Handsome Hog and the delicate business of "Contemporary Southern"

It isn't the ultra-smoky outdoor BBQ you crave, but the 20-hour brisket is difficult not to like.

It isn't the ultra-smoky outdoor BBQ you crave, but the 20-hour brisket is difficult not to like.

If you're a classically trained chef, the urge apply your knowledge and skills to any cuisine at all is irresistible. If BBQ pit-masters have been tossing grated cheddar and elbow macaroni together for decades and calling it macaroni and cheese, a trained chef is going to make a béchamel. If mustardy potato salad is the perfect accompaniment for smoked meats, a chef is going to put quotations around it, deconstruct it, and festoon it with micro herbs.

How you feel about this is wholly up to you. Appreciation or appropriation? It's a delicate question and you probably know just what camp you fall in. 

In a town with a relatively serious dearth of good BBQ, we were giddy with anticipation over the new Southernish restaurant in downtown St. Paul. Had Handsome Hog come through for us on smoked meats and all that goes along with? 

The cooking is very good. Let's get that out of the way first. Executive chef Justin Sutherland is formerly of the late, fine-dining Eastern European Brasserie Zentral, and downtown St. Paul's French brasserie Meritage. Attention to detail is precise, and technique is tight as a drum.

The menu is long, and certain preparations are fussy. Happily, prices aren't exorbitant. Starters hover mostly in the $10 mark, and entrees rarely exceed $24 and often stay in the teens. For perspective, Big Daddy's, arguably the Twin Cities' best BBQ restaurant, offers similar prices. 

That said, compact planks of 20-hour smoked brisket (Handsome) and a whole rack of ribs (Big Daddy's) are two different things indeed. What are you in it for? 

At Handsome, that brisket has clearly been slow-cooked, but there are no outdoor smokers, and fancy indoor Alto-Shaam smokers just can't offer the same flavor. If you're the kind of person who eats their BBQ in Kansas City or Memphis, you'll miss the real McCoy. 

Still, the bourbon-tinged BBQ sauce is spot on and bewitching. The traditional touch of white bread as a base is charming. Add a glug of Crybaby Craig's hot sauce — the local company that Handsome Hog hosts on all its tables — and you'll find the whole package is difficult not to like.

One foible, though a slight one, is that the menu has a tendency to trend toward the Midwest. An iceberg wedge with blue cheese and bacon is nothing if not Midwest steakhouse. A Cobb salad with everything including the kitchen sink is an oddball, with escarole, pickled strawberries, boiled peanuts, smoked quail egg, country ham, avocado, smoked gouda, and bacon vinaigrette. 

Menu unwieldiness aside, Handsome is responsible for some of the finest collard greens we've had here or in any major BBQ town. Flashes of great cooking like this cannot be denied. Tossed with fatty peels of smoked pork shank, these and little else could make for a full meal. Ditto the mac and cheese with country ham; it's silky with a high-technique cheese sauce. 

Lots of restaurants around the country have gone far by taking traditional Southern cuisine, tightening it up, and repackaging it. There's Cochon in New Orleans (multiple James Beard Awards), Fette Sau in New York (Zagat Rated), Yardbird in Miami (James Beard, again), and Revival right here in Minneapolis (and a soon-to-be second location in St. Paul), to name a few. They are all very good restaurants. Can Handsome Hog follow suit? 

As with any high-concept restaurant, we'd love to see them pare down the menu and let the highlights truly shine. In addition to the above examples of old favorites, they're also serving poutine, littleneck clams, chicken and waffles (an obvious crowd favorite but it's been done to death on menus all over the country), a succotash panzanella with squash confit and cornbread, a whole roasted cauliflower for $14, virtually every part of the hog from jowl to trotter, and more, more,  more. 

There's also a charcuterie service where a prized, Spanish acorn-fed Mangalitsa hog leg sits proudly on its stand behind the bar, on offer for a supplemental charge. It's the highest-end pork in the world, selling for about $10 an ounce. 

A bourbon-centric craft cocktail program is headed up by one of our favorite faces in the drinks business, Trish Gavin (formerly of Il Foro and Brasserie Zentral). Overall, we've enjoyed the takes on old favorites. A mint julep in a traditional tin cup tinged with lime and lots of crushed ice is a summertime winner, and a house G&T with frozen juniper berries and burnt sage needles was all Christmastime and herb. Sadly, they were out of what sounded like a special treat: a bourbon slushy with mint, orange, and ginger beer, served with a spoon. Perhaps next time. 

Whether or not you want your down-home food cheffed-up, Handsome Hog is doing some good cooking and filling a gap in our culinary repertoire. If they can rein themselves in, they could have something great up their sleeves. 

Handsome Hog

203 E. Sixth St., St. Paul