PLANO - Six and a half years ago, chef Tim Byres and partners Christopher Jeffers and Christopher Zielke opened their groundbreaking Modern Texas restaurant Smoke in Oak Cliff. The idea, as anyone who's dined there knows, is that everything on the menu involves smoke, whether it's the wood-oven-roasted gulf oysters that come with "ash salsa" made from chiles charred on a wood fire, pit-roasted cabrito that fills a masa pancake, or straight-ahead barbecue brisket.
Now they've brought their popular spot to this well-heeled northern suburb.
But the new Smoke is not some tossed-off, cookie-cutter copy; it's a bigger, more ambitious restaurant where Byres can stretch out and replicate - indoors - the kind of outdoor cooking he loves to do at events and on the patio of the original Smoke. "We'd taken over every corner to push it out over the years," he says of the Oak Cliff space. "The idea was to re-create the spirit and energy of it."
And then some. Now he has room for a dramatic, 10-foot brick hearth that's the focal point, anchoring a kitchen so open it feels like you're in it. On its blazing coals, Byres and his chef de cuisine, Matt Balke, sear mammoth "Eisenhower" steaks, roast plump sea scallops, grill whole branzini and glistening coils of "sausage by the yard" and simmer clay pots filled with savory stews. It's all really dramatic and fun.
It's kind of wacky driving up to what used to be Snuffer's, in a West Plano strip mall, to see a restaurant that feels so West Dallas funky-chic. Outside, there's a stylishly laid-back patio with a West Texas feel, which continues inside in the inviting, spacious, come-as-you-are dining rooms.
Those giant steaks, named for President Eisenhower, who served them in the White House, are the stars. So far Byres and company have been using rib-eyes carved on the spot from primal cuts; Byres says they average about 3 pounds each. Directly onto the coals they go - and sizzle there until they pick up a serious char. Then out they come, to be sliced off the bone, smeared with blue cheese butter and arranged on a heavy wooden board with potatoes and beets (also roasted right on those coals), a pot of "gentleman's oxtail meat relish" (a savory-sweet oxtail condiment with prunes), horseradish, grilled blue cheese toast and a cupful of barbecue spice. The long bone goes back on the coals, then serves as the board's finishing flourish. It's not inexpensive, at $110, but with starters and maybe a side of braised greens, it makes a fine dinner for three or four.
Usually. Of the three times I ordered it, the first time (just a week after the restaurant opened) it was spectacular and huge; the second time it was somewhat overcooked, with less impressive flavor, and barely served three; and the third time it was gorgeously cooked, generously portioned and very good, though not remarkable, in flavor and texture. I felt the flavor got lost in all that blue cheese butter, though; maybe better just to serve it on the side.
If it's a crazy meat-fest you're after, you might start with sausage by the yard - house-made chorizo also done in the coals, and served with zippy-hot chile-mustard sauce, grilled bread, dried fruit relish and a snappy caraway-dotted coleslaw. When this is good, it is very, very good. But more than once, the portions near the center of the coil weren't cooked through. The restaurant opened a little more than two months ago, but there are still some kinks to work out.
Other starters, you may recognize from the original Smoke (or from Byres' 2013 cookbook, Smoke: New Firewood Cooking). There are pimento-cheese croquettes cradled in grilled romaine and served with a smooth red guajillo- tomatillo salsa. And slices of cured pork jowl with pickled mustard seeds and cucumber salad. And a jar filled with a velvety pâté of foie gras and chicken liver topped with barbecue ham gelée and a dollop of red onion marmalade. All terrific. And one of my favorite dishes anywhere, the cabrito-filled masa pocket, set on a swirl of cajeta, topped with green-apple salsa verde, goat cheese sour cream, sliced radishes and radish sprouts.
Otherwise, consider a salad, whether a beautiful toss of lettuces and herbs that look and taste just-plucked from the garden, or a lemony arugula number dolled up with pecan pesto and shaved Parmesan.
I loved the flavor of an okra-happy gumbo, but the whole shell-on shrimp and some of the boudin, chicken, andouille and such that garnished it were in such big pieces they needed to be cut up - kind of awkward for a soup.
For main courses, I found the scallops, roasted in a cast-iron pan on the hearth and served with Brussels sprouts and bacon-flecked white beans, more delicious than they are at the original Smoke. Whole branzino was tasty, too. After grilling it in the hearth, Byres smears it with a white anchovy-preserved lemon butter, sets it on pencil-thin asparagus cooked with beef sausage and tops it all with a salad of shaved raw asparagus and preserved lemon. The flavors work well, but diners have to fillet it themselves at the table, and it's hard not to mess it all up terribly, turning all those nice touches into a sloppy blur.
As at the original, you can also get grilled quail with chickpeas and a parsley-mint salad, barbecue brisket or spare ribs, a strip steak with German potato salad and more. Execution on these was uneven; one night the brisket was dry and bland, another night it was smoky, moist and wonderful.
I have the sense that Smoke Plano is a work in progress. Sometimes that means very happy surprises, like a clay pot filled with a wonderful braised beef neck with mushrooms, carrots, parsnips and farro, or tri-tip tacos with terrific handmade corn tortillas, both specials. A nightly clay-pot dish is probably headed to the menu, says Byres.
Brunch was excellent, from a lovely smoked salmon salad with a perfect soft-boiled egg to smoked brisket- cornbread hash with a poached egg and green chile rajas. The beautifully garnished Bloody Mary, however, was overwhelmingly salty.
Other cocktails delighted, especially a couple on tap: a spicy-smoky mescal concoction, and a tall, refreshing sipper with bourbon, red verjus and mint.
The wine list? Not so much. You can rely on a $46 Duchman Tempranillo or a $39 McPherson Sangiovese; both Texas reds work well with the food, as does a $32 Saint Cosme Cotes-du-Rhone, but otherwise there's not much of interest, which is a shame, considering the appeal of those big ol' steaks.
Dessertwise, they're keeping things pretty simple; I'm partial to the mescal- spiked Key lime pie, with its tall hat of meringue.
It would have been nice to wait six months to review this vibrant new spot - with 260 seats (and 40 more on the patio), Byres and Balke are dealing with some pretty serious volume, and Byres tells me cooking on those live coals is very tricky. But I knew you'd want a more timely report. I look forward to revisiting after a bit to see how it all evolves.
Smoke Plano (3 stars)
Price: $$$ (lunch starters $7 to $12, main-course salads and sandwiches $13 to $15, main courses $13 to $27; dinner appetizers and salads $7 to $14, main courses $15 to $28; $110 for an Eisenhower steak that serves three to four; desserts $7 to $9)
Service: Friendly and efficient, but the wine service is somewhat green.
Ambience: Spacious dining rooms with an open kitchen and central hearth and a laid-back West Texas feel
Noise level: The dining room can be very loud when it's busy.
Location: 2408 Preston Road at Park Boulevard, Plano; 972-599-2222; smokerestaurant.com
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Sunday-Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.; brunch Saturday-Sunday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Reservations: Accepted only for parties of six or more, at dinner and lunch only
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar. A one-page vintageless wine list has a couple of solid Texas reds, but otherwise finding an interesting bottle is a challenge.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor