BOLSA / SMOKE / 48 NIGHTS three completely different concepts, one common thread among them keep it local, keep it community, keep it Oak Cliff. by Kerrie Sparks
Christopher Jeffers and Chris Zielke credit a unique, close-knit group of collaborators for the success of each of three restaurants they co-own. But I think if you were to ask the community, the credit would come back to them for bringing a style of eating, dining, and community cohesiveness to Oak Cliff that is akin to Goldilocks’ third bowl of porridge. Just right!
I sat down with the co-owners of Bolsa, Smoke, and the recently launched guerilla restaurant, 48 Nights, at their middle-child location, Smoke, and asked them a few questions about what it’s like to rule the South Dallas roost.
KS: Since it’s the first-born child, who initially came up with the concept for Bolsa?
CZ: It was a collaboration, we’ve known each other for a long time. We were looking for a simple bar, probably do some live music, looking between uptown and down here. We both love this area. Christopher was living down here already, and I wasn’t at the time, but I am now. Now I just live at Bolsa, I might as well not have a house.
We found the Settles Garage. We wanted it to be something very organic, in both the food and the concept, and how we fit in the neighborhood with the existing restaurants that are here was important. We wanted the community that’s here to be a part of it. We didn’t want to be an Uptown transplant. We really wanted to build a concept around the building and the community. We wanted somebody who had experience to guide us thru it, so we called Royce Ring and Alexander Urrunago at Plan B Group.
CJ: The cool thing about Bolsa was there were the four of us involved. I’d never seen where four people who had a lot of ideas, could come together cohesively into a really good delivery. That doesn’t happen too often.
CZ: Everything is always a work in progress, always a struggle to just get better. As you go along, you do what you can afford to do, as good as you can. And then slowly you continue to refine it, purify it, continually changing small things to improve it.
KS: Give me the breakdown on the three restaurants with regards to the relationships that have formed between them?
CZ: We’ve got Graham (Dodds) over at Bolsa in the kitchen, we brought Tim (Byres) on over here at Smoke, and 48 Nights was a bit of a progression of this place, born out of talks with the developer of that building, who was coming in here a lot to eat. Graham has played an integral part in 48 nights as well. Both he and Tim started calling all the chefs they knew, and then slowly people started calling us back.
KS: With Bolsa it was converting the Settles Garage, then the old diner next to the iconic Belmont Hotel becomes Smoke, and now 48 Nights in a space that will soon be scraped to make way for the new Lake Flato and Good Fulton & Farrell designed development, Sylvan | Thirty. Each space is so unique, what was it like going thru the design process for each?
CJ: It was a reality show waiting to happen! CZ: Bolsa, from the time we signed a lease, to the time we opened, took two years. And with Smoke, from the time the owner of the Belmont Hotel first contacted us, to the time we opened, took about 3 months.
CJ: [laughs] Three months!
CZ: We never shut-down the kitchen, we continued serving upstairs. Their chef stayed on thru most of that transition period, then Tim came in about a month before we opened, when he left Stephen Pyles.
Interior - Smoke
KS: How important was it you choose to rehabilitate an existing space for your restaurants?
CZ: We prefer to take existing spaces and have some respect to the history of what it was.
CJ: Bolsa has really good bones, it has a good energy. We didn’t even paint the interior really. We pretty much left the majority of it the way it was, and I think that’s really important. There’s a lot of recycled factors to Bolsa, like the original cement floors inside we recycled, and that’s what the outside patio area is made of. Even the interiors at Smoke, a lot of what you see on the walls is second-hand stuff, like the apothecary shelves and the ship lap on the walls. A guy Chris knows crafted the bar by hand. We didn’t buy anything new except the carpet.
KS: What other kinds of materials were important to each space?
CZ: Wood. Keeping things earthy, while juxtaposing some modern touches like aluminum tables on the patios and plastic chairs. We try to keep wood and metal as key textures.
CJ: Somewhat industrial. With Bolsa being small, it’s got to have a very clean aesthetic to it, and here, with Smoke, it’s about 5,000 sq. ft, so we could rough it up a little bit. Which is very much our personalities, by the way. With Bolsa, Chris is the neat freak, and Smoke is kind of like a Grandmother’s house, with too many pictures on the walls.
