Ed Mitchell is an undisputed and well deserved star in the world of barbecue. He is one of the founders of the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party and a perennial favorite of that seminal bbq event. That is where I initially became familiar with him and enamored of his pulled and chopped pork. On my way home from South Carolina, we took a little detour to visit some friends in Raleigh, N.C. and to take the opportunity to try Mitchell's bbq-as-fine-dining restaurant The Pit for ourselves.
The first thing that sets The Pit apart from most bbq establishments is that at least on a weekend night (and I suspect any night) one needs a reservation for a table. Most bbq places I know are walk-ins. I wouldn't suggest trying that on a weekend night at The Pit. The place is massive and it was busy. It wasn't easy getting a table for 8 on a Saturday evening around 6:30, but my friend and fellow food blogger, Dean McCord of the excellent, Raleigh based Varmint Bites, fortunately, managed. The time was important for us, as we were only passing through Raleigh on our way home from South Carolina and not even staying the night in the area (for the record, we made it as far as Fredericksburg, VA that night after dinner).
Most barbecue restaurants are pretty basic places, but The Pit, like it's NYC cousin, Danny Meyer's and Kenny Callaghan's Blue Smoke, is a seriously nice restaurant, with classy, modern decor, an impressive wine list and great and interesting beers on tap. With good service, it has all the accoutrements of a fine restaurant even if one is still compelled at times to eat with one's hands.
The Pit's menu is pretty extensive, much more so than I had imagined. In addition to chopped and pulled pork, they do the same with turkey, have various chicken dishes, ribs, salads, catfish and even bbq tofu! They also serve a wide range of cocktails. Since we were planning on driving though, I, regretfully limited myself to one glass low alcohol North Carolina craft beer. I liked the fact that they indicate a beer's alcohol level on their always changing draught beer list
We opened with a couple of Starters for the table. Their chicken wings were judiciously smoked and like Buffalo wings, served with blue cheese dressing. We also ordered a true calorie bomb, that given current governmental trends is likely to be banned in coming years - The Pit's Barbecue Fries a southern version of Quebec's poutine. This one had hand-cut fries, melted pimento cheese, chopped 'cue, chives and bbq ranch dressing. I generally don't mind a little culinary excess, but this was a bit much even for me. I preferred the wings and cornbread and hush puppies that were brought out. The hush puppies, in particular, were pure happiness for this northerner (being a Mets fan, I can't call myself a Yankee) who doesn't get them very often. They came hot, crisp and flavorful. My son would have happily filled up on them alone.
Not knowing when I would be able to return and not having the time for a protracted meal, I went for the ultimate Pit sampler, the Triple Combo, choosing chopped turkey, pulled pork, "Mother Mitchell's" fried chicken, collard greens and fried okra. It was a lot of food! Ed himself came out to chat with us before we ordered and suggested trying the turkey and the fried chicken. I'm glad I did on both counts. It was actually difficult to distinguish the turkey and the pork. Both were prepared in a typical North Carolina vinegar style, full of flavor and juicy. The chopped was very fine, while the pulled pork was chunky and meaty. Finishing two weeks in the South, I had eaten very, very well, but had commented earlier that day to my wife in the car, that one emblematic southern food I had missed was fried chicken. Well, I didn't miss it any more. Mother Mitchell's was worth the wait. The coating was crisp, not greasy and tasty. The dark meat inside was perfectly juicy and wonderfully sweet. While I'm not sure that it was quite as wonderful as my fried chicken gold standard, New Orleans' Willie Mae's Scotch House, it was in that ballpark. As much as I enjoyed Mitchell's superlative cue, the fried chicken was the culinary highlight of the night. The porky and slightly vinegary collards were delightful. The okra was crisp, but not quite as vibrantly flavored as I had hoped. Nevertheless, they were quite good.
Somehow we managed to sample some desserts. The banana pudding was sensational, though I could only manage a small taste. The key lime pie ice cream was wonderful as well, beautifully tart and not too sweet. The pineapple upside-down cake and chocolate-chocolate chunk ice creams were also noteworthy.
After dinner, Ed showed us the kitchen and explained his approach to bbq, saying that one must "not fear the heat." Instead of the classic "low and slow" approach to barbecue, he uses a a hot and fast technique, allowing the meat to rest and the heat to distribute throughout the meat. Of course, for his pork bbq, Mitchell uses whole hogs and makes a point of using Animal Welfare Approved hogs in his restaurant. The Pit cooks a lot of meat, cooking hogs, turkeys and chickens round the clock in an indoor pit designed by Mitchell.
The Pit impresses on a number of levels. Certainly, the food is excellent and much more varied than I expected. It also works as a very good restaurant experience regardless of its genre. While it is still not quite haute cuisine, it is a terrific family restaurant, even as busy as it is. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of The Pit is how well run it is. It is big and very busy, but it seems to run very smoothly, at least the night we were there. Service was very good, efficient, but not rushed. The food was fresh and tasty and nobody seemed stressed - neither the patrons nor the staff. It would have been worth the detour just to see our friends or just to eat at The Pit. To have done both made a long trip into a very memorable and happy one!