Barque Smokehouse is the brainchild of long-time friends Jonathan Persofsky and David Neinstein, whose passion for bbq and the hospitality industry led them away from their corporate careers to the wooded interior of Toronto's Urban Smokehouse. From the extensive wine list and artisan beers to the
seasonal fruits and vegetables delicately prepared to match the subtle smokiness of genuine pit barbeque, Barque Smokehouse presents an original approach to traditional barbeque. We pride ourselves on offering a refined dining experience with warm hospitality and friendly, attentive service in the heart of Roncesvalles Village since April 2011.
Holding a cold one by the neck with the left hand, flipping burgers and wings with a BBQ spatula with the right. It’s a very common visual that reinforces why, traditionally, beer has been synonymous with BBQ food and culture.
While we love our beer, there has been a concerted effort to create and grow a culture of wine at the smokehouse to deliver a refined dining experience, an initiative spearheaded by Wine Director Michael Godel. We spoke with our resident expert about some of the dos and don’ts when it comes to wine and BBQ, as well as the evolution of wine culture at Barque. It has reached the point in which wine often outsells beer and cocktails.
The number one thing deals with the rubs on the meats, which people think have a lot of salt, sugar and different spices, which is true. Many believe that the complexities of those flavours make it difficult to pair. The smoke that comes from a good smoker is a very particular aroma and that smokiness can be a very difficult match. If you went to the smokehouse where David Neinstein worked in Oklahoma, you would have a tough time matching wine to that food. The flavours there are much more in your face.
What sets us apart is that our smoke, our flavours and our aromas are very subtle when you compare it to other BBQ joints around the world. The subtle flavours here gives us the ability to match and pair wines.
Let’s first talk about the wines that don’t work. Wines that are heavily oaked, like some New World Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, are difficult to pair with our food. Other examples include high-octane Super Tuscans, Bordeaux, many southern French reds and Australian Syrah. It’s just adding one more type of wood smoke on top of smoke. However, we’ll have a California Cabernet on our reserve list. It won’t necessarily be there to be a perfect match with our food, but there will be customers that like that wine.
What does work with our food are fresh, crisp, vibrant, pure, clean wines with very little oak or none at all. The reds that work with our flavours include Austrian reds. We have found some esoteric and off-the-beaten-path ones like Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch that work well with our food. We like Syrah from Ontario, the northern Rhône and northern Chilean Syrah from the Limari Valley.
Back when we opened in spring 2011, I was really concerned about matching the wines with individual dishes. But it’s very hard to match that way because you often have a table with 4-6 people in it. They’re all eating different things – sharing appetizers and main courses – and sharing a bottle of wine. You really have to try and tailor the list so that the wine works across the board. Over the years, we’ve evolved to pick wines that work with most dishes. We aim for wine with low-to-medium tannins, with very little oak.
You want a white wine with some tannins, which have a low pH. People don’t generally associate white wine with having much tannin, they associate red wine with having these tannins. The chicken dishes go well with your low pH, high tannic white wine such as Assrytiko from Greece or Pinot Gris from Alsace or even Prince Edward County.
We’re lucky because, generally, the Barque customer is a return customer. We would have people who would tell us that they came in three months ago and had a particular wine that they liked. Sometimes, we’ll have to tell them that we don’t have it anymore because it was on a limited run, but have something similar. We’re evolving with them because they are able and willing to try something new. We actually sell less recognized labels and more esoteric stuff.
We like to champion different wines. We’re constantly evolving, changing up and trying new things. We’re really strong supporters of our local wine industries, but there are many people to support. For example, we feel strongly about having Rosewood Estate on our lists and it’s great that one of their team members lives here in Roncy. We’ll have their wine on the list for a few months, then it’ll go off for a few months, then it’ll come back on.
We’ve had Ontario wines from more than 50 different producers on our lists over the years, but we rarely have someone on for more than two or three months in a row. Trail Estate Winery just opened in Prince Edward County. We loved their Chardonnay and put it on. They won’t be on there in a few months because we will have ran out and have to wait for their next vintages. Or, we will move onto someone new and give them their time and space.
We’re very involved with the chefs when we do a private party, off-site event or if a night has a special menu. We do talk a lot when there’s a new menu approaching. I’ll ask what dishes are coming to the menu and see whether to add a wine to a list now or when the new menu comes.
