Having taken over more than just the old Cafe Nora space on East 86th Street, The North End is a surprisingly spacious spot that, when the outdoor seating is complete, will expand to more than 200 seats. “We’re at almost 5,000 square feet,” Nelson says, beaming. “Our kitchen is so much bigger than what we had to contend with at Late Harvest.” Plentiful Edison bulbs and wagon wheels repurposed as chandeliers decorate the bar and dining room, which are mercifully absent the ironic swagger that might accompany the “Moonshine” in the restaurant’s name. Families, foodies, and craft cocktail–quaffers alike are welcome at this strip-mall smokehouse that mainly lets the food speak for itself. Wood accents abound, and one small shelf of colorful bric-a-brac—old fan blades, vintage trophies, and an outsized clock with Roman numerals—lends just enough character. Personalized wet naps with the restaurant’s logo show the whimsy and professionalism of Nelson’s second independent enterprise.
A pair of preview nights on May 23 and 24 gave Nelson’s friends and fans a look at that decor and a taste of some of his signature smoky creations. They also got a sip of what his bartender Jason Foust, fresh off of his win at the Tanjerine cocktail competition, can do with bourbon and moonshine, two of the restaurant’s featured spirits. The moonshine punch with Georgia Moon peach “shine,” honey, and rhubarb bitters was definitely sweet and smooth, but the seasonal shake-up of vodka, strawberry puree, and a nice herbal hit of basil seemed more in keeping with Foust’s complex, aromatic pours at Late Harvest.
Highlights of the food included un-sauced St. Louis-style ribs and others with a sticky, tangy-sweet Carolina sauce, as well as expert Carolina pulled-pork sandwiches with some good crisp edges on the meat. A nice surprise came in an equally delectable pulled-turkey sandwich that will be featured on the lunch menu. A few non-barbecue items, such as a burger and pan-fried catfish, will also be offered. “We want to represent all styles of barbecue across the country,” Colin Atterson, The North End’s general manager, says. “And of course Ryan has added some of his own touches.” One touch the seafood-loving chef added is a creamy smoked Alaskan salmon dip, a star the list of starters alongside classic Southern pimiento cheese on hors d’oeuvre–sized johnnycakes. And now that Ryan has become legendary for his sticky toffee pudding, his desserts are no afterthought. At the preview, a sugar cream pie with a rich and dark yet flaky crust stood out, as well as perhaps the best banana pudding served at any restaurant in town. Nelson may be elevating barbecue in a state known little for what its smokers turn out. Mostly, though, he’s just putting out his brand of excellent, approachable food.