Restaurant review: Smoke (4 stars)
By LESLIE BRENNER, Restaurant Critic
Published 02 February 2011 05:08 PM
It’s been fascinating to watch (and taste) the evolution of Smoke, the restaurant at Oak Cliff’s Belmont Hotel.
When chef Tim Byres and partners Christopher Jeffers and Chris Zielke opened the place in September 2009, I loved the feeling in the dining room, done up like your neighbors’ living room back in the 1970s, but with better paintings. The central v-shaped bar gave the room an energetic heart, and from the start, the restaurant had a warm, wacky, winning personality.
The worst service challenges seemed to get sorted out after a couple of months, but the cooking, while showing flashes of brilliance, too often faltered.
I had the sense that Byres was still trying to find the right culinary voice for the restaurant. Along with the regular menu, there was also a barbecue menu, with smoked choices cutely offered up on a Scantron form. Was Smoke a barbecue place, or a garden-to-table, everything-from-scratch restaurant where Byres could showcase his original ideas and the considerable culinary sophistication he has garnered through his years running top Dallas kitchens? That plate of down-home dry-rubbed spare ribs seemed like it came from a different restaurant than the ramekin of suave foie gras and chicken liver pâté.
Now, after several recent visits, it’s clear that Byres has found the right voice for Smoke, and it’s pitch-perfect.
Ditching the barbecue Scantron has helped to make the experience feel less schizophrenic. But more important, the dishes Byres is creating now put him in the forefront of a new kind of Texas cooking. It’s one that has evolved naturally from the Southwestern cooking that Stephan Pyles , Dean Fearing, Anne Greer and others pioneered in the 1980s. Like them, Byres puts Mexican and Southwestern ingredients in the spotlight, treating them with indigenous techniques such as smoking and wood-grilling. But Byres’ style of cooking takes a sharp turn into the realm of the homegrown and handcrafted. He dives so deep into the cooking experience that he’d put your grandma to shame — baking breads, putting up pickles and jams, curing sausages, making his own ricotta cheese, growing many of the vegetables and herbs for the restaurant in a garden behind the restaurant.
This is Texas cooking at its best: fresh, original (but not self-consciously so) and utterly soulful.
Byres clearly abhors clichés. Gulf oysters, nicely smallish and succulent, aren’t fried or Rockefellered, but roasted and dressed with garlicky “scampi” butter and diced house-made chorizo; “ash salsa,” made from vegetables and chiles charred on a wood fire, comes on the side. Rather than roasting beets and pairing them with goat cheese and arugula, he lightly pickles them, slices them super-thin and tops them with lovely Upland cress, pebbles of lightly smoked ricotta and pickled bits of celery and white and purple cauliflower. The flavors sing, but don’t scream. A gentle horseradish vinaigrette harmonizes beautifully with the beets.
The foie gras and chicken liver pâté that used to arrive in a ramekin now gets a magic carpet ride to the table on thin, grilled slices of house-made dill bread; it’s topped with shavings of velvety house-cured and smoked ham. A curious pairing to be sure, but it works. An assortment of snappy, succulent, nicely spicy rabbit, pork and beef sausage — house-made, of course — is crazy-good; paper signs poke up from them on toothpicks to identify the animals they represent.
Pit-roasted cabrito (baby goat) gets tucked into a flying-saucer-shaped housing of masa that has landed between slicks of salsa verde and a mildly sweet-and-sour goat’s milk cajeta flavored with tamarind. Byres tops it with a little goat’s milk crema. I didn’t care for the sweetness of the masa, but that tender, smoky cabrito was wonderful with the two sauces, one of which complimented (the syrupy cajeta) and the other contrasted (the salsa verde).
Bricked Cornish game hen with ham-bone split pea stew and red wine sounded weird on the menu, but it turned out to be a great idea: two beautifully browned, juicy and tender halves of roasted hen on top of long-simmered split peas sauced with a bit of red wine reduction.
