Restaurants are filling their menus with smoke

State of the Plate: Chefs are smoking everything in the latest menu trend, from brisket to cocktails and even ice cream.
Smoked Greens Revival
Photo courtesy of Revival

State of the Plate

Nancy Kruse’s monthly column “State of the Plate” is available regularly for Restaurant Business subscribers. Subscribe here to get access to this and other in-depth stories, analysis and opinion.

Smoke-filled rooms may be a relic of the political past, but smoke-filled menus are totally on trend today, as operators of all types take advantage of the flavor enhancement and promotional panache afforded by the technique.

Entrées are smoking. Smoking conjures time, attention and hands-on expertise, a perception that Arby’s smartly exploited with the 2013 launch of the Smokehouse Brisket Sandwich. Still going strong, the item boasts brisket smoked “for at least 13 hours in a pit smoker,” a powerful promise that boosted traffic and sales, threw down the competitive gauntlet and begot follow-on limited-time offers like the Smoke Mountain Sandwich that included smoked pork belly, brisket and turkey breast and the one-pound Smoked Turkey Leg that was inspired by Game of Thrones and required two hands to consume.

More recent, less medieval LTOs include Chipotle’s Smoked Brisket that is made with responsibly raised beef and finished with a new sauce of smoked chiles and Dickey’s Barbecue Pits’ Brisket Chili Walking Taco that combines the chain’s smoked brisket chili with Fritos, poblano chili cheese sauce and shredded green onions in a fun and portable format. For meat avoiders, Lucille’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Que introduced Slow Smoked & Grilled Cauliflower Steak last summer, which is finished with a house-made chimichurri.

Helen, a restaurant in downtown Birmingham, AL, is named for the chef’s grandmother, who knew her way around a smoker; and her grandson follows in her footsteps with a range of dishes like the Smoked Bologna Sandwich. The lunch special updates and pays homage to fried boloney, a Southern staple that’s been celebrated and elevated in the past few years.

Other independents give smoking a global twist. In Chicago, one local reviewer dubbed 3 Little Pigs “a wonderland for Chinese smoked meat,” the creation of which requires hanging ribs and pork butts in the smoker for an extended time. Time is of the essence at Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen in Fullerton, CA, too. The restaurant promotes the cuisines of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and nabbed a Michelin nod with items like Smoked Beef Kabob that combines top sirloin with yogurt, garlic, shallots and mustard oil. Smoked in charcoal for 12 hours, the dish is presented in a dramatic glass dome filled with smoke.

Smoked brisket chili

Beverages are smoking. Smoky flavor notes are common in many alcoholic beverages: Think barrel-aged bourbon, whiskey and even some wines. The recent past has seen a spate of new smoke-inflected cocktails, like Bartaco’s Smoke on the Water, which marries mezcal with watermelon and Cappelletti Aperitivo, or Dickey’s Barbecue Pit’s Hickory Old Fashioned, which promises to bring the “smoke without the fire” to bar guests. The Smoked Old Fashioned at Bonefish Grill combines bourbon with a touch of maple, bitters and a Bordeaux cherry smoked with oak.

Smoking has caught on with coffee meisters as well. Dunkin’s Smoked Vanilla Cold Brew and Smoked Vanilla Latte specials were made with new smoked vanilla flavoring, while Starbucks’ Smoked Butterscotch Latte and Blonde Smoked Butterscotch Latte combine smoked butterscotch with espresso in the former and with blonde expresso in the latter.

And condiments are smoking, too. When smoke is incorporated in condiments, it adds luster the entire dish, as with Firebirds Wood Fired Grill’s Smoked Sea Salt-Crusted Grilled NY Strip or the Fresh Burrata appetizer served with a smoky hot-honey drizzle. Einstein Bros. Bagels’ Texas Brisket Egg Sandwich topped slow-smoked beef brisket with smoky chipotle sauce, and Aramark scored with the La Piña Hot Dog topped with fresh-smoked pineapple, a fan favorite brought back to Minute Maid Park for the recent World Series.  

At All Day Baby in Los Angeles, the Waffle Sandwich is crowned with smoked maple syrup, while to the north in Napa, ALBA Restaurant creates an Heirloom Tomato Tartine with smoked maple butter and seasonal stone-fruit jam. Across the country at newly opened La Bise in Washington D.C., Winter Squash Parisian Gnocchi is served with smoked ricotta salata cheese.

Snacks, sides and sweets are smoldering. Autumn items at Smokey Bones included Smoked Pork Rinds with sweet-and-spicy dry rub and Smoked Mushrooms sautéed with onions and garlic. Speaking of mushrooms, diners can start their meal with a sophisticated Smoked Portobello Carpaccio with caper vinaigrette, fennel remoulade and nigella seed at James-Beard nominated Vedge Restaurant in Philadelphia. By contrast, down-home Smoked Potato Chips with blue cheese dressing are a fixture at Birmingham’s Helen, and Hickory Smoked Local Greens usher in the New Year at Atlanta’s Revival. And the New Year was welcomed in style at Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, D.C., where the special menu included Smoked Beet Salad with roasted carrots, Cherry Glen chèvre and Virginia peanut crumble.

On the sweet side, smoked ice cream has put in an appearance on the midway of the Minnesota State Fair in two versions: Cold Brew Coffee Soft Serve infused with cold-smoked Arabica beans topped with chocolate espresso dust and Muscovado Sugar Vanilla Soft Serve made with cold-smoked molasses-rich cane sugar served with bacon candy. In Orlando, Smoke & Donuts features oak-smoking that livens up  doughnut options like The Mike, which combines a bourbon and maple glaze with chocolate chips and burnt ends, and The Big Bopper, which comprises Chantilly cream cheese, strawberries and smoked sea salt.

Bills of fare will continue to smoke, as operators innovate across the menu and around the clock. Versatility and compatibility with a broad range of items including beverages, condiments of all sorts and dairy products can give smoke a marketing edge over barbecue, and the image of the smokehouse, evoked successfully by Arby’s or On the Border’s new Smokehouse Fajitas, provides an aura of authenticity and an attractive promotional hook.

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