PROJECT RUNWAY nerd moment: I was almost more excited to hear that season 11 winner Michelle Lesniak was going to design the interior of the new Smokehouse Tavern than to learn I would never again have to go to Northwest Portland to get Smokehouse 21's ribs.
But I was also worried that I'd nibble at a bone gingerly, afraid to get charcoal red sauce on a hand-sewn napkin, and embarrassed to mow down a fatty plate of meat in front of a fashion designer (mentally cueing the Zoolander scene where Mugatu orders a model to lose five pounds immediately or leave).
My worries were for naught: Lesniak and her fiancé and Smokehouse chef/partner, B.J. Smith, have crafted a beautiful space—with high ceilings, gold-framed mirrors, luxe wallpaper, and taxidermy—where it still feels okay to tuck your napkin into your shirt collar. (Also, my celeb-selfie dreams didn't come true: I didn't see Lesniak there on any visit.)
This is fine, because there is some serious eating to be done at Smokehouse Tavern, where Smith brought over all the old favorites from Smokehouse 21, including a top-flight rack of ribs, and added a few higher-end touches.
The expansive bar has even more ambitious cocktails ($10), with several, like the Smokehouse Old-Fashioned, made with bourbon, maple syrup, and house-made BBQ bitters, really nailing the modern rustic vibe. However, one cocktail, Love Is the Drug, was a bizarre blend of sherry, pineapple, celery bitters, cayenne, and... prosecco (?!), which was tasted by five adults and then sent back as undrinkable.
Pig ear pork rinds ($7) arrive on Crate and Barrel plates with small squeeze bottles of Bee Local honey and hot sauce. Don't miss the $1.50 deviled egg, topped with a generous bit of hot link, which sends creamy yolk oozing onto your thumb.
The plate of three meats and two sides ($22) is enough for two, especially with the incredible cornbread bacon muffin ($2): an almost phallic totem to sweet, smoky, and savory, glistening with an ample application of honey. Other sides, like mac 'n' cheese ($4) and potato salad ($4) are reliable, while the BBQ beans ($4) need to scale back on the sweetness.
Smith also messes around with a few nontraditional items, like sweetbreads ($22) and oyster mushrooms ($14), which stayed thick and meaty while soaking up ample smoke—a rare happy spot for a vegetarian in a meat palace.
Brisket was a major stumble on our first visit, served searingly hot as if it were burnt up in a broiler oven rather than cooked low and slow. It lacked a dark outer bark and also any hint of moisture, liberally splattered with giant flecks of Jacobsen's sea salt. This was an anomaly, it seems, as a small order at a later dinner was just fine, and the generous fatty and lean slices piled on the brunch brisket benedict ($13) were a wonder, drenched in a smoky rich sauce, topped with tart greens and tender poached eggs.
Brunch, in fact, is the strongest I've seen at any barbeque restaurant in town. A recent Saturday at 11 am had no line, and along with that benedict, offered a hash ($13) with pulled pork, fingerling potatoes, a poached egg, and mushrooms with bright green fresh peas bursting all over the plate. The service was a bit choppy during each visit, with our waitress clearly more interested in chatting with the cook in the large open kitchen than circling back to take my impulse order of a Stiegl Radler.
Sure, sweatpants may always remain the best outfit option at a barbeque joint, but as the great Tim Gunn might say: Smokehouse Tavern makes it work.
Mon-Fri 11 am-midnight, Sat-Sun 10 am-midnight with brunch until 3 pm. No reservations. Full bar, good beer list.