Poll a hundred barbecue enthusiasts – everyone from veteran pitmasters to weekend hobbyists just learning to harness the power of their Big Green Eggs – and you’ll hear dozens of strategies for smoking meats. We may never resolve debates over wet vs. dry rubs or wood chips vs. chunks, but there is one (almost) universally acknowledged truth about the art and science of BBQ: Brisket is the most difficult meat to smoke.

Will Myska, chef and owner of Ore Nell’s, understands how finicky a brisket can be. Open the smoker too soon, and your meat will never hit the right temperature. Leave it in too long without tenting, and it transforms from prime cut to hockey puck.

To stay on the right path, he and his team hedge their bets whenever they load a heavy slab of beef into the indoor smoker at his Badger’s Island restaurant in Kittery. The crew oversees the sluggish process with the assistance of spray bottles filled with apple cider vinegar, miles of porous “peach paper” used to retain the meat’s moisture and a rather offbeat gambit – a bespoke Brisket Prayer painted on the wall of the dining room:

“May our bark be crispy, our juices be flowing, and may our smoke ring runneth deep. – Ore Nell 3:22.”

“It was just something our chef de cuisine Zac Cardona came up with on our opening night (March 22, 2018), because we were all so nervous, and we want brisket to be our claim to fame,” Myska said.

Whether it’s the power of prayer, the simple salt-and-pepper rub or the seven hours spent on smoldering local white oak, the brisket ($7 for ¼ pound) I tasted on a recent visit was precisely as entreated: crisp outside and tender throughout, with a rosy racing stripe of myoglobin to indicate that the smoke had indeed penetrated nearly a half-inch inside the beef.

The patron saint credited in the snippet of pseudo-gospel is Myska’s 94-year-old grandmother, Ore Nell. Not only is she the source of inspiration for the restaurant itself, but her Houstonian and Central Texan recipes act as a foundation for much of the menu.

“Most of the sides are hers, and our house BBQ sauce is pretty much her recipe, too. It’s from that old style when it was considered sacrilegious to put sauce on your BBQ. Most Texans don’t. So the old establishment used to make it thin and bitter to turn you off. We don’t do that, but we do use a lot of vinegar and molasses, but we make sure it’s never super sweet.”

It may not taste like a traditionalist’s rebuke, but the house sauce is a bit anemic on everything save for a fantastic, ultra-smoky barbecued tofu sandwich, served simply with house-made pickles and sharp raw onions ($7).

The other table sauce, a fiercely spicy ketchup-based arbol chile concoction, is a much better option, especially on meats that need a jump-start, like the juicy pulled pork ($5.50 for ¼ lb.) and the tangy, yet unforgivably dry, pickle-juice-brined half-chicken ($11.50).

And it is certainly true that some of the restaurant’s meats require no sauce at all. Take the all-beef Texas hot links from nearby Maine Meat butchery ($6 each), flavored simply with cayenne and jalapeños and suffused with oak smoke. Or the double-rubbed pork spare ribs ($7.50 for ¼ rack), trimmed in the blocky St. Louis style – a mixed bag of a dish with superb cumin-and-garlic flavor and a bittersweet bark, but meat as tough as jerky.

Banana pudding: grandma’s recipe, with a cheffy twist. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Perhaps grandmother Ore Nell’s best recipe is her banana pudding ($7), served as a parfait with layers of cool vanilla pudding, crumbled Nilla Wafers and sweetened whipped cream. Myska adds playful touches to the Southern classic with crunchy homemade toffee and planks of torch-caramelized banana that allude to molecular gastronomy techniques he picked up during an apprenticeship long ago at Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s The Dunaway.

“For sure, grandma never did that,” he said with a laugh. “She definitely never brûléed a banana.”

Dessert is not the only place where Myska relies on techniques and flavors he acquired working in non-barbecue restaurants. Among the specials, he nods to his time at Massimo’s in Portsmouth through his panzanella ($9) – really more of an herby salad with enormous, fried white-bread croutons and an efflorescent layer of snapdragons, pansies and nasturtiums. On this menu, he also includes a half-Southern, half-Mexican jalapeño cornbread drizzled with arbol chile honey that pays homage to his recent three-year stint as chef de cuisine at Portsmouth’s Vida Cantina. Both are among the best items I tasted at Ore Nell’s.

So too are Cardona’s contribution to the special menu: collard greens ($4/$6) braised with whole grain mustard and tart, savory sauerkraut. “That’s a recipe that comes from the time he spent in Duval, Florida,” Myska said. “Not everything here is traditional, but that’s OK.”

Almost to a dish, everything I tasted that had been adapted or borrowed was better than Ore Nell’s classic Texan barbecue dishes – with one lone (star) exception: the brisket. One of my guests couldn’t get enough of it, and when I asked her opinion, without an ounce of sarcasm, she wiped sauce from her lips, glanced at her plate and declared it “divine.”

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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