We were one of the first restaurants to create a wine-on-tap program. I would say that one out of every three glasses of wine we sell comes from the tap. A lot of Ontario wineries are putting their wines in kegs. That’s a major step in so many right directions – for the environment, for the consumer, for productivity.
In the last blog post, Rub 101: The Basic Spices, Co-Owner David Neinstein talked about the foundation of spices that go into a rub. In this post, he discusses other spices you can add to a basic rub to elevate flavour profiles and introduce different tastes. Also, he talks about using spices to elevate heat levels.
Cayenne is the best option if I want to make the dish a little spicy with straight up heat. If you want to add a bit of earthiness, smokiness and heat, then I would use the Mexican chilies like chipotle, ancho or guajillo – those are good for adding complex and rounded heat.
(Photo credit: www.theperfectpantry.com)
I like to add one of the dried chilies like chipotle or ancho because it adds a touch of heat. They round out the flavouring really nicely. The same goes for pork too.
I like to add some dried herbs like thyme.
Less is more. Just simply add salt and pepper. Vegetables are best served with no muss, no fuss.
I would consider the elements of five-spice really effective. Star anise is really good when freshly ground. It’s really strong and you don’t need a lot. Szechuan peppers are fascinating because they are really complex. There is a really savoury element and they’ve got an interesting sweet heat to it.
What is also really effective is small quantities of fresh, hot chilies like habaneros or scotch bonnets.
If you add a couple of slivers of a really fresh, hot pepper, and place it on portions of the meat, it will go a long way.
As it cooks, it will bleed out evenly if you put enough on there.
For star anise, I would stick with white meats like pork and chicken. For Szechuan peppers, I would use it for most red meats in general like a steak and game.
(Photo credit: www.theperfectpantry.com)
(Photo credit: www.theperfectpantry.com)
It’s just about familiarity. You would have to know how much of everything you have to put on. When I do a spice rub, I like to know the exact ratios of what spice to add. But you could do that individually, however, you would have to measure it out. The only other factor to consider is that blending the spices in a rub provides a more even coating and even flavouring. Clumping or uneven flavouring may happen if you do it separately.
If it’s completely air tight, it should be good for up to a year. All spices diminish immediately as soon as it gets exposed to air. But I would recommend cleaning out your pantry once a year of all spices and herbs.
If someone is willing to make their own rubs regularly, I’d suggest getting and using a coffee grinder. Grind the spices fresh and you’ll will see a big improvement in flavouring. You can grind peppers, herbs, and seeds like coriander and mustard. That alone will makes a world of difference.
Earlier this year, co-owner David Neinstein appeared on The Social to talk about how to do barbeque in the oven in the dead of winter. During the segment, he spoke about the importance of applying a smoky rub onto the protein to give it that genuine BBQ flavour. He provided a basic recipe for an all-purpose mix anyone could make at home and use on a variety of meats.
Now that BBQ season is in full swing, we spoke to David about what types of spices you could incorporate at home to elevate the food on the grill or smoker this summer.
Here’s Part 1 of our discussion, where David talks about the basic spices in a rub. We’ll get beyond the basics in Part 2. Check back for that post soon.
Making a spice rub could be compared to being a winemaker of Bordeaux versus a purist winemaker of Burgundy. Bordeaux winemakers are known as master blenders. They use some base grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but blend in various types to create the right balance for the classic Bordeaux wines. Then there are Burgundians, who are purists. The majority of their wines use one grape, the Pinot noir.
Spices are a delicate balance of multiple ingredients until you find that right combination of sweet and savoury, and sometimes spicy. However, the base is always a sugar and salt in every rub.
Salt allows the pungency and rich flavours of the meat to come out and the sugar provides a balance and caramelization.
Table salt is too intense and too strong. Pure sea salt doesn’t spread well enough because it’s chunky and doesn’t melt. Kosher salt is right in the middle. It’s lighter, it spreads well and its saltiness isn’t as intense as table salt.
To get the caramelization factor and overall sweetness, one can use white sugar, molasses-based brown sugars or cane sugars – each have different types of sweetness to them. I always recommend a blend of brown and white because the sugars will have different effects. White sugar tends to create the general sweetness, whereas brown has a rounding effect once it cooks, and it also caramelizes really well.
There is no difference in terms of the flavour profile. However, cracked pepper will be fresher and have that bite. For certain dishes, you don’t want to have a bite of pepper, you just want the flavour of it. So if you’re having a piece of chicken – which is mild – sometimes that bite of pepper is overwhelming, versus a piece of red meat like lamb where that big crunch will melt better because the meat is stronger to hold up to the pepper.
