With an 8,000-pound smoker in the house, Eric and Sophie Banh have transformed Seven Beef into a palace of smoked meats, with an Asian-accented menu and smoldering cocktails that will chase away winter doldrums.
Vigilance. Patience. Time. That’s some of what it takes to make good barbecue. High-quality meat certainly helps; so does the right equipment. The rest comes with experience. At Central Smoke, Eric and Sophie Banh’s successor to Seven Beef, it’s all coming together in a very good way.
Central Smoke, adjacent to the Seattle University campus in the Central District, remains part of the Banhs’ Saigon Siblings restaurant family (two Monsoons, three Ba Bars), but the shift in concept, from Vietnamese/American steakhouse to Texas-style smoked meats, was wise. Seven Beef suffered from a split personality, but Central Smoke feels more focused and assured. The new direction was Eric’s idea and he did several smart things: He made a pilgrimage to Houston to learn the ropes of smokery from experts; he had an 8,000-pound smoker trucked to Seattle; and he hired chef Mike Whisenhunt to help pull it all together.
Most recently Whisenhunt was the opening chef at Brimmer & Heeltap, where his contemporary-American cooking displayed an affinity for Asian flavors he’d acquired in his long history of working with Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi. (Their collaboration goes all the way back to Coupage in Madrona; he was also with them at the original Joule and Revel.) It seems like destiny for Whisenhunt to join the Vietnamese-born Banh on a menu that adds Asian accents to traditional American barbecue.
Already they display prodigious prowess with smoke and fire. I can’t say the smoked brisket equals Austin’s venerable Franklin Barbecue, but I will say what I tasted here was darn close. The prime beef had a pink halo inside the exterior crust and you didn’t need a knife to cut it. Same with slices of supple lamb shoulder, one night’s special, so spectacular it deserves a regular slot on the menu.
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The smoker consumes oak and mesquite. That wood flavor, plus salt and pepper, are the brisket’s only seasoning. Smoked spareribs are fussed over a little more. They start with a sweet-hot rub involving chile powder and brown sugar, mopped periodically with sauce and spritzed with applejack. The meat pulled easily from the bones but wasn’t falling off, which is exactly as it should be.
The menu’s other two mains, skirt steak and wild coho, are grilled over oak with the same exactitude. Again, only salt and pepper on the beef, but the succulent salmon cures for a day in a kasu-soy marinade and arrives sporting a brittle roll of deep-fried salmon skin. The grill’s large, open hearth is behind a butcher-block counter that runs the length of the dining room, which has been dressed down to suit the casual concept. Tablecloths are gone, but the strings of party lights are still there, hanging lower and brighter over the dark wood tables, giving the spacious room a vaguely honky-tonk air. The mixed patterns of vintage-look china, holdovers from Seven Beef, seem even more appropriate for this menu of down-home dishes.
Other than the coleslaw, which was a little bland and underdressed, the sides and sauces that accompanied main dishes didn’t let the star attractions down. Cranberry beans were rich and buttery, creamed corn was bright with basil, mint chutney had a forthright sharpness and cherries turned up among the house-made pickles.
Grilled eggplant is among several other appealing starters and sides that happily marry smoke, fat, acid and/or heat. The soft, sweet caramelized chunks mingle with shards of smoked rockfish, salty pollock roe in a dressing of black vinegar and green onion oil. Fork into a panko-breaded, deep-fried Anaheim pepper and a purée of smoked rockfish and potato erupts, meeting a pool of citrus-sharpened tartar sauce. Soft, sweet cornbread gets a dollop of crème fraîche. Smoked Gouda subtly but surely flavors mac and cheese. Smoked chicken is a brilliant addition to a crunchy green papaya salad with its rambunctious crew of tamarind, mint, rau ram and nuoc cham. A staple of the Vietnamese kitchen, nuoc cham, also sauced a side of house-smoked bacon that was chewy and tough — the only meat that disappointed.
You may not want smoke in your dessert, at this point, but if you do, banana pudding has your name on it. The charred cookie on top was too much for me, but the pudding was refreshing. For the legions of Reese’s cup fans, there is peanut-butter-chocolate-mousse torte with peanut brittle and scorched marshmallow cream. Put me down for a slice of seven-layer chocolate cake with soft, fudge-like frosting.
I’m also down for cocktails in the dim and newly cozy bar. The “Smoked AF OF” is, as the name asserts, an unabashedly smoky old-fashioned. Tee up your Boomerang app for when the waiter flips over the smoke-filled glass, tips in a big square smoked ice cube and does a pour-over with bourbon, bitters and smoked simple syrup. A smoldering cinnamon stick wrapped in an orange peel perches rakishly on the rim of “The John T.” Cinnamon-pecan simple syrup and the Nordic liqueur Kronan Swedish Punsch contribute sugar, spice and everything nice to its base of rye and dry vermouth. Either drink would chase away the winter doldrums on the chilly, wet nights to come.
Central Smoke ★★★
1305 E. Jefferson St. (Central District), Seattle
Hours: dinner 5 p.m.-midnight Tuesday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Sunday; brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday; happy hour 4-6 p.m., 9-11 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 4-6 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday
Prices: $$$ (starters and sides $6-$12, mains $22-$28)
Drinks: full bar; original and classic cocktails; limited beer and wine list
Parking: on street
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles