Tim Byres and Partners Light a Fire in Plano's Restaurant Scene with a New Smoke
Smoke in Plano cooks its 3-pound steak directly on wood embers.
Tim Byres isn't oblivious to the irony. "There's some independent restaurants up here, but it's nothing like Uptown," he says, laying out his reasoning for opening a second location of Smoke in Plano. Most neighborhoods closer to downtown Dallas offer a wide selection of locally owned places to eat, while the strip malls in Plano are overrun with Panera Breads. Byres and his partners saw an opportunity in an underserved neighborhood, so when they found the perfect spot near the corner of Preston Road and West Park Boulevard, they decided to open a second location of their wildly successful West Dallas restaurant.
The move sounded a little, you know, corporate. But Byres contends that Smoke No. 2 is its own animal, even though the two restaurants have a lot in common. The new location looks similar to the original Smoke that opened in 2009 next to the Belmont Hotel, with a white facade that mimics a West Texas ranch house. It smells the same. You're embraced by the scent of smoldering wood and searing meat when you walk through the door — a warm, olfactory welcome mat that outdoes any introduction offered by a host, or greeter.
The menus are similar as well. Fans of the original Smoke will find the cabrito and masa, grilled oysters and other more classic dishes they've gotten to know over the years. Thinly sliced pork jowl served with a cucumber salad, chicken liver pâté topped with red-onion marmalade, and hot and gooey pimento-cheese croquettes: All of these dishes have been mainstays at the Dallas location.
Still, there are some significant differences between the two, and while they're not big enough to convince you that you've walked into a completely new restaurant, they do make the new outpost worth its own visit. The dining room in Plano is much larger and spills out onto a patio that builds on the West Texas vibe. The bar area is more open, and the tables feel less crowded. Smoke's sequel allows for a more spacious version of the restaurant, not unlike the way suburban homes offer more room to breathe.
And then there's the kitchen, which is a significant departure from the Smoke in West Dallas — and from most kitchens across the country, period. Just behind the pass, a brick structure holds burning coals in two separate bays. One is outfitted with a custom steel contraption made by Grillworks that allows cooks to dial-in the cooking temperature by raising and lowering grates with a rotating wheel. The other area is outfitted with racks that can be positioned depending on what's being grilled or roasted.
Coals spit amber embers and radiate heat so intensely from both sides of the oven that they can turn a cook's skin pink in seconds. "It's hot, man," Byres says of the kitchen space in front of the hearth. But his cooks want to be there because the opportunity is so unique. "There's nowhere else to do a thing like this."
There may be other customized wood-fired kitchens singeing the hair on cooks' arms, but Byres' fire-centric approach to running an entire restaurant is wholly his own. It's also widely respected. Last year Byres took home a James Beard award for Smoke: New Firewood Cooking, a cookbook devoted to his love of primal techniques. The practice got started and was carefully honed at his first restaurant, but at his second, where the kitchen was built from scratch based on years of experience cooking with fire, Byres' cooking has been turned loose.
Smoke has always been a refined but casual restaurant. The Plano location leans even more heavily on relaxed family-style dining. "I'm really into this large format dining," Byres says, referring to the steaks and whole fish he plates, some capable of serving up to four people. There's a well-marbled rib eye that defines casual cooking and clocks in at 3 pounds. The cut is heavily seasoned and then tossed directly on the coal bed — not above the glowing coals, but in them — where it immediately bursts into flames and spits burning fat. The cut arrives as charred as a Texas brisket after 12 hours in the smoker, but the sliced steak is a glistening medium rare inside. It's also served with an absurd amount of butter.
Go ahead and use your fingers. The branzino is worth it
There's a whole fish — a large branzino during my visit — that's cooked much more delicately, and topped with a similar quantity of savory butter. It melts down quickly, giving the crispy, blackened fish a glistening, slow-motion bath. A bed of asparagus lightens the plate before chunks of sausage weigh it back down.
The branzino is served on the bone, and while I tried my best to carefully remove a filet from the frame, my efforts quickly devolved into a mess. Soon I gave up on using a fork and knife exclusively and used my hands to hunt for bones and flesh. It was a primal act befitting primal cooking, and it was delicious.
Desserts here are simple, but you should save some room for that Key lime pie with a meringue so high it might need an FAA permit. Other sweets, like the intensely dark chocolate ice cream studded with fruit and nuts, keep dessert just interesting enough, without the need for a pastry chef.
And what about Smokey and the Bandit? At the first Smoke, the old movie could often be seen playing on the TV in the horseshoe bar. When I visited the Plano location, the NCAA tournament stole the show. Certainly, the game was a big event, but it changed the tenor of the bar area completely. "It's hard when there's a major sporting event," Byres says. Before the restaurant opened, he and his team ran across the street to Half Price Books and stocked up on DVDs, but customers always want to see their favorite teams. When the big games are over, though, the classic films return, and there are other quirky touches to find around the dining room in the meantime.
Behind the bar, if you look for it hard enough, you'll see a tribute to Kevin Costner's first film, Fandango, in which Costner and his friends hunt for a bottle of Dom Pérignon in Big Bend National Park. They find it buried under a rock, the word DOM scrawled across it, only to celebrate by tossing the barely consumed bottle into a canyon. Byres' own DOM rock is hidden back there, but don't even think about tossing your bubbles.
There are other whimsical touches, from a Burt Reynolds chair to a gumball machine filled with fake mustaches and other toys, and they each give Plano's Smoke a subtle personality — recognizable, but distinct from the first location.
"It's more of a sibling restaurant," Byres says. "It will evolve into its own identity." But it's easy to argue that it already has. While the West Dallas location can be slow during the day, Plano does a brisk lunch service, and the restaurant has already garnered a loyal following. Suddenly, moving out to the suburbs doesn't seem so bad. "We're growing up," Byres says, and they are. Somehow Smoke has pulled off a mature, well-thought-out sequel without looking like a sell out.
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