No, smoked paprika is very effective to build smokiness over a short period of time, for example, with chicken. It adds that extra bit of smokiness that complements the smoke of the wood. However, I think it would be overkill to add it to a piece of meat that cooks over a very long time, like a brisket.
I personally benefit from using a narrow-mouthed container; I don’t think the best way to apply spice is with your hands. You have to treat spice that’s coming out of container like liquid. Once it starts flowing, it’s harder to stop, so you have to be ready for it. It’s almost the same motion as sprinkling liquid over food.
So I like a standard spice container that has a two-way brim that allows me to have that swishing motion. If you’re good at it, you can get an even distribution better through that container than you can with your hands because there’s less clumping, like a cascade effect.
Then, most importantly, the higher the pour, the more even the distribution.
In my opinion, actual rubbing occurs only for a wet rub. A dry rub should not be touched by hands.
Wet rubs are very common and effective. You use the same spicing techniques, but you add liquid to create a base like a vegetable or olive oil. You can throw a little bit of honey in there or ketchup, depending on the type of flavouring you’re going for. It can even be barbecue sauce or soy sauce. You mix all the ingredients together to create a paste, which is a wet rub.
Dry is more common, I’ve found. However, wet rubs are particularly useful for longer cuts (that need to be cooked longer). In competition barbecue, wet rubs are generally used for pork butt.
They can apply just before cooking or up to a day in advance. If you’re going to do it a day in advance, you’ll probably want to reapply a little more rub just before you cook it because some of it will have melted away in the liquids overnight.
— Check back for Part 2 soon.
In the spring of 2011, long-time friends David Neinstein and Jonathan Persofsky put the final touches on Barque’s wooden interior and smoky kitchen. That May, the restaurateur rookies officially opened the doors in the family-filled neighbourhood and began the next chapter in their tales.
Thousands of ribs, wings and pancakes later (even though brunch wasn’t an initial focus), we asked David to reflect on what has happened in the last three years. For him, it’s probably felt more like nearly a decade – read further and you’ll find out why.
I had no idea where we’d be in three years. I didn’t have any confidence that we would still be open after one year. We went in thinking day-to-day. The fact we’re still in business after three years is extremely flattering and rewarding.
It’s a tough business and we walked in knowing the risks were high. We had a lot to learn, but we worked very hard to make sure that we kept people happy. The food as well as the experience defines someone’s experience with us and we learned as we went.
Every single person’s time that is spent here is voluntary. They choose to spend their time and money with us. It may be a cliché, but they deserve 110 per cent of what we can give them.
We learned how to deal with volume very quickly because, fortunately, we were busy from the day we opened. A number of factors contributed to that. We opened up our doors right after the construction of Roncesvalles was just about completed. We opened in the spring when the winter doldrums had finished and people wanted to get out. And, we opened at a time when barbecue was fresh and interesting to the city. There hadn’t been a lot of new barbecue restaurants or a lot of them in general. So we piqued people’s interest with barbecue, but also caught this great neighbourhood at the right time. There was a lot of luck involved – a lot of stars aligned.
Oh yeah – thankfully. That’s one of our prouder achievements. My partner and I didn’t know that staff turnover is extremely high. Even at this stage, well over 60 per cent of our staff has been with us well over a year. We like to equate that somewhat like dog years to human years. Restaurant years to regular office years is like a 3:1 ratio. That’s great retention and we’re thrilled about it.
The brisket. It differentiated ourselves from the other places. We figured out a way to do brisket that was both smoky and tender. The challenge a lot of places have with brisket is that it has an awesome outside crust (the bark), but it’s not moist in the middle. If it’s moist in the middle, it doesn’t have a lot of flavour and it’s steamed Montreal style.
The Miami ribs. It was a dish I was extremely proud of – one of my truly original recipes. It just sold inconsistently. Some days we sold out of it. Some days we didn’t sell very many. By the numbers at the end, we decided that it wasn’t worth keeping it because we were throwing it out or serving it to our staff. We had so many ideas that we wanted to try that it was the obvious dish that would ultimately go in favour of a new dish. The Globe and Mail loved it, but the numbers weren’t there from the general public.
No, we didn’t open with brunch. We didn’t feel comfortable on an operational level to open with brunch. We knew we were going to do brunch eventually because it’s a family neighbourhood. But ultimately, we had no idea it would take off as much as it did.
