Michelada smoked cocktail
Chef Tim Byres' michelada, a beer-based cocktail, derives its smoky uniqueness from a three chili puree.

Burnt and charred

Chef Tim Byres returned to his roots with the opening of Smoke in Dallas, in 2009. After working in a variety of fine dining venues over the years, Byres said his goal was to get back to American cooking.

So, Byrnes traveled the country to learn and came home and started interpreting “regional American through my own personal lens.”

In creating that spirit of sharing and hospitality — to have a good time and to be available to your guests he shifted his emphasis to “the firewood thing” and the blending of the flavors of ethnic ingredients.

“Here, you can take culinary traditions, for example, plus Texas [recipes] and add smoke,” he said. “American foods have evolved and moved west and morphed into the next thing.”

Today, Byres and his partners own and operate four restaurants including a second Smoke in Plano, Texas, Chicken Scratch, and The Theodore. Sharing his now celebrated expertise in cooking with wood and open flames, his cookbook, “SMOKE: New Firewood Cooking” received a James Beard Award in 2014.

In some venues, “smoked” dishes have transformed into “burnt” and “charred.” Use of the terms have grown from 2 percent of menus a decade ago to 7 percent today,” according to a study from the market research firm Datassential MenuTrends.

Byres pegs “char and smoky” as “kind of abrasive.

“I try to match it with bright flavors, raw herbs, thinly sliced shallots, pickles and maybe honey, but not to be overly sweet,” he said.

He points out that chimichurri is a counterpoint to smoky.

“You need to bring some of the garden into the story — all the vegetables, all the sides,” he said.

Vegetables and sides are an intentional focus for Byres who contends, “If you only focus on the steak, that’s not sustainable; you’ll keel over.”

Slow roasting corn-in-the-husk is one of his favorites. To prepare, he peels it down, removes the silk; butters it with BBQ spice or honey, then folds the peels back up and ties them at the top.

 Eisenhower Beef Steaks
The Eisenhower Steak at Smoke in Plano, Texas is thick-cut, highly seasoned, dropped directly into red hot coals, quickly retrieved and served charred yet pink on the inside.

“Then, we roast it in the fire for a caramel flavor,” he said.

Byres grills almost exclusively with mesquite if he can and prefers open fire.

“At Smoke in Plano, we have an open fire — a 10-foot hearth counter with four fires to it; we’ll do fish, vegetables, steak — simultaneously,” he said. “We’re kind of famous for our Eisenhower Steak” he said. Thick cut, highly-seasoned and dropped directly into red hot coals, it’s soon retrieved—duly charred yet pink on the inside — and sliced “to share with Smoked Oxtail Gentleman’s Sauce, horseradish, blue cheese butter, a loaf of sourdough and hearth-roasted potatoes and vegetables.”

The husband-and-wife team, chefs Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quinonez Denton, share a passion for culinary inventiveness and the determination to make the dream of creating their own restaurant come true. That “dream,” the Argentine-inspired Ox, opened in Portland, Oregon, four years ago.

Drawing inspiration from the wood-fired grilling tradition of Argentina, the couple’s passion for creating smoky flavor is evident. At Ox, by using an Argentine-style parrilla grill with its “V” channels instead of a flat grill, fat is prevented from dripping between the grill grates then onto the fire where it may create flare-ups but not great flavor.

“Here, fat and juices drip down into pans,” Denton said. “We don’t want to lose the juices from chorizo, morcilla, lamb, pork chops, beef, etc., so we line all these pans with lemon, garlic and herbs.
“Then, we take a brush and re-brush (the proteins) with these juices that we call ‘black gold.’ It really transforms our steak into our signature; we’re wiping our umami on top of all the meats we cook in our kitchen.”

The wood-fired trout entrée currently on the menu goes into the grill on top of embers.

Some chefs cite the positive role that sous vide prep plays in their grilling outcome. Mark Liberman, the owner and chef of AQ Restaurant and Bar in San Francisco, cooks small briskets sous vide, then grills individual portions over mesquite in a hibachi grill. At Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Massachusetts, chef/owner Tony Maws finds sous vide a time saver.

“We brown up on the grill,” he said. “We think ahead of what we’re trying to accomplish and how much time the item needs on the grill. It could be 40 minutes from raw, but with sous vide we have a more customer-friendly time frame.”