The pig statues are being laid out in the Upper East Side space that used to house Merchants – Neely’s Barbecue Parlor, a Southern-fried joint that bears the name of Food Network stars Gina and Pat Neely, will open on July 13. This isn’t an offshoot of their Neely’s restaurants in the South – chef Wade Burch points out that it’s the only Neely’s Barbecue Parlor in the U.S. and that it’s not part of the chain. Instead of working with the existing menu items in other locations, Burch is “taking the Neely’s feel, their appreciation for flavor, the rubs, the sauces and trying to make the move from Tennessee to New York.”
After partnering with the operator of Merchants, the Neelys have been very hands-on during the process, but Burch appreciates that they have let him help shape the menu using his New York know-how: “In Manhattan you have to have New York experience to understand what city diners and the world will want – regardless of what some people say, New York is still the mecca for food.”
So, how do Southern flavors translate in NYC? It’s not necessarily about flavor: “I’m adding what I think people like in New York – different ingredients, different sourcing – in Tennessee, people don’t care where your meat is from – it’s just gotta taste good. In New York – if I can tell people this was humanely raised, it’s Niman Ranch, it’s got sustainability, it’s from a Berkshire pig – people care about that. They want to know more, they’re a little pickier.”
Look for signature dishes like candied thick-cut slab bacon, which is essentially the size and thickness of a baby’s arm. The chef, who made the trip to the Big Apple from Texas years ago, also hopes that his massive cowboy rib-eye steak with moonshine-glazed bell peppers will be one of the standout dishes (though it certainly seems big enough for two diners, Burch promises that he could slam the steak in a single sitting).
Besides the pig statues and the barbecue sauce caddies, the aura of the old Merchants is still there. A number of dining areas give the feel of eating in someone’s home – there’s a casual bar area up front, but as you go back into the space there is a larger dining room, a “garden” area with paintings of foliage and a “study” type room with a working fireplace. Those of you looking for a smoke after enjoying some of that smoky brisket can head downstairs, where the cigar bar that was housed underneath Merchants is still in operation.
Neely’s Barbecue Parlor is scheduled to open July 13 (1125 First Ave.; 212-832-1551).