I don’t know, but I know there is still a lot of room for barbecue. We have not hit the saturation point by any means. There are a lot of neighbourhoods that aren’t covered by barbeque as a local. I think it’ll get more popular as more and more people try it.
Three years in, we know we still have a lot to learn – we haven’t perfected anything yet. We’re thankful for the people who come here for the first time and we’re equally thankful for the people coming back. We always appreciate it when someone comes here to celebrate an occasion like a birthday or an anniversary.
By now, backyard BBQ season should be in full swing in neighbourhoods across the city. The smell of grilled and charred meats should be drifting through the air and inhaled through your nostrils.
Here’s some tips for the summer season from Barque’s Co-Owner and Executive Chef, David Neinstein, including where he likes to purchase his protein and what to do when you bring the meat home. To get the good stuff, it’s not as simple as taking the wings out of the grocery bag and throwing them straight onto the BBQ.
First thing is to plan ahead, maybe a day ahead. For some of the meats, it requires extra preparation to properly BBQ. There may be availability issues. You can’t shop for BBQ at the last minute – it’s not recommended.
I’d generally stick to butcher shops, the folks who know what they’re doing. They have the most variety and the best knowledge. But a No Frills can be great too, but it depends on the No Frills. Check out a bunch of places and go with what you’re more comfortable with. Also, get used to calling ahead. Don’t assume they don’t have a phone. For example, if you’re looking for a full double brisket that could weigh up to 20 lbs., there’s a chance your butcher may not have it. If they don’t, they can order one in for you.
For BBQ meats, I’d recommend Sanagan’s Meat Locker in Kensington Market. It has great variety. I like some of the Portuguese butchers on Bloor like Gasparros Quality Meats. The No Frills at Lansdowne and Dundas near us has an excellent and unacknowledged butcher department, as well as the No Frills at Dufferin Mall. They’re run by third parties and they’re pretty good. I also really like Butcher By Nature in the Junction.
Yes, that’s the interesting point. They’re run by meat companies who are brought in. And because the clientele is so diverse, there’s a great selection of different kinds of meats. You can get oxtail or you can get steak, you can get salted cod or lamb ribs. They have amazing variety at these two No Frills particularly.
For the BBQ cuts, there isn’t a big difference. Unless you’re talking chicken wings and ribs, everything should be around the same price.
I prefer baby back ribs, whole chickens and chicken thighs. I think beef ribs are underappreciated. Beef ribs, sliced the other way, which makes Miami-style ribs, or Galbi-style in Korean, are a great way to eat it. We had those on the menu for the first two years.
Baby backs have a blend of fat and meat, so it’s more like a ribeye. Side ribs have more meat, and the fat on the outside, like a striploin.
Some are really effective, some are not.
Always. Brining is the key and the most underutilized technique in the home kitchen for white meat. I’d recommend brining it for 24 hours. The basic recipe I use is 4 litres of water, 1 cup of granulated sugar and 1 cup of kosher salt – mixed until fully dissolved. Place the meat in overnight, put in the fridge and rinse off the excess brine before cooking. It definitely makes your meat juicier. This works for chicken, turkey and pork.
For red meat, I’d do the opposite and dry it. I like to put it on a tray on paper towel and I don’t cover it. It then goes on the bottom most rack of my refrigerator because you don’t want any cross contamination. Bacteria follows the laws of gravity so if you have any other edible, cooked food, you don’t want the bacteria from the raw meat to fall on it.
If you don’t, you’re essentially double cooking it, meaning you’re using time and energy to get it to room temperature than to a cooked temperature. It’s like microwaving meat to defrost it. There is a point where you actually cook it in the defrosting phase.
While it’s still warm (or warm it in the oven), separate the meat and the skin from the bones. Throw out the skin and you’re essentially pulling the chicken. When you have this pulled chicken, incorporate your favourite sauce – say a pound of chicken with three tablespoons of sauce. Then you can freeze it and take it out whenever you want and have a chicken salad for a sandwich or put it in tacos.
If you’ve eaten at Barque, you’ve seen the cartoons on the TV, crayons and colouring books, and even a Diaper Genie in the washroom. You’ve probably heard some high-pitched chatter coming from the little ones about the latest toys or wanting dessert before they finish their veggies.
We absolutely love it.
