its predecessor’s decor. The attractive room sports the same ocher-colored, star-covered wallpaper; the same wood tables and bar; and, unfortunately, the same view from the dining room onto the service station near the kitchen. To give the room a down home touch, a television has been installed over the bar and the paper menus serve as placemats.

Cohen refers to the cooking as “authentic Brooklyn barbeque” because “people are really specific about barbeque, and they don’t appreciate variations on what they remember.”

He’s right.

It doesn’t matter if your daddy was a pit-master in Texas or grilled burgers on a hibachi on Long Island, barbeque fans have concrete ideas of what makes good “’Que” and they’re not afraid to express them.

Cohen plays it safe with the food’s description, and, in some instances, with the cooking, too. Certain things, like the crisp-edged, tender buttermilk biscuits are terrific. (The recipe belongs to Maio Martinez, a pastry chef who is Cohen’s partner at Sample, a small plate eatery on Smith Street.)

But the ribs are lackluster, and, while I wouldn’t call the mac and cheese a travesty anymore, it’s not going to win any prizes. Pies, like the pecan and the buttermilk-coconut we tried, are baked according to Martinez’s recipe. The pecan isn’t cloying and the buttermilk is tangy, but neither slice is memorable.

There are two very good starters on the menu. The “Hatch Green chile and hominy stew” is a deep bowl of tart, full-flavored vegetable broth given heat from the New Mexican peppers, and filled with chewy pieces of hominy (dried corn kernels re-hydrated in the broth until they’re the size and shape of popped corn). The soup is pleasantly hot, not throat-burning. Pieces of tender pulled pork lend a sweet, smoked nuance to the dish.

The onion rings are fabulous. The buttermilk batter puffs about the circles of crisp onion in a crown of salty crunch. They’re perfect when dunked into a saucer of the garlicky ranch dressing.

“Smoked-to-the-bone” ribs have potential, but are not what they should be yet. Cohen gives the pork a dry spice rub then smokes it over hickory and apple wood.

The ribs are big and meaty and reasonably fatty, but lacked the smoked flavor and aroma that should be the dominant note. They sit over a pool of “Lexington Red Sauce,” (a cider vinegar-based sauce tinged with tomato) that needs more of a kick. There are squeeze bottles of sauces — one sweet and tart, one mustardy and the other vinegary — that ratchet up the flavor a few notches.

Besides candied yams with warm spices of nutmeg and clove, and crisp, chunky coleslaw, the “lip-smackin’ sides” weren’t. Spicy collard greens liberally laced with vinegar were sharp but dry, smashed red bliss potatoes with white country gravy had plenty of black pepper but needed salt, and a salad of sliced beets in mustard vinaigrette tasted flat.

I know Cohen’s got the mojo to produce a good meal. But Biscuit’s cooking won’t start smokin’ until he fine-tunes the kitchen.

Biscuit BBQ (230 Fifth Ave. at President Street in Park Slope) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $9-$26. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily. Brunch is available from 11 am to 3 pm on weekends. Subway: R to Union Street. For more information, call (718) 399-2161 or visit the Web site www.biscuitbbq.com.
Updated 4:26 pm, July 9, 2018
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