Smoke has been a trend in cooking since there was fire, but until the advent of molecular gastronomy, it was more for flavor than for show. Chefs from Joan Roca to Grant Achatz have used smoke to heighten the experience of a dish. At Alinea, for instance, Achatz has served pheasant with apple gel impaled on an oak branch, the leaves lit on fire to conjure the nostalgia of childhood autumns. Now, kitchens around Boston are embracing smoke as spectacle.
In Downtown Crossing, 49 Social serves a duo of beef, with tea-smoked beef, Korean beef tartare, quail egg, and watercress salad. Beef arrives under a rocks glass filled with tea smoke; a server lifts it and the smoke wafts out.
At o ya, Arctic char is cured with yuzu juice, sake, and dill. It then goes into a cedar steamer lined with bamboo, along with cumin aioli, coriander seed, and sesame brittle. Chefs inject hickory smoke under the cover of the steamer, bring out the dish, and lift the lid at the table.
Red Lantern pulls a similar trick with its Smoking Lantern maki. This salmon sushi roll gets the treatment with juniper smoke.
There are also restaurants around town using dry ice to create a similar effect without the aroma or flavor. Legal Harborside's second floor restaurant serves a lobster cocktail that smokes like a volcano, while Lolita offers an amuse-bouche of grapefruit granita with tequila over dry ice. [I'm now informed that Red Sky has a cocktail called the Smoking Sky, which involves vodka, triple sec, Chambord, sour mix, and Sprite, in a huge glass over ice and "smoke." It serves 2-4.]
Unless used very carefully, the technique can seem gimmicky rather than revelatory. The food often winds up tasting more like smoke than anything else. Sure, the puff of vapor released when the lid is lifted is fun, but no chef wants that to be the best part of the dish.
Want to try playing with smoke at home? Cushman recommends using the Smoking Gun, which can be yours for $99.95.
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ContributorsSheryl Julian, the Globe's Food Editor, writes regularly for the Food section.
Devra First is the Globe's food reporter and restaurant critic. Her reviews appear weekly in the Food section.
Ellen Bhang reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe and writes about wine.