Blacksmith's Bistro chef's concept embraces creatively upscale Southern approach

Blacksmith's Bistro chef's concept embraces creatively upscale Southern approach

July 25th, 2012 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

Blackwell "Blackie" Smith gives his fried green tomatoes a Southwestern twist at his restaurant, Blacksmith's Bistro & Bar in St. Elmo.

Photo by Alyson Wright/Times Free Press.

If chefs from Santa Fe, N.M., and Chattanooga opened a restaurant in Texarkana, Texas, the menu might include dishes like Blacksmith's Bistro & Bar's fried green tomatoes.

Blackwell "Blackie" Smith, the head chef and owner of the St. Elmo eatery, has crafted a zesty interpretation of the fried staple that uses an approach borrowing equally from Southwestern and Southeastern cuisine.

He begins by breading three slices of green tomatoes in a cornbread mix, an all-important first step that he said can make or break the dish.

"You can overbread the slices, and then you have a big, gooey mess, Or you can underbread it, and then you have a big, greasy mess that's not crispy," Smith said. "It's about making sure it's coated just right."

Once they have been breaded, the slices sit, sometimes for as long as a day, to allow the moisture to soak into the meal to prevent them from frying unevenly.

After they take a 31/2-minute dip in hot oil, Smith removes the tender, golden brown medallions and stacks them atop layers of pimento cheese, which quickly begins to melt.

He then plates the resulting mini-tower atop a pool of sauce made from pureed black beans, cumin, cayenne pepper, chili powder and caramelized onions. A parting drizzle of a spicy chipotle vinaigrette Smith calls "booyah sauce" finishes the dish.

Blacksmith's take on the fried green tomatoes is simultaneously familiar - a pairing of favorites proven by generations of appearances at Southern family gatherings - but with a distinctly Southwestern twist.

The crispy tomato slices are a tart counterpoint to the pimento cheese, which has a smoky accent courtesy of the black bean and booyah sauces. Combined with the fried cornmeal skin, the dish manages to taste both recognizable and exotic without being overly complicated.

The tomatoes are Blacksmith's most-popular item, but they started out as a joke, Smith said.

"Someone said, 'You know what Southerners like? They like fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese and beans.' So we went, 'OK, that's funny. I like those things, too,' " Smith said. "It's all about layering flavors and textures."

Smith began his cooking education at a young age under the guiding hand of his grandmother, with whom he started out by making cheese straws and other baked goods.

After his first official cooking job on the grill at Wendy's, Smith has worked at many area restaurants, including 212 Market, the Bluff View restaurants and Big River Grille, as well as at restaurants in Louisiana and California.

Smith has an easy laugh and said that humor is a critical characteristic any good chef should possess.

"Not everything has to be so serious," he said. "I've made that mistake before, taking things too seriously."

In the last year, Blacksmith's has undergone a drastic evolution, driven in part by Smith's realization that his vision when the doors opened in late 2008 wasn't what customers were comfortable with.

Once he got over his frustration with not being able to sell a traditional French bistro to Chattanoogans, Smith said, he embraced a less-rigid philosophy that allowed the market to dictate the menu.

"What my initial intention was was not what it was meant to be," he said. "Food should be fun, and that's something we somehow missed. That approach really pushed the changes we made."

The St. Elmo location is Smith's second eatery, a follow-up to Caffeine, a popular lunch destination that opened in 2005 on M.L. King Boulevard. Caffeine closed in 2009, but Smith said it was an important stepping stone before graduating to a larger venue with more room to grow.

After his revelation last year, Smith dramatically altered Blacksmith's menu. There are occasional bistro holdovers, such as steak frites topped with garlic herbed butter and garlic aioli, but there is a focus now on upscale soulful staples such as shrimp and andouille macaroni and cheese and a variety of sandwiches.

Blacksmith's also has an extensive selection of burgers, such as the Rooster, crowned with a fried egg, and the Funky Watusi, which is topped with goat cheese and tomato-jalapeƱo jam. After the fried green tomatoes, Smith said the restaurant's second most-popular dish is the Local-Vore, which is made with bison meat from Eagle's Rest in Flintstone, Ga.

Although he now is guided by offering people what they want, Smith said he is still finding plenty of room to remain creative.

"People love sandwiches; that's the truth," he said, laughing. "We're a burger and sandwich place ... with a little bit more.

"I'm not scared to try something different. I'm not scared to push it."