KS: You worked with Plan B Group on the design for Bolsa, who did you use for Smoke and 48 Nights?
CJ: Mike Thompson.
KS: I hear that everything in the 48 Nights space came from the Salvation Army?
CZ: Yes, all donated by the Salvation Army. Mike volunteers his Mondays and Tuesdays to help out with that, because he has so much fun doing it.
KS: I have to say that I got to meet Mike when I dined at 48 Nights, and he was absolutely lovely. Picture Where’s Waldo meets Todd Oldham, but in a totally squirrelly haired, large wood rimmed glasses, retro-modern way. He was as cute as the fabric-covered button on his impeccably classy tweed jacket.
KS: What’s your favorite thing in either restaurant? Say, what would you run out with if a tornado were coming?
CJ: Probably the pictures on the wall at Bolsa, the original screen prints from Texas artist Dirk Fowler.
CZ: The vintage gliders outside Bolsa that took me about 6 months to find and refinish.
CJ: No, you’d take the walnut table underneath the large can lamp – he made that! He got the wood off of some redneck in the middle of Iowa, and had it shipped here. It weighed about 150lbs. That’s what you’d take.
KS: You guys use Texas Olive Ranch olive oil, you get hydroponically grown products from Tassione Farms, Smoke has it’s own quarter-acre raised garden, Bolsa’s chef, Graham Dodds, makes and uses his own honey, and last summer you launched your own farmers market once a month at Bolsa. It’s obvious that local and sustainable roots run deep for you guys, just how important was it that these elements be a factor in your restaurant family?
CZ: Very important. At some level it’s just a matter of taste, and the product, and the food. Things just taste better, and having a commitment to that makes for a better product at the end of the day, to use somebody local, and it helps the food community in Dallas grow. The longer we work with local farmers, giving them an outlet where they can always sell their product, that’s a huge deal because it lets them grow some crazy stuff that they wouldn’t be able to sell commercially to anybody else. It’s great to see the local community growing. I think it’s exciting as a restaurateur to be able to buy something from a face you know.
CJ: I think the footprint on the plate…it’s now become a common reality that the consumer wants to know where the food came from. It’s going to be a common thing five years from now, but it’s something that’s always been common sense to us.
KS: The next best thing to sliced bread is? CZ: The iPhone. CJ: Pandora.com or iTunes Genius.
KS: Pork fat or butter? Cake or pie? CZ: Butter, pie. CJ: Butter, pie.
KS: Favorite websites/blogs? CZ: Eats, SideDish, City of Ate, Hidden List, eBay, Craigslist, and Yelp. CJ: Eats, and Yelp.
KS: Best way to spend 48 hours? CZ: Sleeping. CJ: At the movies, outta’ town, or just home with my family.
KS: You’re on a stranded island and a plane makes a food drop. What do you hope is in that crate? CZ: Gummi bears. CJ: Tacos from El Si Hay’s.
Bolsa – ‘Twig & Branch’ flatbread with wild arugula, Dallas goat cheese, and oven roast grapes, all washed down with either a watermelon margarita or sangria rojo. Roasted grapes…who would have thought, but it’s like warm olives from the oven, it just works. Smoke – Coffee cured beef brisket anointed with fat, juicy pickle slices which were perfectly briny and semi-sweet at the same time, and a side of hominy casserole w/ smoked cheddar and green chili. The brisket was perfectly smoky even naked, before I dredged it thru all of the four sauce accompaniments they offer. I washed it all down with their version of a spiked sweet ice tea, just the right amount of sweet, and refreshing with a few pieces of mint. It was like mojito meets southern sweet tea. 48 Nights – The wonderful Abraham Salum was the guest chef the night I dined, and his menu of mushroom pate, scallop on a lentil fritter, braised Berkshire pork on salsify and goat cheese puree, and mascarpone filed crepe with sherry roasted pear was absolutely divine. I sat at the small area of the bar that butted up to the steam and prep tables area of the kitchen, providing me a bird’s eye view of Abraham at work, and he chatted me up between each course, which was nice.