Blue Smoke Chop House in Greenwich: Danny Meyer’s Slightly Creepy Enlightened Hospitality Comes North

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fter a recent re-read of Danny Meyer’s biography-cum-religious-doctrine, Setting the Table, we emerged comforted in the knowledge that we took the correct career path. Unlike Mr. Meyer, who spends insomniac nights thinking of ways to please his customers, we began to feel that our diners were a nuisance. After all, we loved cooking, writing menus, designing restaurants, even choosing salt and peppers—but if one more diner asked for kechup for his steak, we’d have gone postal. And P.S. – with our knife roll, we were heavily armed at the time.

Yet we admire Mr. Meyer and his obsessive – nay, creepy – devotion to pleasing his diners, and we visit his restaurants as often as we can. Danny Meyer et al have the ingenious ability to create instant standards—in fact, their ideas have become so institutionalized, that it’s hard to remember who initiated them. You know that nearly ubiquitous tuna burger? It was invented back in the ‘Eighties at Union Square Café, as a handy way to sell the irregular bits of tuna leftover from tuna steak. You know all those foodie-approved, quality-first takes on burger stands? (We’re thinking here of Stand and BRGR, not to mention Greenwich’s Burgers, Shakes and Fries). That concept comes courtesy of Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack. And now that every Manhattan corner has a funky, pig-festooned homage to an Appalachian backyard, it’s hard to remember that Blue Smoke was the first—serving up Abita beer, barbecue ribs and pork and beans to an urbane, groovy-glasses-wearing clientele.

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In our long, rambling chat with David Swinghamer, Union Square Hospitality Group’s President of Growth Businesses, we learned several things about the new Greenwich restaurant—some of which are poised to become new standards. The overriding concept of the menu can be summarized in one word: wood. Union Square Chop House will serve its fare wood smoked, roasted in a wood-burning oven, or grilled over a wood fire. Even Blue Smoke Chop House’s outdoor seating—something Mr. Swinghamer is audibly excited by—is wood-fueled. They’re planning fire pits in the large outdoor dining area, along with a big glass wall to engage outdoor diners in the ‘interactive’—which means, as far as we can tell, visible—lumber-based cooking. Menu items besides Blue Smoke’s signature Kansas City barbecue ribs? According to Mr. Swinghamer, prime meats and seafood, specifically wood-grilled oysters — a dish that we absolutely love. (When we last had it in North Carolina, a burlap coffee sack was soaked in seawater then draped over just-picked, native oysters, which steamed and roasted at the same time—emerging tender, briny and subtly smoky.)

The BSCH plans to open in the first half of 2009, and is going into the old Hojo’s on 1114 East Putnam Avenue in Greenwich. Besides Blue Smoke Chop House, the site will feature a “green” hotel developed by a team lead bu Charles Mallory, the same folks behind the Greenwich Harbor Delamar Hotel. Swinghamer says, “We’re taking what is really a dumpy place and turning it into a treasure for people who work and live around there.” If anyone can remember Greenwich Harbor before the Delamar, hotellier Charles Mallory and Co. have some clear experience doing this kind of thing. That said, there is no news yet on how the “green” hotel will handle all that woodsmoke pouring out of BSCH, a notoriously polluting feature. Some smog-bound communities have even banned the construction of new wood-burning fireplaces. Let’s hope—for the environment, anyway—that Blue Smoke Chop House’s venting is green, too.

Like the Batali/Bastianich/Nusser group’s move into Port Chester’s Tarry Lodge, this is the first suburban venture for Union Square Hospitality Group—which recently opened a Union Square Café in the Roppongi district of Tokyo, and will open a Shake Shack on the Upper West Side late in 2008. When we asked whether the Greenwich move was part of a larger push, David Swinghamer demurred. “We‘re not the kind of restaurant group that plans a big expansion and a lot of restaurants at one time. We like to take each one individually, so that we can really nurture it.” Huh. The press release quotes Swinghamer saying [italics ours], ‘“In thinking about our first Blue Smoke outside of NYC, we felt it was important to open a restaurant in a location where many of our loyal Manhattan regulars live and work.”’ The release also says that that Kenny Callaghan, Executive Chef and partner of Blue Smoke, and Mark Maynard-Parisi, GM/Partner, will continue to serve as partners of new Blue Smoke restaurants as well. Sounds like multi-unit expansion plans to us.

For those who are fans of the Manhattan Blue Smoke, more than the name will be different in the Greenwich venue. While Swinghamer hopes to retain Blue Smoke’s permissive reservation policy—where, in Manhattan, the balcony seating is reserved for spur-of-the-moment walk-ins—the new, more expensive foodstuffs may mean some higher price points. “Blue Smoke offers a lot of value in food and wine, but we’d also like to offer—if that’s what you’re looking for—a great prime steak, and a wonderful bottle of wine. Of course, you’ll have the option of digging into a nice rack of Kansas City ribs and some Blue Smoke potato chips, too. (FYI—at Blue Smoke, the ribs’ll go you $14.95 for a half rack, $22.95 for a full—and the chips are $7.95.) Besides price, some of the classic Blue Smoke dishes might be missing to make room for all the woodsy seafood, steaks and chops. Swinghamer wouldn’t say which, despite our needling. Let’s hope it’s not the fried chicken, which, in its lack of woodiness, feels doomed.

Finally—and we seem to be asking this a lot lately of Manhattan restaurateurs–why the suburbs? “Blue Smoke brings in a diverse group of people. Young, old, families, singles, we have parties, it’s great for takeout and special occasions. We think it’s just right for diners in Fairfield and Westchester Counties.” And, we suspect, counties all over America, too.

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