Ed Mitchell is acknowledged as a premier practitioner of the ancient (some say dying) art of Eastern North Carolina-style barbecue. His restaurant in Wilson, one of the few to serve whole hog barbecue slow-cooked the old-fashioned way over seasoned hardwood, was legendary. It closed three years ago, to aficionados' dismay. Mitchell is, you might say, the embodiment of tradition.
Developer Greg Hatem, on the other hand, has his eye on the future -- albeit a future that incorporates the best parts of the past, adapting them when necessary to preserve them. Hatem has restored numerous historic buildings in downtown Raleigh, transforming some into homes for restaurants such as The Duck & Dumpling and The Raleigh Times Bar. When Hatem announced that he and Mitchell were teaming up to open a restaurant, you could bet it wouldn't be just another barbecue joint.
It isn't, though Mitchell's sublime Eastern-style 'cue is unquestionably the prime attraction at The Pit, which opened in November in the building that formerly housed Nana's Chophouse (and, fittingly enough, was originally a meatpacking plant). Succulent and smoky (but not too smoky), chopped fine (but not too fine), punctuated by crunchy bits of crackling and sprinkled with just enough peppery vinegar sauce to accent its porky essence, this is surely one of God's best reasons for putting pigs on the planet. What's more, it's made exclusively with free-range, hormone-free pigs, making it as good for the soul as it is for the palate.
But the menu goes far beyond traditional 'cue shack offerings. From the wood-fired pit at the back of the restaurant, Mitchell and his brother, Aubrey (who shares pitmaster duties), turn out a sampling of smoky fare from across the Sun Belt. Their rendition of Western Carolina pulled pork shoulder is more than respectable (although, having grown up within a hushpuppy's throw of Lexington, I must point out that nobody in that mecca of Western-style barbecue would recognize The Pit's thick, sweet version of their beloved "dip"). Texas-style brisket was chewy and dry when I sampled it, presumably because the born-and-raised pork man is still in the learning curve working with beef. But Mitchell appears to have gotten the hang of pork ribs. Disappointingly dry the first time I sampled them, they rated much higher on the lip-smacking scale the second time around.
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Chef Ryan Jacobson is fulfilling the other half of Hatem's vision of combining the best of Old South and New. Working with fresh ingredients, many raised by local farmers, Jacobson offers a mix of traditional and contemporary Southern fare. The chef does the Mitchells' mother proud with a first-rate rendering of her recipe for fried chicken. And he lets his creativity run with dishes such as crispy fried tilapia over cilantro rice and a roasted half chicken served over a ragout of white beans, tasso ham and rosemary.
An appetizer pairing beer- and cumin-steamed shrimp with an overpoweringly sweet "BBQ sauce" misses the mark. But a variation on the BLT that serves up house-cured bacon, lettuce, tomato and garlic aioli on fluffy biscuits, hits the bull's-eye.
Waitresses don't call you "sugar," but service is friendly, and unusually well-trained for a new establishment. The contemporary decor aims for a higher target than the traditional barbecue restaurant, though it's still a work in progress. And it's a safe bet you've never seen a barbecue joint with such a well-stocked bar as The Pit's, whose highlights include small batch bourbons and an excellent draft beer selection.
The Pit preserves one more barbecue joint tradition. It offers whole hog catering -- currently in the restaurant's private dining rooms, but soon to be available off premises. I've got dibs on July 4.