By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
Smoke is—and isn't—what you think it is.
There's barbecue all right, just as the name implies: brisket, ribs, even pulled pork. Chef Tim Byres spent the better part of this summer on the road in a rebuilt VW bus. He clattered around the Mississippi delta, over the hills of Tennessee and through the Carolina backcountry searching for regional smokehouse flavors.
He was successful enough that the smell of burning hardwoods hits you when you enter the place, envelops you as you sit and tends to leave with you.
But there is more to Smoke than tending a pit and slicing half-pound orders of brisket. "When we were originally talking," Byres says, "the idea of getting into the basics of smoke kept coming up."
Before gas and electricity crisscrossed the land, people regularly cooked on wood-fired stoves which lent a tinge of acrid flavor to just about every dish. So, as the chef puttered across the rural South, he looked for old-timers who still practiced such techniques, hoping to learn the secrets of managing the heat generated by a stack of oak or mesquite and the character imparted by different woods. As a result, you also find on Smoke's menu such items as panzanella salad with endive cooked over an open flame, salmon withered in cold smoke generated by a vintage 19th-century stove and fish imbued with the sweet and searing taste of burning embers.
The restaurant cooks or cures 80 percent of its dishes over wood, either in a large smoker or on a wood-fired stove. Filleted halibut draws just enough edge from the smoke to develop a sweet-harsh aspect, which is soothed by a celeriac puree on the side. An entrée plate of scallops punches a little harder, thanks to its glaze of smoke. But this is mitigated by an acidic sauce with a citrus peel undertone, so each bite wavers between almost dusty flavors and those that are bright and fruity.
Chef Byres is well-schooled in the subtle art of balance. He came to Smoke from the kitchen of Stephan Pyles, where he served as chef de cuisine. Years ago he even ran the kitchen at our country's embassy in Brussels, Belgium, where he prepared banquets for European Union dignitaries.
Smoke may, therefore, seem like a step down. But the former fine dining chef finds it challenging—and the challenge of it keeps him fired up. "I'm learning as I'm going," he says. Ovens fueled by the addition of logs are notoriously difficult to manage. The scallops we ordered on my first visit were noticeably—though only slightly—overcooked, and Byres acknowledges that managing smokers and that tricky wood-fired stove is a test of patience. Six weeks after their official opening he feels they're getting on top of the process.
But, he admits, "in the beginning, it was scary."
Smoke's team has been through such tests before. Owners Chris Jeffers and Chris Zielke opened Bolsa on a shoestring last year, bouncing checks on their opening night before turning the place into one of Dallas' hottest destinations. Their success attracted the attention of Bunkhouse Management, the Austin-based group operating Hotel Belmont, and the two were invited to take over the hotel's underperforming restaurant.
When Zielke originally described the concept to me sometime in August, the phrase "upscale barbecue" came up. By that he meant they would serve smoked meat, but they would also commit themselves to the use of local, seasonal ingredients as much as possible (they've gone so far as to plant an herb and vegetable garden behind the hotel). By sending Byres on a journey across the old South, they went one step further—giving "upscale barbecue" a definition that extends far beyond Texas-style brisket.
Oh, you'll find it on the menu, of course. But they also serve pulled pork, going through the trouble of slow-roasting a whole pig overnight, then tearing its meat by hand. This ends up on a sandwich that may be the best expression of Carolina barbecue you can find in Dallas: smoky, sweet and tangy—a combination of rich meat and sharp slaw on a bun sticky with local honey and flecked ever so lightly with Maldon sea salt. Honey and drippings from the slaw cover your fingers by the end of dinner, so it's not a first date dish.
I'm an unabashed fan of Carolina-style barbecue. Some of the more patriotic Texas diners I've met scorn foreign intrusions. Chili has no beans, barbecue means dry rubbed brisket—end of story. After a few thousand miles on America's back roads, however, Byres believes such narrow interpretations miss the point. "Everybody wants to label barbecue styles and areas," he explains. But wherever you go in the rural South, styles developed from availability and necessity. In one place they may use pork, in another beef.
"What I learned this summer," the chef says, "is that it's just honest cooking."