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The reaper and the smoker

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Today, we try to answer the age-old question, "Is it possible to enjoy a restaurant while watching the New England Patriots on a giant TV screen?" You could go farther, and simply consider the giant TVs, regardless of programming, but let's focus. You're at the new Merchant Street Smokehouse in Brockport, opened by owner Jonathan Mendez and his chef, Joshua Maier, in September.

The waiter comes to greet you, and looking past him you see the eternally-hooded Bill Belichick, the grim reaper of the NFL. The waiter is gracious, sweet, fawning even, but you're grumbling. So you order a drink, and you've got a broad selection: two dozen bottled beers, a rotating host of draft beers (Guinness is always available), and a pile of other mixed and unmixed alcoholic options. You'll need the numbing to endure the drubbing the Patriots will put on your team. Even if you're a teetotaler, you've got fine options, including bottled Saranac root beer and orange cream, and milkshakes.

It's early in the game, and while your team's offense sputters, you focus on the "Trough of Appetizers." Ten wings seem pricey at $6.25, so you skip those. Fried calamari, clams casino, steamed clams, and shrimp all strike you as a bad bet in a bar. The teenagers want nachos, and the waiter recommends the BBQ pork version ($6.95). When the absurd pile arrives, your team is fumbling after a decent gain, and Gillette Stadium is going wild. The nachos are uninspired but acceptable, with a surprising pile of pulled pork (you're not sure it adds much to nachos). Four of you can't finish them, and you fear you've ordered too much food (you have).

You could have ordered a salad, odd as it would be in a barbecue joint ($5.95 for house or Caesar, add $3 for grilled chicken). Chili is more in the spirit, and you tried that on another visit (cup $3.25, bowl $4.95). The "cup" was a medium bowl, and it was decent, with ground meat, beans, and pieces of slightly-cooked onion, pepper, and tomato. The spice was mostly cumin, and though the flavor isn't bad, it hadn't quite blended fully, and the onion and pepper hadn't released their sweetness.

That day, you also tried the Cajun blue cheese "grunt" burger ($6.95 with one side). The patty was large, and although you asked for medium, it came medium-well, but still with some flavor. It had a lovely, fresh Kaiser roll, very good lettuce and red onion, and a shockingly decent slice of tomato. The "Cajun" was a rub that along with the blue cheese sauce was a bit too much. You'd get a burger again, but would stick to a standard cheeseburger ($6.45).

The main point, of course, is the barbecue, prepared in big smokers, and The Merchant Street Smokehouse has many choices. Pulled pork and beef brisket sandwiches are $6.25 with a side, plenty for a meal and a good value. And for the wrappers in the crowd, there are a bunch that look like you'd get tired of them before finishing (your teenage nephew gets tired of his).

When your dinner comes, it's halftime and the game is ugly and low-scoring, just how the Patriots want it. The weather is bad, and you're surly. You'd rather not watch, but there's that enormous screen. You could have gone with a pulled pork plate, a big heap of very well-done, quite smokey, true pulled pork tossed with a bit of very sweet sauce ($9.95 with two sides). There are also generous rib and beef brisket plates, as well as half smoked chickens, all under $10.

But you wanted it all and got a "Gone Hog Wild" combo platter, the "Cluck, Chuck, and Oink," with half a bird, brisket, pulled pork, and a quarter rack for $18.50. It came with two sides, but you added a big portion of moist, cakey corn bread ($1.50). It's enough food for a family of four. The chicken is rubbed and smoked, OK but not inspiring. The rub seems to keep the skin from developing a good crispiness. The meat isn't dried out completely, but isn't moist. The ribs have flavor and are large and meaty, but seem overdone, possibly finished a little too hot or long.

The pulled pork gets your attention, though, and the brisket is excellent. It's thinly sliced, lean, done but still tender, and smokey. You can sauce it if you want with one of the table bottles, two of which are sweet and hot in slightly different proportions. The damn Patriots have just scored on a long, boring drive to widen their lead. Damn. The "Carolina" style mustard sauce is interesting, almost like duck sauce and Chinese mustard mixed together, with that dry mustard flavor and heat.

You're trying to ignore the game, and the sides help. Your brother-in-law's garlic mashed potatoes are yummy; your coleslaw is sweet and fresh with a bit of carrot. They were out of collards, but you're glad they're on the menu. The BBQ baked beans are a little too sweet. Your nephew's fries are great, fresh cut, and crisp (also available with Cajun spice).

Your team has turned the ball over again, and you feel guilty about being short with the nice waiter. The service, you have to admit, has been terrific. There was that one time you waited an hour to be seated, but you've been served well and quickly after sitting on each visit. Your kids had a good time when they came.

The owner tells you there is a 120-foot dock so boats on the canal can stop for food. There will be a bar out there, as well as 12 tables. That'll be great when the weather is good.

You're taking home more than you ate, and the Patriots are salting it away with another ball-control drive for a touchdown. You like barbecue in general --- who doesn't? --- and you like the food here as well or better than the competition in Rochester (Dinosaur, Sticky Lips, Beale Street). But with the TVs, it's just as overbearing as the Dinosaur. Still, a good destination when visiting the in-laws or old college friends. Just not when the damn Patriots are playing.

Merchant Street Smokehouse, 48 Merchant Street, Brockport, 637-6020. Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days.

Food tip

A new restaurant opened in the former Sapore location on Park Avenue, with an Asian influenced menu. Bay Tree Cuisine started serving dinner January 1, and started lunch on January 12. The chef-owner, Mr. Hon, has worked at several Rochester restaurants including JoJo's in Pittsford. Add this place to the short list of restaurants serving lunch on Saturdays. Hours 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. 260 Park Avenue, 242-8540

--- Michael Warren Thomas

Michael Warren Thomas can be heard on WYSL 1040 AM. Tune in on Saturday mornings for gardening, restaurants, and travel, and Sunday mornings (9 to 11 a.m.) for Toronto restaurants and wine.

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