TXChefs4: Haute Heritage: Tim Byres

Chicken Scratch tenders

It’s hard to figure out where Texas cooking is headed right now. There are a lot of different trends going on and they have little to do with each other. In fact, sometimes it seems like the chefs in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin arrived here from different planets. In this series, I’ll check out food from some hot Texas chefs and look for clues about the big picture.

At his Dallas restaurant, Smoke, Tim Byres weds Texas barbecue with fine dining. The kitchen at Smoke is dominated by the enormous A.N. Bewley wood-burning pit and there is always something cooking inside it. The dinner menu features:

“Pulled All Natural Whole Hog, NC Style with Blue Cheese Slaw; Texas BBQ Coffee Cured Beef Brisket with Bread/Butter Pickles & Mustard Seed Potato Salad; Dry Rubbed Pork Spare Ribs with Mac n Cheese & Pickled Green Beans; and Smoked Berkshire Pork Chop with Apricot Preserve, Potato Dumplings, Wilted Greens & Unfiltered Green Olive Oil.

On the side, there’s housemade pickles, and an assortment of sophisticated barbecue sauces.

An appetizer of three kinds of housemade smoked sausage includes a stunning rabbit sausage. By adding blue cheese to the cole slaw and making wilted greens with expensive olive oil, Byres transforms heritage recipes into fine dining with a single wave of the magic whisk.

Tim Byres at Chicken Scratch

At Chicken Scratch, Byres’ new casual walk-up counter restaurant down the road a block from Smoke, he is taking on the formidable challenge of fried chicken. Babe’s in Roanoke, near DFW Airport, makes the best fried chicken I have ever tasted–even better than the amazing chicken at BBQ Inn in Houston.

With old-fashioned cast iron pots and hand-battered yardbirds, Byres is seeking the holy chicken grail. When I stopped by shortly after the restaurant opened, the fried chicken tenders and breast and thigh portion I ate tasted spectacular–the only problem was that the crust fell off as soon as you cut into it. Byres said the kitchen was experimenting with a cooling off step after frying to improve crust adhesion.

Grilled chicken from a custom-made J.R. Oyler wood-fired chicken rotisserie was absolutely succulent. The grilled chicken was served with one of the fattest, moistest chicken tamales I have ever eaten.

The collards are excellent, even if they come in a wax paper cup, and the mashed potatoes are slathered with a gravy made with the crispy bits from the cast iron skillets. There are quinoa and hummus salad plates for the vegetarians and mac and cheese for the kids. The soft drinks in the automatic dispenser are from housemade cane sugar-sweetened syrups. The Foundry, the bar next door, serves a huge selection of microbrewery beers. The two establishments share an enormous courtyard where families turn their kids loose. There is a stage at one end built from wooden pallets, a garden out back and sheltered areas with lawn furniture inside cut-out shipping containers. It’s sort of an trendy take on a fried chicken joint.

There is a school of Texas food writers and fine dining chefs whose mantra has always been, “Texas cuisine is so much more than barbecue, Tex-Mex and chicken-fried steak.” To this group, developing a fine dining scene in Texas meant glorifying our most talented chefs and ignoring the folk food clichés.

Tim Byres, whose motto is “heritage inspired,” looks at Texas fine dining and Texas folk foods as part of the same culture–an enlightened attitude that has worked very well in other places–like France.