A strong aroma of wood smoke suffuses the air at Fat Hen Grocery, and the menu includes ribs and pulled pork. But despite such evidence, this new restaurant on St. Charles Avenue isn't a barbecue joint so much as it is the latest incarnation of the evolving effort by its creator, Shane Pritchett, to give comfort food basics some of the innovation and attention of the high-end restaurant world where he earned his stripes.
Like much on the menu, the pulled pork costs a few dollars more than you might expect from the casual digs here. But it's from Berkshire pigs, a particularly fine pedigree. On Fat Hen's plate — or on a sandwich or under poached eggs on the breakfast-all-day menu — it yields a deeply colored, crusty-to-candied pile of very satisfying pork.
Pritchett added barbecue to his Fat Hen menu less than a year ago, and he says it's his way of returning to his native Texan roots. He was formally trained and served as chef du cuisine at Emeril's Delmonico before leaving to open the original Fat Hen Grill in Harahan. That place looked like a diner, and it functioned like one — but with a creative, chef-driven menu. It soon spawned a second location in Kenner, but later Pritchett consolidated his efforts at a single and different Harahan address, where he revamped the menu and remade the place as a blend of barbecue, diner and family restaurant. In July, he opened Fat Hen Grocery in Uptown, with the addition of a take-out deli and a tiny grocery section for his bottled sauces and smoked meats by the pound.
Thinking of Fat Hen as a family restaurant with barbecue rather than a gussied-up barbecue restaurant helps set expectations. The selection of meats is limited, and while the pulled pork and smoked wings are excellent, the St. Louis-style ribs I tried were cut far too close to the bone and were too dry. Sauces are good, but I was always looking for more.
Fat Hen lacks the single-minded focus of a pure barbecue joint, but it does offer a great deal more variety and addresses more appetites. For instance, the smoker is used on marinated feta that goes into an omelet with crabmeat and herbs, and it also is employed to smoke deli meats for some impressive sandwiches, particularly a fat club and one of the better Reubens I've had lately. The seersucker platter, with house-made pickles, sliced sausage and very creamy pimento cheese, could be a Southern answer to the ploughman's lunch.
Fat Hen Grocery has an attractive, sunny setting, a friendly BYOB policy (no corkage fee) and a busy brunch scene, but that's also when the normally fine service tends to lag. This building has hosted a progression of restaurants in recent years, and it looks like Fat Hen Grocery sees more customers on a good weekend than several of its predecessors did in their entire brief life spans. The barbecue could use some more attention, and the place is no bargain, but Pritchett is onto something good here.