All Smiles

With items like duck lovers pizza and buffalo burgers, The Smiling Bison takes ‘bar food’ to new heights.

Julie Fletcher

While increasingly familiar in better restaurants and hip eateries, house-made charcuterie and locally sourced ingredients aren’t exactly things you’d expect to find in a bar. Unless that bar is The Smiling Bison and the chef is Josh Oakley.

Oakley, at 37 a veteran of Pebbles, Kres and Seasons 52, was executive chef at the Enzian theater for seven years. After leaving in 2010, he joined the team at The Ravenous Pig and Cask & Larder, and last year purchased a traveling food cart from Bruno Zacchini, chef at Oblivion Taproom.

“The only thing I ever thought about,” Oakley says, “was having my own place.”  He had been eyeing the Bennett Road Redlight Redlight beer bar location, and had even served up hand-crafted sausage and organic burgers in its parking lot.

Now Redlight has moved, and the place is his, co-owned with business partner Ron Thomas Jr. Cleaned up a bit and less frantic, there’s still a stage for nightly entertainment and art on the walls. “There’s always been a kitchen here,” Oakley says. “They just chose not to use it.”

What some restaurants would call starters appear on the “bar snacks” menu. House chorizo and fresh tortilla tacos and house-made cheese curds on potato wedges are tempting choices, and the low country pickled shrimp ($11) is a palate-cleansing combination of lemon-cured Canaveral white shrimp, sweet onion ribbons and a touch of heat.

The duck lovers pizza ($16) is more a plate-sized crispy round flatbread, but my oh my, does it have duck! Slow cooked, flavor-intense confit (leg meat poached in its own fat), dark duck ham and a soft-cooked duck egg that flows like liquid gold when cut. It’s all set on buttery melted Monterey Jack cheese, garlic puree rendered sweet from the hot oven, and a smattering of green pea tendrils.

Oakley has been waiting to use the name Smiling Bison for years, as a nod to his native Buffalo, N.Y., and because he thinks it’s funny. “I wasn’t aiming to serve bison—they don’t serve robin at Red Robin—but the bison burger is really good, so why resist?” The namesake burger ($12) is a substantial handful, served on Texas toast with garlic dressing, mushroom ketchup, melted smoked Provolone and even smokier bacon.

Kitchen-made sausage is a highlight—hefty delights such as sweet curry wurst, smoked kielbasa and the item I tried, bratwurst ($11). Served on a toasted New England hot dog bun with slightly sweet, slightly tart sauerkraut, its light texture and well-rounded flavor reminded me of British white pudding.

The staff, from the Southern waitress with hand-painted sneakers to general manager Thomas at the front door, are bright and eager to please. Oakley watches the room from a window in the kitchen while jazz plays overhead and sausage sizzles on the grill. “This is the kind of place I always wanted to go to,” he says. “We don’t use the word ‘gastropub’ on purpose. But if there’s a word for a casual beer and sandwich place serving high quality food, that would be us.”

Maybe two words: Smiling Bison. 

The Smiling Bison
745 Bennett Road
Menu: $6-$17

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