You can already smell the rich smoky aroma that can only signify barbecue is near, but when Monkey Wrench Smokehouse really gets going, those smells will likely hit you even from the GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail.
The barbecue restaurant that is coming to life in the heart of downtown Travelers Rest is the latest creation of Loren Frant and Andy O’Mara, the owners of the popular Sidewall Pizza Company and the gastro cocktail concept, Rocket Surgery, and this time the two rather unassuming restaurateurs have some notable culinary help in the form of Steven Musolf.
Musolf, who brings more than two decades of chef experience, has joined the Sidewall Pizza company as director of culinary operations. Musolf was most recently executive chef at The Lazy Goat, and before that was executive chef at two fine dining restaurants in Utah.
But, Musolf is also well-versed in barbecue. The Summerville native grew up going to barbecue places and worked at one very early in his career.
“We were looking for somebody that could teach and train and execute on a daily basis at a level that we wanted to be at, a higher level,” O’Mara says. “And he had the skills to do that.
“He operates at the same speed we do.”
In his new role, Musolf can focus more on what he enjoys now, operations and culinary direction. And his touch will certainly be felt once Monkey Wrench opens (the goal is February).
Musolf and O’Mara have been testing various products and recipes for a more than a month, and the two are fun to watch in action. On a recent Tuesday, they arrived at the restaurant to begin their daily ritual of smoking meat. Today, it is lamb ribs, pork belly, pork butt and brisket. And it’s the last one that is most important.
“There is so much pulled pork here,” O’Mara says. “And there are different qualities of meat and different ways of meat but brisket we felt like this was something we could stand out on.”
When they were conceiving their newest restaurant idea, O’Mara and Frant knew it would feature smoked meats in the purest form, the highest quality product they could muster and just really good food and drinks.
When they started the process, they knew “the same amount we knew about pizza,” when they starting Sidewall, O’Mara says. For those unfamiliar, the two knew very little when they started building Sidewall in 2014.
But, Frant and O’Mara are nothing if not avid and adept researchers and learners. Proof is their three successful Sidewalls and the three J&R brand Oyler smokers they have hoarded for over a year in anticipation of Monkey Wrench. The smokers are wood-burning which helps create a deeper flavor, but also requires constant monitoring and care. Monkey Wrench will have one person tending the smokers 24 hours a day.
“This showed me a level of seriousness,” Musolf said of the smokers. “Because not everyone has these.
The menu is coming along, too. The centerpiece will be smoked meats, with brisket an absolute and a really good pulled pork sandwich a must as well. Apart from that, Musolf and O’Mara have been experimenting with lamb, pork, ribs, seafood like salmon and trout and soon, jackfruit. The ‘it’ ingredient has won praise as a satisfying and substantial plant-based option where meat would normally be used.
Structurally, Musolf sees a menu made of starters and appetizers, larger plates with sides and then a whole mess of sides. Think traditional and non, all with a seasonal flare. So no tomatoes in winter and not a lot of root veggies in summer.
This is perhaps where the “chef-driven” facet comes in, as well as Musolf’s penchant for food that honors sense of place and memory.
“I grew up with the barbecue places have those buffets with all those cool country sides,” Musolf says of inspiration. “Food brings you back.”
Ideas include wood-grilled broccolini with chili flakes, wood-grilled corn with smokes salt (smoked in house of course), roasted cabbage, cauliflower casserole and of course mac and cheese.
The other centerpiece of the menu will be barrel-aged cocktails. These are composed drinks that are made in a big batch and set to age in an oak barrel. The aging allows all the ingredients to meld, and imparts an added depth of flavor.
Monkey Wrench was originally supposed to be where Rocket Surgery is, but plans changed when the building at 21 N. Main St. in TR came available. The 3,500-square-foot building’s proximity, is just off the Swamp Rabbit Trail, and its open structure spoke more to barbecue, O’Mara says.
The backside of the restaurant is outfitted with Sidewall’s now signature garage doors, and plans call for extensive landscaping in the back area near the trail. There will be outdoor seating on a patio, along with a grassy area for kids and a place for a food stand of sorts. This will be set up close to the trail for those seeking a bite or a sip but not wanting the full restaurant experiences.
As the Sidewall company grows, and it likely will, O’Mara says with a sly grin, Musolf will continue to play a role in every operation. Perhaps, now with a director of culinary operations, O’Mara and Frant’s mom and pop company could now, be considered a bonafide restaurant group, but none of that matters for O’Mara or for Musolf.
“Barbecue was always a part of my life,” Musolf says. “I never thought I would be involved in it, but now that I am that’s exciting too. It feels great.”
Monkey Wrench will open with dinner service initially, but will add lunch service in time. The restaurant also will offer catering and be available for events and other functions. The hiring process is still underway for both front of the house and back of the house folks. E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.