Recently, Barque was recognized as a family-friendly destination. We couldn’t be happier with that tip of the hat. To get a sense of why he wanted to create this experience, we spoke with co-owner David Neinstein about having the values of #familynight all week long.
Yeah, we felt there was a need for a restaurant in the neighbourhood for parents to take their kids – where families would be welcomed and fed well. It’s sometimes tough to find a restaurant that caters to the parents and the kids.
The initial design was for it to be table bread, but it’s also kid-friendly.
It was always our belief that Fridays and Sundays were meals that people had as a family. Growing up, Jon (Persofsky, co-owner) and I had the same experience in which Friday nights were dinners at home with the family, and Sundays were dinners out with the family. We wanted to continue that tradition in Roncesvalles knowing that there were lots of families in the neighbourhood. We wanted to be able to provide a venue for families to get together and have a family-oriented meal while at a restaurant. You have a set menu, so you all get the same thing. It’s on big platters like you would have at home. We get a lot of families who comes in when we open and we fill up with kids between 5 and 6 almost every Sunday. The underlying theme is that we want to be like a good Pixar movie. We want the kids and the parents to be fully entertained at the same time.
Absolutely. The neighbourhood is populated with schools, kids clubs, parks, sports leagues for kids. We’re sandwiched between half a dozen parks in addition to High Park, where kids are everywhere.
I think we’ve created a menu that all kids can pick their own favourites, while allowing parents to ensure they get a balanced meal. There’s always a green, there’s always a starch, there’s always a protein. And if the kids eat their meals, they get the dessert at the end. The kids get what they want and the parents get what they want.
Parents can get agitated when their kids get unruly at restaurants. They feel like they’re infringing on other people’s enjoyment and space. We’ve worked with our staff to guide the kids through the process of eating here without asking the parents to keep the kids in line. Our staff tend to give kids a distraction, give them colouring books, engage them in conversation to keep them interested so the parents have a window to enjoy themselves as well. If kids are messy and drop something on the ground, our staff casually pick it up so that their parents don’t feel awkward. It’s not a big deal if they make a little mess. We’re happy to have them as long as they’re having a good time. In a way, our staff can work as camp counsellors.
It was my father who cooked dinner for us – it’s where I learned to cook dinner. He would make roast chicken and turkey a lot of the time.
Yeah, we get comments every once and a while saying, “That’s awesome.”
No doubt, it’s Scooby-Doo. It appeals to everyone – the older generation and young kids who haven’t seen it before.
After this long, long winter, warmer temperatures are approaching (at some point), and that means a few things – patio season, cold beers and the soul-soothing smell of BBQ wafting through the neighbourhood.
Some of you may be BBQ beginners, while others may be aspiring pitmasters. We talk to co-owner and Executive Chef David Neinstein about what to consider before buying a grill versus a smoker.
Actually, there are two important questions to ask:
Also, you have to factor in cost. You can buy a great grill for a lot less than a great smoker.
|1. Smokers will produce more tender meat and veggies because you’re cooking low and slow (although some smokers can cook at higher temperatures).||1. Smokers are generally more expensive than a grill.|
|2. You’ll get those unique and distinct smoky flavours.||2. It’s not ideal to cook burgers or sear steaks or fish quickly.|
|3. They have better temperature control.||3. It’s more work and it’ll take more time.|
|1. They’re more economical – a good grill can cost around $400, but the equivalent smoker could go for $1,500.||1. If you’re cooking with indirect heat, you limit the surface area on the grill.|
|2. There are more models on the market.||2. It’s much more challenging to attain an accurate and steady cooking temperature.|
|3. With higher temperatures you’ll get food on the plate much faster.|
|4. They’re easier to clean.|
|5. You can mimic a smoker and cook with indirect heat.|
Classic BBQ meat: pork side and baby back ribs, baby back beef ribs, beef brisket, pork butt, whole chickens, chicken thighs, wings, trout and mackerel (thinner cuts of fish).
Pork chops, rib eye steaks, burgers and salmon (thicker cuts of fish).
I have a Traegar pellet wood electric smoker and a Broil King grill. In the restaurant, we use Southern Pride. In previous competitions, I’ve used Cookshack.
The Traegar Lil’ Tex I still use.
I’d probably recommend that people experiment on a backyard BBQ grill first before going to smoker. Get used to temperatures, try using indirect heat. If you feel you like the labour of love process and want those tender ribs and juicy brisket, move onto a smoker.