September 7th, 2012 by Brian Schwartz – Comments (5)
I first visited Smoke on a blustery winter’s night in late December 2010. It was opening night, coming hard on the heels of a blizzard that just about shut the city down, and yet the cooking was just about perfect. So was the service (and it still is). I wrote a rave review and, though I’ve visited Smoke countless times (well over 50, I’d guess) since then — and the food has thrilled me just about every time — I haven’t written a review. So it’s time for another look.
Erik Reynolds has helmed the kitchen from the beginning. (Though there are now TWO master chefs in that kitchen, more on that later.) It was he who first developed the strengths that not only make Smoke one of the best restaurants in Tulsa but also make it unique. You’d have to look long and far to find another place doing what Smoke is doing. Here’s what makes Smoke unique:
1. They are virtuosos of the grill. That’s a new instrument for me. In New York, most top restaurants rarely use it. At Le Bernadin, for instance, hundreds of fish dishes are on the menu and only one or two are grilled. But at Smoke I’ve had grilled swordfish that was the finest swordfish I’ve ever eaten. In fact, before I discovered Smoke I just didn’t know why people liked swordfish. I’d never had it grilled right. At Smoke I did. Just about everything that comes off that grill is a treat: vegetables, lamb chops, and of course steak. But I never order the steak.
2. Erik can make sauces for things that I’d usually never dream of putting a sauce on — roast beef, for example, or lamb chops — but his subtle, creative sauces make those things better.
3. Smoke makes just about everything in house, and so many of these things are wonderful. The sinfully rich, thick bacon, for example, or the ketchup, or the sauce for the wings, which is a Western spin on Indonesian sambal sauce.
4. THE FISH SPECIALS. Yes I put this in caps for this is what draws me back again and again. Erik has a secret source somewhere on Florida’s Atlantic coast, and the swordfish or escolar or wahoo that’s on your plate one night might have been swimming the Atlantic early that morning. There’s such a great variety of fine fish, and there’s a new one each and every evening. A new and very creative fish special.
Now I’d like to describe some of these fish specials, it’s the best way to show why they do indeed deserve the name “special”, but I’d better tell you first about that other master chef. Back in March 2011 there was a cooking competition with eight Tulsa chefs and two prizes. Michelle Donaldson of Polo Grill won one prize and Erik Reynolds from Smoke won the other. The other six chefs were losers. In November of that year, the two winners have joined forces. Michelle Donaldson is now cooking at Smoke. She brings a lot to the table. Her training was in classic French cuisine, which she learned from Eric Patterson in Vegas. A lot of the dishes show her influence. In fact, the Smoke entree that I chose for my list of best dishes of 2011 was her creation.
Berkshire pork cheeks, grilled and then braised for 13 hours in red wine and mirepoix, with a spicy apple slaw and a polenta cake accented with maple syrup. Now this photo has made me hungry for meat, so I think I’ll put one other of Michelle’s creations in before I get to the fish.
Duck breast, meaty and perfectly cooked, lovely spice rub too, served with Bright Lights chard (a multicolored chard developed by a New Zealand breeder), butternut squash puree and a maple syrup and whisky reduction accented with a touch of rosemary. It was amazing! Too bad it was a special for one night only. I could eat it every day.
And now the fish specials! Whoever said there’s nothing new under the sun must have known that Smoke’s market fish specials, totally new unique and different each day of the year, only come out at night. I think Smoke serves the best fish in Tulsa. Usually the fish is grilled and as I’ve said the guys at the grill are masters. They work wonders on firm, white-fleshed fish such swordfish, halibut, escolar, sea bass or tuna. The fish is cooked to perfection. Juicy, full of flavor, a joy to eat. Sometimes the fish picks up the smoky, woodsy flavor of the woodfire grill. Let this September 2011 special Erik designed serve as an example.
Supernal swordfish, perfectly grilled as always, sits atop an asparagus risotto. Those enormous long-stemmed mushrooms are also grilled, and their flavor pairs well with the fish. Ditto for the carrots. That rich brown gravy is a delicious brandy peppercorn sauce. Too much of that would drown out the fish’s flavor, but the layer on top of the fish is very thin.
