For five years, chef Lance Knowling’s Indigo Smoke in Montclair has served excellent Kansas City barbeque and “new-city” soul food in an upscale setting filled with rustic furniture and amusing murals of life in Knowling’s native K.C. Now he’s given birth to a second Indigo Smoke, along a gritty but up-and-coming stretch of Springfield Avenue in Maplewood. This time, Knowling goes with a chic industrial groove—cement floors, high ceilings, exposed ductwork. His hand-picked jazz, R&B, and funk soundtrack sets the stage for a barbecue experience that is still upscale yet down-home.
What Maplewood has that Montclair doesn’t is a liquor license and, on weekends, live jazz in a handsome lounge. Fanciful libations include Indigo house punch (Bacardi, Malibu, Stoli, fresh juices) and spiked lemonade (fresh lemonade and citron vodka). You can play it straight with the modest chardonnays, merlots, or pinot noirs, or the good assortment of beers.
“Kansas City barbecue is considered the best because there’s just as much attention paid to the sauce as the meat,” Knowling says. “We want your fingers to get messy. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” A heaping brisket sandwich lush with barbecue sauce invites sensual abandon. The sauce (tomato-based, bolstered with celery seed, perfectly balanced between vinegary and sweet) also graces the restaurant’s tour de force—falling-off-the-bone spareribs, baby backs, and beef short ribs. All the barbecue begins with a dry rub and a long spell in the slow heat of the basement smoker.
Inexpensive starters and sides add to the fun. Try the buttery corn and crab soup made with peppers and chives. The excellent spice-rubbed fries are chunky and crisp. Coleslaw is bright and fresh, collard greens are rich with applewood smoked bacon. Sweet potatoes with vanilla are recommended only for those who want pie filling with dinner. Perfectly executed fried catfish comes with tangy lemon tartar sauce strewn with smoked tomatoes. Hearty veal meatloaf, sliced and grilled after baking, is crowned with red wine gravy and frizzled Vidalia onions.
“I want to parent a new understanding of this cuisine,” Knowling says. He’s well on his way.