Smoke is still a bit identifiable as the building that housed Bourbon Street Grill, 1542 E. 15th St. The space has been renovated with nicer lighting, big front windows and a hermetically sealed glass cigar and cocktail lounge. Smoke sports much of the same interior -- the comfortable brick arches, the line of sight into the kitchen and the raised seating around the outside of the room supporting the booth seating and the bar the length of the east wall -- but it feels softer and slicker, and proves to be a very comfortable place to spend an evening.
A friend of ours joined us -- another chef and product developer way up on the food chain for a large corporation that produces commercial baked goods -- and her co-worker.
Susan ordered the monthly wine special -- a Justin Vinyards & Winery Cabernet Sauvignon for $10 a glass and, unfortunately, sent it back. She said it tasted as though it had been open a while -- no fault of the vintner. Smoke's tasting notes on its website are excellent, and worth looking at before you go. We chalked the first round up to circumstance, not a poor quality wine.
Our meal started with a trio of appetizers.
First was a flatbread pizza, topped with arugula, Manchego cheese -- a Spanish hard cured cheese made from sheep's milk -- a sunny side up egg, and a drizzle of white truffle oil. The crust was crisp and good, the arugula was touted as a pesto on the menu, but didn't quite make it to that stage and the egg was a bit overcooked. Not bad, though maybe a tiny bit overpriced at $10.
Next was a smoked tenderloin tartar. None of us got much smoke flavor, but in fairness to the chef, it's a bit tricky to impart a pronounced smoke flavor into raw meat unless you have a cold smoker, which I gather he doesn't. It was nicely presented with capers and minced shallots, a drizzle of smoked olive oil and a bit of flatbread. Good, not great. At $14 it pushed the edge of price tolerance.
Our third option was a saffron and smoky paprika mussel dish that was very good. The sizeable portion of well-seasoned mussels were perfectly cooked and not at all chewy. The broth was excellent and we all found ourselves sopping it up with the accompanying focaccia, made in house, according to our server. It was a bit dry and unspectacular, but livened up with a bit of the broth soaked into it. At $12 it seemed priced just right.
We shared a pair of salads, thankfully, because they could have fed us and the table of four seated behind us as well. Huge portions!
The first was a grilled Caesar salad. And no, it's not a bunch of little pieces of romaine that were tossed around on the grill.
Picture a head of romaine cut lengthwise and placed cut side down on the grates. Now picture both halves on the plate. The salad was dressed with a Caesar vinaigrette, Manchego and a bit of pancetta and white anchovy. It was good, but it could have been really good with a bit more char (or smoke flavor). Remember: it's the natural sugars in foods that brown or caramelize, so lettuce -- not naturally full of sugar -- doesn't like to brown. It's a tough proposition since lettuce burns easily around the edges. This is an item that is conceptually better than it is practically. I know because I've tried it many times.
Our second salad was a classic steak house salad, the wedge, which was listed as a Butter Leaf Wedge, implying that it would be comprised of butter or bibb lettuce. The salad appeared to be iceberg. At any rate, picture a half a head of lettuce, cut into three equal wedges and placed point side up on a plate the size of Rhode Island. Now drizzle it with buttermilk ranch, apple-wood smoked bacon bits, Maytag bleu cheese and oven-dried tomatoes. We ran out of ranch long before we ran out of lettuce. Overwhelmed with the quantity, we quit about two thirds of the way through. These two items each came in at $9 and are both a perfect example of why "less is more".
That night's special was an Escolar filet on a smoked tomato crème, which was served atop a bed of julienne vegetables. Escolar, or white tuna, is an excellent fish in small quantities. Too much can create a bit of intestinal anarchy, shall we say, and the smoky crème sauce, intentional or not, is a good way to coat the stomach from the wrath of this rich, buttery and fleshy fish. It was perfectly cooked and the sauce was rich and smoky, as promised. Our friend was very pleased.
Both her business partner and my wife ordered a petit filet served with truffle mashers, grilled okra and a smoked paprika béarnaise sauce. A nice looking plate, and the meat was fabulous -- melt in your mouth tender. At $21 it was worth every penny.
The basic rule of thumb with meat is: the more the muscle moves, the more enzymes pass through it. Two things happen as a result. 1) The meat is tougher relative to that, and 2) it also has more flavor. A filet mignon, which comes from the tenderloin and moves very little, is the tenderest cut. It is primarily there to protect vital organs. Consequently in progression each cut becomes a little bit tougher. The rib cuts, (rib-eye, prime rib) then the short loin cuts, (strip steak, T-bone etc.) become very slightly chewier but more flavorful, until you reach the cuts that are so exposed to enzymes, the round (hind leg) and the chuck (front leg, brisket, and neck) that they have to be braised to become tender. The trade off is, at least for my taste, dishes like pot roast and short ribs are tops for flavor.
I opted for the Colorado lamb loin chops. My first choice, the bone in rib eye was sadly unavailable. They were beautifully medium rare and tasty, but extraordinarily fatty -- to the point of being disappointing, I'm sorry to say. The chops were served on a bed of Brussels sprouts and roasted fingerling potato halves. Unfortunately, the potatoes were overexposed to heat and were dry and chewy. The lamb had a chorizo demi-glace that was very tasty, but conveniently hid the fat cap on the chops. As a lamb lover of epic proportions, this dish didn't send me to lamb heaven as I had hoped. Priced at $23, I found myself wishing I had opted for the $20 hangar steak with bacon-Tabasco butter. The hanger steak moves every time the animal breathes as it "hangs" between the ribs and loin, much like the flank steak. It has a grainy texture and pretty much has to be marinated to keep it from drying out. Properly prepared and properly cut -- thin and cross-grain -- it is a very tasty piece of beef.
I wished I had chosen that or the Kurobuta pork chop with scallion risotto and pinot noir sauce at $22. Next time.
Dessert was a white chocolate bread pudding and even less memorable. They were middle of the road in flavor, not terrible, but not great. Just a so-so finish, unfortunately.
Our service was professional and efficient and made for a pleasant evening.
Chef Erik Reynolds has wisely created three menus from essentially one list of ingredients, and the lunch and tavern menus offer a lot of the same items as the dinner, with some nice additions to both. All three menus are quite large, with lunch ranging from $8-13 with about an $11.50 average if you don't include the three hand-cut, prime steaks ranging from $21-45.
The tavern menu ranges from $8-18, with a respectable average of around $11 or so.
Dinner prices range from $14-15 for a pair of pasta dishes, all the way up to $45 for a 24-ounce rib eye. You can get a nice dinner entrée for an average in the low $20s but remember that's à la carte. No soup, salad, etc.
In all, dining at Smoke made for a nice evening and it's worth a visit when you get a chance.
Smoke on Cherry Street
1542 E. 15th St.
Monday -- Saturday 11am to midnight
Sunday 11am to 9pm
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