The family-style meal is suddenly having a Philly moment. From the Kamayan-style Filipino feast over banana leaves at Perla to the Cypriot mezze of skewers and salads at Kanella Grill to Zahav's famous lamb shoulder and the more recent lasagna Bolognese dinners served at Hungry Pigeon, fixed-price communal dining menus are now a thing. Casual, bountiful, cozy, and fun.
And then there is "the trough." For $250, a broad wooden plank is piled high with such an orgy of assorted meats hot off the wood-fired grill at Butcher Bar that it seems to trigger a primeval reaction from the voracious hordes surrounding it. Men pound the table as they dig into the house-smoked bacon, skirt steak, and sausage links. Women howl as they swill Afterglow vodka-wine cocktails and reach for the game hens and kebabs. Glasses clink. Instagram accounts go wild. Faces turn carnivorous red and shine with heat. The volume rises fast and blasts right through the 100-decibel barrier and . . .
And, well, the rest of the dining room cringes. I'll admit that from one table over that trough looked like meat-tastic fun, except that this lipid overdose incited the most obnoxious behavior possible from the ravenous mob. The moment they mercifully departed, a manager sheepishly apologized to every table, offering a complimentary dessert.
To be sure, a warm cast-iron pan bearing a giant chocolate chip cookie ribboned with Nutella and topped with house-churned vanilla ice cream goes a really long way toward soothing any hard feelings. And it sort of worked (though I insisted on paying, as I don't take freebies) even if my eardrums wouldn't stop ringing.
In an era that has glowingly embraced vegetables, veganism, and all manner of health-forward trends, Butcher Bar has tapped a pent-up desire for retro red-meat indulgences piled high, from the trough's taste of everything to individual à la carte hits like my favorite new double burger and a "Butcher dog grinder" that does hoagie things to sausages I didn't know were allowed.
For the most part, I enjoyed the food from co-chefs Evan Turney and John Strain. But the volume with which it's often consumed is an issue, to the point that my first meal was nearly ruined by the trough-a-palooza that also swallowed up all the oxygen in that cramped shoe box of a back dining room. And for every dish I liked - a thick and smoky slab of bacon glazed in maple-sambal spice; a tender one-pound rib eye redolent with dry-aged savor; a crispy wedge of lettuce topped with candied bacon and a buttermilk flow of blue cheese dressing - the noise agitation seemed to amplify all the menu's other flaws.
The turducken sausage (ground chicken, duck, and turkey) was dry. The vegetarian "hipster" eggplant balls were both pasty and burned. The chicken wings were chewy. The boar ribs were smoked (yay!), but then inexplicably braised in a tart peach barbecue sauce (meh) until the meat flopped off the bones, a disappointment at $27.
The din is largely due to a design flaw in Butcher Bar's otherwise handsome vintage-style decor of hard, white tile and tin ceilings throughout the multilevel patchwork of small rooms, fringed with meat hooks, a whiskey-rich bar, and chandeliers meant to evoke 30th Street Station.
The best solution to appreciate Butcher Bar's genuine assets is to aim for a calmer midweek night or lunch. On just such a return visit, it felt like an entirely different and pleasant place. The mood was lively and jolly. The friendly server was on point. And we happily devoured virtually everything that came our way.
A jar of beef jerky sticks - chewy but still tender and sweet and spicy from a marinade - were a perfect foil to my punchy old-fashioned spiced up with 101 rye. The Greek meatballs, an homage to owner George Anni's Skiathos roots, brought ground lamb evocatively spiced with cumin and feta, and set over a creamy smear of tangy tzatziki. The fresh linguine made at Butcher Bar's sister restaurant, Mercato, came twirled in a soulful Sunday ragu of pork cooked down with sausage and neck bones. At $13, it was a stellar bargain. It was also a big improvement over the sausage rigatoni from my first meal, whose fresh pasta tubes had collapsed under the weight of (the noise and) an overly rich Parmesan broth.
Meanwhile, our second meal proceeded with successful excess. The sloppy Joe poutine was really not saucy enough to be a classic poutine, but the excellent thin-cut fries drizzled with tangy cheddar-beer sauce and then piled high with a zesty ground meat gravy were irresistible nonetheless. The unusual "Butcher Dog Grinder" is not really a hot dog, either. It's more like a thick house-smoked beef sausage that's split and tucked into an oversize brioche bun layered with Greek salami, provolone, lettuce, and tomatoes topped with coins of fried sausage. It's an unwieldy mess, but also a two-fisted joy to eat, the warm cured meats loving the freshness of those crunchy hoagie fixings.
The Royale with cheese, an ode to Pulp Fiction's dream burger, is an equally daunting tall stack of meats and bun. It's also the best Big Mac revamp I've unhinged my jaws for in a while: two quarter-pound brisket-short rib patties layered on a butter-toasted Martin's roll with finely shaved pickles, lettuce, onions, and a blush-pink special sauce that mingles with a gush of burger juices that trickle down the sides.
For all its red-meat antics and deep-fried indulgences (even the Brussels sprouts are fried), Butcher Bar has a nice touch with lighter options. The game hens stay juicy from an herbed brine while they turn on the wood-fired rotisserie and arrive piled high with cauliflower and greens. A big portion of tender octopus gets marked on the grill before its tumble with lemony fingerling potatoes and piquant olives. A whole black bass, meanwhile, is gloriously delicate over potatoes and broth beneath a salad of shaved radishes and salad greens.
All was going so well on this second visit as we barreled into a dessert of vanilla cheesecake with blueberry sauce and a trio of carnival-flavored ice creams (buttery movie popcorn; cupcake with sprinkles; very salty chocolate pretzel), that I hadn't noticed the volume suddenly starting to tick up.
A large group of rowdy men had settled in to our previously mellow mezzanine perch overlooking the open kitchen, and the spirits from Butcher Bar's whiskey list were already flowing. The heady smell of roasting meats wafted up from the ground-floor grill, and . . . Did someone just begin pounding the table? We swiftly made our exit, and just in time, as a plank-size trough headed their way.
Next week, Craig LaBan revisits the Year in Bells.