Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Nose, Hair and Mouth--And That's A Good Thing
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.
Jeffers and Zielke found a common bond in chef Byres because, they say, he's a hands-on type, willing to tinker with everything from their A.N. Bowley smoker to that 1800s stove out back.
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."
Of course, it would be hard to call Smoke's "big rib" an example of honest cooking: one sling of meat about the length of a man's forearm, slow cooked for most of a day—or until the meat practically falls apart and a basting of fennel-laced sauce condenses into a rich, herbal lacquer. It's more like one of those challenge dishes labeled "Texas-sized" you find in cutesy restaurants with wagon wheels propped outside. But the rest of the cooking fits into the honesty theme, including homemade hominy, a potato salad that would not be out of place at a summertime family reunion, and Tejano-style beer-can chicken.
There are bumps. For example, I had to discard a dry biscuit in order to enjoy beautiful, ruddy shards of shaved ham, cured in house, resonating with acrid curls from the wood-fired stove. "I'm a fan of from-scratch cooking—and it's really pushing me," Byres admits. Service seems pleasant enough, although it's near impossible for me to get more than a few steps through the door without being identified as a reviewer. After being seated on my first visit I saw Chris Jeffers whisper something to the server, who then approached the table and proceeded to declare everything we ordered a "good choice."
Well, it was true of the crisp hominy and halibut, but not so true of the scallops. And repeatedly confirming the wisdom of our choices was rather annoying. A confident staff has no need to flatter their guests.
And there's no reason for the kitchen and staff not to be confident. Maybe just confused. The gorgeous pulled pork, rustic sausages, sophisticated layering of flavors in some of the seafood dishes...and you walk out trailing the sweet smell of burning wood behind you.
So Smoke is a barbecue place. It's also a sample of America's past. Then again, it latches on to the current trend of local sourcing and seasonal ingredients. They'll serve you backyard dishes like beer-can chicken, but there are moments when the chef's fine dining tenure shows through.
In other words, it is what you expect it to be, but so very different.
Smoke 901 Fort Worth Ave. (at the Hotel Belmont), 214-393-4141. Open daily 7 a.m.-10 p.m. $$-$$$
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