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photo: Darrol Hofmeister
photo: Darrol Hofmeister

Good Enough

The Hickory: a tale of love, hate and adequacy

by Aidan Morgan

HICKORY SMOKEHOUSE
4371 ALBERT STREET
565-2010

One of the best (and the worst!) things about the Internet is the complete democratization of voices - at least in certain venues.

We don't really control the master architecture of the Web, but message boards and forums belong to the people. Or should I say, the People.

Case in point: user-driven restaurant review sites like Yelp or Urban Spoon (dot com!), where absolutely anyone can show up and vent their opinion in tidy little squirts of information or great big splashing gouts of rage and bewilderment. It's instructive to see what pleases people and what makes them incredibly angry, but as a barometer of restaurant quality, the user review isn't much help when you're trying to decide where to eat on a Tuesday night.

If you dare, try reading the aggregate of opinions on the Hickory Smokehouse and Grill, where, according to Urban Spoon, you can enjoy 1.) a delightful meal in a tasteful setting, or 2.) the most horrendous experience of your short little life. Some of the missives are sent off in quick-fried bursts from a smartphone, but a few are the outcome of finely chopped, long-simmering resentment. Most dismaying are the semi-professional takedowns: reviews that appear to have been written by someone in the restaurant industry. With their reliance on jargon and a habit of using 'plate' as both noun and verb, they're easy to spot and difficult to read.

Although none of the negative reviews come out and say it, they all hint at the Hickory Smokehouse's greatest weakness: flanked by The Cottage and The Keg - and occupying the same space as the old Keg restaurant - the Hickory does almost nothing to distinguish itself from its neighbours.

Or perhaps that's its great strength: diners can enjoy an experience they can get elsewhere but in a slightly different location.

Either way, this is dining at its least creative. But sometimes you don't feel like something new. You just want the simulation of something new.

(You see that cracking analysis there? Thank God for genuine professional restaurant reviewers. We undergo years of rigorous training before we're allowed to even eat any food. Most of us die of malnutrition.)

From the moment I walked in, the Hickory felt like a slightly retooled version of The Keg, designed to grab the exact same audience. For some reason they've put up a solid wall between the lounge and the dining area, which gives the entrance a claustrophobic air and made me feel like a head of cattle being herded to my table. The similarities continue with the menu, which include ribs, chicken, prime rib and a selection of steak cuts. They even offer a baseball sirloin. If you've ever wondered how a restaurant shrugs its shoulders and says, "Yeah, whatever," this is how it's done.

That's not to say that the Hickory is bad. The food is no worse than other places of its kind, and the service has really stepped up since the restaurant opened in late 2010. We were seated nice and quickly, and then Matt the Server came by to introduce himself. He then came by with such stunning regularity that I wondered if we were actually friends and he was just waiting for an invite to sit down with us. No coffee cup or water glass went unfilled.

We started with the artichoke and spinach dip ($9.95), a warm and serviceable dish that gave us all a pleasant cheese high. Matt the Server also brought out a basket of crusty white bread, which came with that ubiquitous star of whipped butter.

I decided to subject the Hickory to the worst critic a steak and rib joint can endure: a vegetarian. Fortunately, the Hickory has several meatless options, and not just your standard veggie burger, which usually sits on the menu more as a reproach than a meal. My friend had the portobello mushroom sandwich with yam fries ($9.95), both of which tasted just fine. Unfortunately, the bun began to disintegrate within minutes of its appearance at the table, which meant that my friend had to engage in a race against a self-destructing sandwich. Let's just call it a tasty Mission Impossible, with roasted peppers instead of Tom Cruise and a juicy portobello mushroom instead of Ving Rhames.

A note on the vegetarian options: they're all marked as 'vegan' on the menu, but if you're really serious about your veganism, you may want to grill your server (not literally - you're a vegan, after all) about the ingredients.

For the main course, I went with a full-on meat overload in the form of a rack of St. Louis-style side ribs ($21.95) with the chipotle sauce. It was huge. I thought they were serving me the tongue from some prehistoric monster, or maybe they were trying to unload a shipment of acromegalic cows. The rib rack was so big that it overshot the length of my plate and leaned delicately into my salad. I think it was trying to lick the dressing off the cucumber slices.

Despite the size of the ribs, the plate held just enough room for a stuffed potato, as well as a patch of carrots and parsnips with a sugary dill glaze. Like the other items I'd been trying out, they were all acceptable without being particularly exciting or complex.

As for the ribs, they were unremarkable. The chipotle tasted sweet but had none of that smoked jalapeno flavour that a chipotle sauce should have. I also have great trouble believing the menu's claim that the ribs had been 'slow smoked for hours'. I've had smoked ribs before, and these tasted like they hadn't come anywhere near a smoker. A good long smoke permeates the meat with flavour. My guess is that the Hickory may do something called 'smoke roasting,' which cooks at a higher temperature than traditional hot smoking. Or they just throw in some liquid smoke and call it a day.

My dessert was the only part of the meal that dipped below acceptability. The pecan flan I ordered was not a flan but a tart. The kitchen had decorated it with a series of caramel swirls around the edge of the bowl-shaped plate (a plate that makes no sense for this kind of dessert), so I ended up getting caramel on my fingers and thumbs. A minor problem, but easily avoidable.

I probably won't go back to the Hickory Smokehouse and Grill, but your mileage may vary. It's not an awful restaurant. It just can't be bothered to be particularly good.

The Hickory Smokehouse is open 4:00-10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 4:00-9:00 p.m. from Sunday to Thursday.