Houston Chronicle | 07.03.2018
E.J. Miller's indoctrination into International Smoke was quite literally an overnight thing. He finished up his last shift as sous chef at Riel restaurant in Houston and hopped on a flight to San Francisco where he started work the next day at International Smoke, the newest brand from superstar chef Michael Mina in collaboration with cookbook author and TV host Ayesha Curry.
That was in January. Miller spent the next three months training with the Mina team in preparation for his role as executive chef at Houston's International Smoke. "I feel I came back 10 times a better cook than I was," said Miller, 32.
And now's his turn to prove it. International Smoke opens to the public July 5 – an anticipated debut in CityCentre that arrives with plenty of celebrity buzz and muscle. Not only is the James Beard Award-wining Mina a star with showy restaurants throughout the country and in Dubai, he is teaming with food television personality Curry (who just happens to be married NBA juggernaut Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors).
But it'll be up to Miller to win over the locals. He knows this market – both in and out of the Loop – having worked at Clark Cooper Concept restaurants for five years under Brandi Key and at Down House in addition to Riel. Now with some San Francisco polish under his belt – he said the Mina Restaurant Group's culinary standards and restaurant practices are flawless – Miller is ready to show culinary skills laced with Houston gumption.
International Smoke, which began as a pop-up collaboration between Mina and Curry, is described as a global approach to wood fire cooking, grilling and smoking. Miller has been charged with forwarding the new concept in Houston but also imparting the city's own local flavor. To that end, he's sourcing vegetables from local farms, Texas Angus beef from 44 Farms in Cameron, and seafood from our own Gulf waters.
The menu with influences from Vietnam, Mexico, Thailand, Korea and India reads like the kind of culinary melting pot Houston already embraces. Starters include Gulf shrimp with miso butter and grilled lemon; smoked burrata with peaches, corn and prosciutto; king crab with cucumber, melon and Thai vinaigrette; Gulf shrimp soup with red curry, coconut and peanuts; Vietnamese shaking beef lettuce wraps; steamed buns filled with Hawaiian pork and topped with pineapple salsa; and Tokyo-style smoked and fried chicken thighs with spicy mayonnaise.
Main dishes include "Sinaloa" chicken flavored with achiote and chiles; cedar-smoked Pacific Northwest salmon with chanterelle mushrooms; smoked Korean short rib with kimchee and sticky rice; smoked and grilled Vietnamese pork chop with glass noodles, lemongrass sausage and clams; beer and lime-marinated carne asada with crispy baked potato, crema and cotija cheese; Punjabi-spiced snapper with cucumber raita; and redfish on the half shell with garlic fried rice. The signature smoked pork ribs can be had in three different styles: American barbecue, al pastor and sesame-gochujang. The 44 Farms beef selections include filet mignon, bone-in strip loin, and tomahawk ribeye that are wood grilled and served "Argentine-style" with chimichurri sauce.
Side dish options include green papaya slaw with lime and fish sauce; duck fat French fries; garlic fried rice; heirloom tomatoes with cucumber and shaved onion; smoked rib tip macaroni and cheese; and curry corn bread.
The bar menu includes beer, wine by the glass and cocktails with imaginative flair. The Voice of Tansen pairs pineapple and tamarind with Suntory Whisky Toki and Averna; Curry Up Now mixes Woodford Reserve Bourbon with curried sherry and bitters; and Siam Queen joins rum with raspberry, lime and Thai basil. Two punch bowls are meant for sharing: "I Got 5 On It" (Absolut Elyx Vodka, Espolon Tequila, hibiscus, lychee and chile flavors) and Mango-Mezcal-Rita (Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, mango, lime and worm salt).
Miller feels the pressure of this opening. Because International Smoke is so new -- this is the second location after San Francisco, and will be followed by outposts in San Diego and Aventura, Fla. -- the kitchen he runs could go far toward defining the restaurant as a brand.
That responsibility is also thrilling, Miller said.
"Here I have a chance to expand that vision," he said. "And to me that's super exciting."