Chef Martin Heuser of Affäre loads coarse wood chips into the chamber of a portable hand-held kitchen smoker called the Smoking Gun. He flips the switch on the handle to activate a fan and strikes a match, igniting the chips to a glow.
The nozzle of a rubber hose connected to the barrel of the gun is tucked into a Mason jar holding delicate leaves of artisanal salad greens. The gun fills the air space with a delicious blue-gray cloud. When Heuser serves the dish at his contemporary German restaurant, the jar’s metal lid is unscrewed tableside. Smoke billows, then wafts, then disappears, leaving only the telltale aroma of a campfire behind.
The dramatic presentation never fails to elicit gasps from diners, who try to capture the fleeting moment on cellphone cameras. But professional photographers know smoke’s phantom nature requires patience and cunning to capture.
The point of such smoke-upsmanship is, of course, flavor.
Smoke is a flavor we crave, and not coincidentally it’s an essential ingredient for good barbecue. But if the meaty smoke ring is king, there is still plenty of room for playful, even witty, experimentation. These days chefs and bartenders are exploring the universe of foods and finding less obvious candidates worthy of its gentle kiss. Nuts, cheese, fish, seafood, cocktails — plus the bitters and even the ice cubes in such libations — are all fair game.
Heuser has experimented with the Smoking Gun on walleye, rabbit confit and, most recently, salad greens. “It’s incredible how much smoke that salad takes on in such a short time,” he says while we take a break to let the air clear.
Heuser’s homage to the Waldorf salad ($10) substitutes kumquats and celery root for the traditional apples and celery. Instead of mayo, he uses an orange vinaigrette. But the lightly smoked salad seems to have more to do with the techniques and deconstructionist bent of molecular gastronomy than it does with our own barbecue roots. (Which certainly explains why PolyScience, which makes the Smoking Gun, also sells sous vide machines, chamber vacuums, rotary vacuum evaporators and anti-griddles.)
When Karen Adler and I sit down for lunch at Char Bar a week later, it doesn’t take long before we’re discussing the importance of smoke as an ingredient, not just as fuel. Adler is a grilling expert and one of a band of Kansas City women barbecuers who became known as the ’Que Queens. She has written numerous cookbooks on the subject, including the soon to be released “BBQ Bistro” (Running Press, $20), co-authored with Judith Fertig.
“The Smoking Gun is perfect for when you want to smoke a smaller amount of food, like smoked tomatoes, onions or shrimp,” says Adler, who recently unearthed her own gun while rearranging a kitchen cabinet. “You don’t need a big-rig smoker to smoke a pound of shrimp.”
Competition barbecue’s focus on the big primal cuts means we sometimes forget the flourish smoke can add to smaller, more delicate items. For instance, smoked tomatoes make a lovely Bloody Mary, gazpacho or bisque. At Char Bar, we skip the smoked meats and focus on the less traditional menu offerings, including smoked jackfruit, a vegan option that, like tofu, is a sponge for flavorings. But when jackfruit is cooked, it resembles pulled chicken.
We order the Smoking Gun cocktail, only to be deeply disappointed when our server returns to report the gun is on the fritz. I return on a cold winter’s night, fingers crossed, and the gun is stoked and ready.
This time the server sets down a bulbous brandy snifter with a cardboard coaster covering the top. He warns me not to inhale too deeply at first or I may start coughing. I watch as a white head of smoke resembling the foam on a hoppy IPA swirls, then dissipates. I try to capture the moment with my cellphone camera, but it’s hard to see tendrils and plumes.
When the smoke clears I take a sip: The smooth Bulleit rye mingles with the citrusy notes of the Grand Marnier, bitter Campari, burnt sugar syrup and orange bitters, the flavors melding as one while leaving a lingering, woodsy aroma behind.
“I knew I wanted to do a cocktail that featured smoke,” says managing partner Mark Kelpe, who collaborated on the creation with mixologist Derek Branham, now at the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange. The pricey cocktail ($16) certainly fits the theme, and there are other clever “amusements” on the menu: cold-smoked, lobster-topped deviled eggs ($7); smoked trout dip ($9) and cold-smoked Chicken Mac Nuggets ($9) served with dipping sauces, Kelpe’s unabashed take on McDonald’s Chicken Nuggets.
In addition to the Smoking Gun at the bar, the restaurant uses an array of grills and Southern Pride cookers fueled by a regionally sourced hybrid of hickory (for heat) and pecan (for a sweet flavor and aroma) and a cold smoker for the more delicate items.
“Every wood has a little bit to do with flavor and a lot to do with smell,” says Duane Daugherty, who owns Mr. Doggity Foods, a barbecue sauce/catering company, and who has traveled to all 50 states to judge barbecue.
Daugherty smokes whole herbs to add an aromatic underpinning to fish. He’s also a fan of blueberries smoked over the fire in a cast-iron skillet until they pop, like fresh cranberries.
“I’ll try to smoke everything,” Daugherty says as we sip coffee at Twisted Sister one morning, but he adds a caution: Too much smoke is never a good thing. Instead of complexity, you can wind up adding an acrid or bitter flavor.
For this reason, the Smoking Gun started out as a chef’s toy, but it may actually wind up having more potential uses at the bar than in the kitchen.
“It’s cool, and has applications, but it’s not the best smoke flavor,” says Howard Hanna, chef/owner of the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange. “For most things, it’s too harsh. Actual wood flavor is better.”
Ryan Maybee, was an early adopter of the Smoking Gun. He created his best-selling Smokin’ Choke cocktail for the downstairs bar at Manifesto and posted a 2009 YouTube video as he smoked Four Roses bourbon in a Shatto milk jug.
These days his East Bottoms distillery sells J. Rieger & Co. Kansas City Whiskey and Kansas City Smoked Bitters, which he developed to complement the Smokin’ Choke, although it works well in an Old-Fashioned, Manhattan or Bloody Mary.
Meanwhile, Hanna continues to smoke plenty of big, burly meats, but he also uses a simple cook-top smoker for more delicate fare, such as smoked butter, which is used to make a bone marrow bearnaise that’s served with a KC strip ($32).
“Smoke is a touchstone,” he says of the culinary world’s mystical muse. “It’s the quintessential flavor of KC.”
Jill Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor. Reach her at 816-234-4395; email@example.com; Facebook at jillsilva and chowtownkc; Twitter and Instagram @kcstarfood and @chowtownkc.
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