Now Michelle can cook fish too, and she’s a grillmaster too, and here’s a special she designed earlier this year.
Grilled wahoo topped with a cilantro-citrus crab salad with spicy miso risotto, grilled asparagus and, on the side, bright green citrus gel.
A few weeks ago I had this lovely tuna. I requested it rare and it was like a prime buttery steak.
That’s peppercorn-crusted yellowfin tuna over toasted brussels sprouts, and fingerling potatoes. There’s bacon and leeks too, and the sauce is brandy peppercorn, the first time I’d seen it since that swordfish a year before.
Perhaps the best test of a kitchen is if it can make you love something that at best inspired mild revulsion. Michelle did this here.
I used to hate trout. Then I ate this. Now I love trout. Delicious, fresh-flavored trout with a wonderful sauce to bring out those flavors, a beurre blanc accented with lemon zest, capers and tarragon. Served with red wine basmati. I walked a mile to eat this fish and it was worth it.
Now there’s a brief and glorious time sometime in early April when everything is special and not just the fish. That’s the time when time when secret groves deep in the heart of the Oklahoma woods yield up their morel treasures. Now people are very cagey about their secret morel patches but Smoke manages to score. Last year for one night only they served this.
Three juicy lamb chops perch on a mound of celeriac puree with an early spring mix of peas, grilled artichoke, and root vegetables. That’s a lamb jus, and it became infused with the celery flavor of the puree. And, hiding in back…
This dish is a classic. The lamb, the rich, butter-sauteed morels, the jus, all mixed together. The root vegetables were a special glory, crunchy and flavorful. Oh I wish they had this meal all year! I don’t mean that during morel season they neglect the fishy side of the menu…
Grilled grouper with kale, cherry tomatoes, and rich, sauteed morels in a wonderful smoke-infused broth made by smoking garlic for 4 hours and then braising it in wine.
Enough of fish specials. And enough of fish. Except… just about all the above were one-night-only deals. They’re gone. But I put them in to show what Erik and Michelle are capable of, and equally good stuff awaits you when you go. Still, I can’t leave the sea side (of the menu) without one dish which is available every day.
Sweet, tender scallops, perfectly grilled. Around it is an incredibly complex sauce that complements the scallops — no easy job to do, since an assertive sauce would drown them out. Yes, it looks like Russian dressing. It’s not. Erik, who invented the dish, spent about five minutes describing how it’s made. It’s an all-day job. First you smoke Roma tomatoes, then you sauté them with scallions and white wine. After a while, you add some ancho and serrano peppers. (Not much, the sauce is not fiery hot.) After that’s reduced down to almost nothing, you let it rest to bring out the flavors, then mix in a lot of butter and simmer some more. There’s a Maillard reaction going on in both the sauce and scallops; a lovely caramelized taste pervades. Below the scallops is a lovely patty made of grits, cooked and gently fried. If you don’t like grits, this will make you a convert. Ditto for the wonderful grilled okra. Erik told me that he’s tired of cooking shrimp and grits like everyone else so he created this. It blows shrimp and grits out of the water.
Let’s continue with the regular menu. The specials change. What does not? Well, the service. Every waiter, waitress and bartender is friendly, knowledgeable and efficient. In fact, I consider them all my friends. The owner too, Mitch Dees. So I tell them all as friends: your decor sucks. Oh that’s too strong a word. But it is not up to the level of the food. It’s fine for a trendy jazz club where the restaurant is part of a chain. But Smoke’s stellar food deserves better decor to showcase it. White tablecloths and elegance. Something like the old and late lamented Brasserie. Still, Smoke is elegant enough.
You won’t be ashamed to take that special someone you’re trying to impress. And if that special someone wants a steak, by all means get them one. They come with grilled veggies and mashed potatoes. Needless to say, the potatoes are made in house. At Smoke, everything is made in house. I can’t guarantee that the steaks are USDA Prime but they are from a small farm and they’re delicious. Me, I never order the steak. Except once, and that was a one-night-only deal.
