Top left: Arepas at TBD; right: roasted black cod at Bar Sajor; bottom: the hearth at TBD
Image credits: Thomas Schauer Studio (MAS), Julie Spiess (TBD), Dylan + Jeni (Bar Sajor)
Fire plus food has been the model for dinner since the dawn of time, but at most restaurants the equation is hidden behind sterile kitchen equipment. Not so at chef Mark Liberman’s recently opened San Francisco hub, TBD (1077 Mission St.), a spinoff of his popular Mission eatery AQ that lights up its dining room with live-fire cooking in an open kitchen. Every one of its dishes has been grilled, smoked, fired, spun on the rotisserie, or baked old-school-style over visible flames. Early man could only have dreamt of having Liberman’s kick-ass, custom-built, 10-foot-long behemoth of a hearth, with winches that raise and lower into the embers.
“A monkfish tail roasted with butter and thyme in a sauté pan tastes completely different than a monkfish tail basted with butter but cooked over almond wood,” says Liberman, who describes his technique as a “primal and ancient” way to draw unique flavors from a menu that highlights the bounty of Northern California. TBD and a slew of other notable flame-throwing eateries across the country are employing methods that Liberman traces to Argentina, Africa, Spain, and Japan to provide American diners with robust, earthy new options. Take a few bites of his roasted quail or leeks rolled in coals and you’ll see why his contemporaries should seriously consider chucking that convection oven into the fire pit.
Of course, the logistics of securing wood and the space a hearth occupies mean this trend hasn’t caught on quickly. But Liberman assures that once a chef discovers the magic of it all, it’s hard to go back: “Chefs and cooks are very sentimental,” he says, “and cooking over live wood has a comforting feel and creates a warm, inviting environment for guests.” So while it’s been feeding mankind for millennia, in the hands of chefs like Liberman, fire is becoming more than a tool. It’s an ingredient, and a pretty hot one at that.
The Best the Hearth Has to Offer
New York City
Follow the smell of wood smoke through the West Village to chef Galen Zamarra’s Mas (la Grillade) (28 7th Ave. S), which sparked the N.Y.C. hearth craze with its grilled romaine salads and rotisserie- smoked chickens. Then cross the river to Fort Greene, Brooklyn’s new hotspot Colonia Verde (219 DeKalb Ave.), which serves Latin American dishes like the lomo al trapo, beef tenderloin wrapped in salt, layered on a wet cloth, and cooked directly over a wood-fired grill.
Grab a seat at the chef’s counter if you want to watch the flickering fire at Ford Fry’s new foodie den, King + Duke (3060 Peachtree Rd. NW). The rustic, seasonal fare, like bone-in rib eye or lamb saddle chops, is prepared in a gargantuan, 24-foot hearth with multiple workstations and industrial crank wheels — which makes it almost OK for you to use the nickname “Hotlanta.”
In a town rife with wood-fired cooking, the fare coming from Bar Sajor (323 Occidental Ave. S) in Pioneer Square stands out for its fresh seafood, sourced from surrounding waterways like the Quillayute River.
The warm glow of the fire at Fore Street (288 Fore St.) is a beacon in the city’s Old Port District. When you’re ready to take a break from its requisite lobster rolls, the wood oven–roasted mussels here are a great place to start.