Should you have a hankering for straight-up barbecue, the North Carolina-style pulled “whole hog” is worthwhile. But the much more original “big rib” — which is actually the first three full short ribs of beef — is even better, and gigantic. Slow-smoking over oak and hickory gives it a beautiful crust with just the right resistance to the tooth, and the meat is seriously rich, cooked to exactly the right point of tenderness without wanting to fall apart. It’s exactly what barbecue brisket aspires to, but rarely achieves in North Texas. A zingy chimichurri serves as a happy, piquant counterpoint.
Unfortunately, the wine list has not evolved much. It’s a shame that in a restaurant that pays such attention to detail, vintages are left off. And while our waiter was happy to fetch a bottle for us to examine, it would be nice if the waitstaff knew a bit about the wines it’s selling. Another service point: While the waitstaff was unfailingly warm, friendly and attentive, one server was so gung-ho to clear plates that he tried to remove one while my friend was midbite.
On the other hand, the cocktails have gone from sweet and silly to outstanding. Two huge jars of wood-infused spirits sit on the bar, one filled with Bulleit bourbon with planks of maple wood, the other with reposado tequila and cedar planks. Both make brilliant sipping on their own, but it’s hard for me to resist the No. 901 cocktail — that maple-infused bourbon with a splash of Paula’s Texas Orange liqueur, a dash of orange bitters and a couple of bourbon-soaked Marasca cherries that fall to the bottom, a consolation prize for having finished the last drop of the drink.
Meanwhile, Smoke’s Sunday brunch may be my favorite anywhere in the country. How lovely to sip a Double Barrel Bloody Mary, made with the juice of roasted tomatoes spiked with chiles and garnished with an adorable spear of pickled vegetables. Byres features pulled whole hog instead of ham or Canadian bacon in his natty version of eggs Benedict, blanketing it in a perfect hollandaise. His interpretation of eggs Florentine layers silky house-smoked salmon and slow-simmered collard greens over English muffin (sometimes house-made), topped with a voluptuous poached egg.
If those savory brunch dishes are good, the “heavy-handed” blueberry-ricotta “pancakes” are spectacular. More like thick cakes than pancakes, they’re dressed up with vanilla-scented poached apricots and drizzled with sweet cream. Alas, the smoked brisket hash, a dense patty set atop cubes of cornbread and fried potatoes and topped with a poached egg, disappointed (I want my hash to be more sumptuous). But the evilly rich cheese grits and hominy casserole that came with a brûléed grapefruit made up for it.
Which brings me to the subject of desserts. The evolution at the sweet end of the menu was slower than the rest, but Smoke has come a long way since the cardboard-crusted pies of its early days. A “drunken” pecan tart topped with a slice of Gorgonzola and garnished with sour cherries failed to come together flavorwise, but I loved the warm almond-pineapple cake that comes to the table in a small cast-iron skillet, rich with brown butter-rum — like a right-side-up upside-down cake.
At this point, there are few places I’d rather dine than Smoke, even if it doesn’t take reservations. The passion in the kitchen, the originality, the welcoming, laid-back vibe, the unbridled sense of fun — all this comes together (with very reasonable prices, I might add) to make Smoke one of the most compelling restaurants in Dallas.
Smoke (4 stars)
Price: $$$ (breakfast and brunch dishes $6 to $14; lunch soups and salads $7 to $12, sandwiches and plates $8 to $14; dinner appetizers, soups and salads $6 to $14, main courses $13 to $24; desserts $7)
Service: Enthusiastic, warm and attentive, but the professionalism isn’t quite up to the level of the cooking.
Ambience: A laid-back main room with a fireplace; it feels like your neighbor’s living room in the 1970s, but with better paintings. There’s also a less-comfortable backroom with a pool table.
Location: 901 Fort Worth Ave. (in the Belmont Hotel), Dallas; 214-393-4141; www.smokerestaurant.com
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Smoking area: None
Alcohol: Full bar. A one-page, vintageless wine list offers decently priced choices that work well with the food, but few discoveries.