A 12 oz Prime NY Strip with a crust of premium cigar tobacco and ground coffee and, on top, foie gras and butter. On the side, mashed potatoes with truffle oil and a mix of greens and mushrooms. Another Erik Reynolds triumph. It takes a lot of courage to improve on a good steak. Usually, it’s like gilding the lily. But not this. Gael Greene once said that sex was better than food. She hasn’t tasted that steak.
I never order the steak because I think other things better showcase the chefs’ talents. Such as the lamb. On my first dinner after opening night, I had a lamb chop. Nothing short of incredible. Perfectly grilled to medium rare, just as I ordered, succulent, flavorful, its flavor accented by a pinot wine sauce that was genius. A chef’s usual temptation with lamb or duck is to go with a sweet sauce, and that overpowers the meat. This sauce, with every flavor but sweet, was the perfect counterpoint, as was the mix of fingerling potatoes and shredded Brussels sprouts.
You can also get a fine pork chop, also with a lovely sauce, as well as quail, salmon and pasta. (Erik once trained with a Sicilian chef and Michelle also excels in pasta.) And I mustn’t neglect the incredibly creative appetizers such as bruschetta served with goat cream cheese and bacon jam, and my favorite…
Bacon and Egg Salad. It’s an American take on that old French bistro standby, frisee and lardons. And a great take it is. This salad is one a greens-hating carnivore can love. A big slab of house-made bacon — more like fresh ham– a yummy dollop of fried egg, walnuts, greens and a vinaigrette dressing. Just mix it all up and devour.
Finally there are some big bargain specials on Sunday through Wednesday that deserve attention. On Sunday, it’s brunch. On rare occasions when I’m up that early and not hungover, I get this.
Chicken-fried pork. A thick cut of pork (or at least far thicker than the usual CFS), tender and juicy, lovely breading, and a sumptuous gravy a lot like a French classic sauce. It was as if a top contestant on Top Chef was asked to do his own gourmet spin on Chicken Fried Steak. It comes with two eggs and roasted new potatoes.
Monday is $5 burger night!
Nothing but the finest for these burgers. Beef raised in a little ranch in western Oklahoma. I think they use the best cuts too, New York strip, just like their steaks. Buns fresh from Farrell Family Bread, and if you haven’t heard of them you should. They’re one of the finest artisan bakers around. Lettuce and tomato from the Farmer’s Market. Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and pickles made in the restaurant.
Tuesday is taco night!
The $6 plate includes three tacos. They look ordinary but the filling is far from ordinary. One night, the tacos were beef Rendang (that famed dish invented by the Minangkabau tribe of central Sumatra), juicy pulled pork, and chicken with Hatch chilis.
And on Wednesday and Wednesday only there’s roast beef…
The Sunday roast beef dinner is the dream of Englishmen everywhere. They took it with them to India, where horrified Hindu waiters served great slabs of roast beef and claret under the sweltering north India sun. Those colonial diners would be appalled to learn that the best roast beef in the world is to be had in Tulsa, Oklahoma… and not on Sunday but Wednesday. But it’s true. Chef Erik Reynolds won an award for best roast beef in Denver. Here in Tulsa, he’s stepped up his game. Roast Beef is served only on Wednesdays, and only till the roast runs out. So get there early, place your order to reserve a slice ($25 for 12 ounces, $34 for a much larger 16). Have an appetizer, but don’t eat too much because this is coming!
Crunchy barbecued okra, heavenly mashed potatoes with big chunks and bits of skin let in, but you’ll barely notice them. Just focus on the beef.
Heaven on a plate. Perfectly cooked (I asked for very rare) beef, rich rich flavor enhanced by a crust of spice and a jus with the same spices so the flavor permeates the meat. Truly addictive. “Can you get high on food,” my dining companion asked? Oh yes.
1542 E 15 Street
Brian Schwartz: Author
Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society. www.theomegasociety.com
I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola.
“A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.