Although we’re grateful for smoking bans in restaurants and bars, we can’t get enough smoke in our food and drink. It’s just as addictive, but the nuanced flavors, woodsy aromas, and the visual of smoke make it infinitely more luxe than a Lucky Strike.
Smoke may have homey roots, but it recently has graduated to a more sophisticated, sexy status. It’s sneakily wafting into the arsenal of professional chefs and mixologists, who are deploying crafty applications of smoke—demonstrating its potential in the kitchen beyond smoked salmon and bacon. From the ethereal visual of smoke escaping from a glass dome to the wow-factor of a tableside smoke-kissed cocktail and the nuance of layered smoke flavors in desserts, smoke is evolving in creative ways.
Cooking with smoke is nothing new—but lately we’ve seen dish presentations that bring smoke out of the kitchen, tableside. At Vue de monde in Melbourne, Australia, Chef Shannon Bennett serves beet-marinated trout smoked tableside with smoking coconut husk. The impact is doubled when you factor in the stunning glass cloche that covers the smoking dish—it allows you to peer into the smoke-filled dish before the cloche is lifted. Who wouldn’t be entranced by a visual of smoke tendrils slowly seeping from under a dome as it’s lifted, a heady cloud engulfing the diner in the aromas of the plate?
Bennett captures not only the culinary, but also the aesthetic magic of smoke. His tableside presentation conjures images of gazing into a crystal ball that momentarily hides a mystery, which is then revealed as the cloche comes off, unveiling the dish beneath. What does the future hold? A sensual, almost surreal experience, rather than the mere flavor of smoke imparted via trout. It’s no wonder that chefs all over the world have cottoned onto the potential of smoke as a sort of presentation upgrade.
In Washington, DC, pork-happy Chef Dan Singhofen at Eola uses smoke as a layering technique. With a PolyScience Smoking Gun, Singhofen feeds smoke into his dish of Tamworth Pork (confited jowl, smoked shoulder, coco beans, and kale), heightening the sensation of smoke from the smoked shoulder by juxtaposing it with the image of smoke. Smoke on the plate is anything but a conjuring trick.
But it’s not just the visual impact of smoke we’ve noticed. The flavor of smoke is increasingly popular too. And it isn’t just in fish or pork dishes, or even savory dishes, either. Smoke has seeped its way into the pastry kitchen, and creative pastry chefs across the country are incorporating smoky flavors into their desserts in all sorts of innovative ways.
Take Chicago Pastry Chef Patrick Fahy, who breaks down a 16-year-old bourbon barrel, ignites it, and steeps the charred wood in a panna cotta mixture. The bourbon-soaked wood imparts vanilla-toffee flavors and a light char to his Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Panna Cotta and Macoun Apples at Blackbird. He’s releasing panna cotta from the bondage of boring dessert-dom not only by serving it loose in a bowl, but also by reexamining the promise of a pastry standard.
Smoke is clearly in vogue in Chicago, because fellow Chicago Pastry Chef Kady Yon also incorporates it into her dessert, a Single Origin Venezuelan Chocolate Cake, Smoked Chocolate Gelato, Cacao Fruit, and Nibs at Boka. This ode to chocolate is a world apart from the cloying restaurant chocolate cake of yore. The hickory-smoked chocolate gelato has a mild back note that’s like a walk in the woods. It plays up the bitterness of the cocoa tuile and chocolate-espresso sauce nicely, reminding us what chocolate is really supposed to taste of—chocolate rather than sugar. Add a melt-in-the-mouth chocolate cake and a healthy dose of acidity from the cacao fruit in the dish, and you have a revelation of a chocolate dessert.
Smoke has made its way behind the bar, smoldering sexily all the way. Cocktails practically scream for smoke; they’ve already got a strong dose of it with smoky spirits like Scotch and mezcal. And sometimes smoke takes the form of a knowing wink at the forbidden cigarette, with cocktails like Mixologist Jim Meehan’s Beer and a Smoke at PDT. It began as one of the beer cocktails Meehan crafts to showcase PDT’s great beer selection, but peaty, smoky mezcal acts as a stand-up wingman, and celery salt adds a much needed dose of salt. Plus, the dusty rim on the tawny highball brings to mind a smoldering cigarette, making for a cheeky play on a legal smoke in a bar.
Aziza’s Bar Program Director Farnoush Deylamian, on the other hand, uses a slight hint of smoke as a back note to her Tequila, Smoked Almonds, and Amaretto Disaronno. The smoked almonds and nutty Amaretto play a sultry duet, but the tequila base is all business and calls them both to order. A big fat cube of ice made with smoked water taking up most of the glass is so sexy in Chicago Mixologist Benjamin Schiller’s Scorched Earth cocktail at Boka. It constantly amps up the smoke as it melts into a smoke-fest of a liquor base—a double whammy of tequila and mezcal. A bitter bite of amaro and a slight acidity—thanks to lime juice—means that you don’t just feel the burn (of alcohol). There’s a complexity and balance to the cocktail that evolves over time. As the ice melts, each sip of the drink grows smokier. And then suddenly you’re finished, and wondering when you can get another—they’re seriously addictive. No government regulations or after-school specials necessary.