99 Krog St., Atlanta
Q: What do you get when you cross a cockentrice with a turducken?
A: I don’t know. But, whatever it’s called, we can’t print that word in the newspaper.
Do we need definitions? A cockentrice (rhymes with “rice”), I’ve just learned, is a Tudor-era pièce de résistance consisting of a pig’s head and upper body sewn onto the lower extremities of a turkey or capon. I assume it was the pineapple-ring-and-maraschino-cherry-glazed ham of its day. If you Google it, you will find images of creatures with blunt snouts and spindly clawed feet looking not at all happy to be served up on silver platters.
Now, we have a restaurant that hails this roast beast as both muse and inspiration. The Cockentrice is chef Kevin Ouzts’ carnivorous paean to all things that snort, gobble and moo, and it is a bloody thrill.
Ouzts, an Atlanta native, has for several years owned and operated the Spotted Trotter, a boutique charcuterie shop in Kirkwood. Though known mostly for his elegant pâtés and cured sausages, he has a solid cooking background (Restaurant Eugene, the French Laundry) and has longed for a restaurant of his own. He and his wife, Megan, made news last year when they launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to open the Cockentrice along with a second location for the Spotted Trotter in Krog Street Market.
Indeed, you enter the restaurant by walking between the new Spotted Trotter’s butcher case and a glass-walled meat locker filled with bloody things hanging on hooks. All ye who pass beyond this point …
Ouzts and his crew will feed you so much meat. Meat like none other in town, maxed out with pungent flavors and presented in ways you’ve never seen. Every dish here is a showcase for technique, but the best ones boast the mind and palate of a great chef in the making. Ouzts has, I think, a gift that goes beyond flavor balance and into the realm of flavor valence. His ingredients don’t just complement one another; they bond with an electric charge.
In his hands, raw mustard greens, with their peculiar astringency, find themselves tangled up in a hot, smoky pear and bacon dressing. Pickled mustard seeds and red onion ramp up the sharpness, while terrific little fritters of shredded oxtail (playing the role of croutons) mellow it out. The flavors bat back and forth, like high-speed Pong.
On the softer side, you will find thick, melting tiles of suckling pig, called grattons, lined up on a platter and lapped with silky whipped sunchokes, vinegar-sweet brandied apricot sauce and mustard turned to a rich cream with the addition of ham fat. Therein lies every flavor bridge to the heart of porky goodness.
If you need a first bite with your cocktail, let me propose the sticks of crispy morcilla — blood sausage paste wrapped in buttery pastry. You dip them in espelette pepper mayonnaise. First, you love the easy-peasy piggies in a blanket come on. Then, you love the iron-rich blood, and now you’re ready for your meal at the Cockentrice.
There is no finer charcuterie board in Atlanta, a showcase for new items Ouzts doesn’t yet sell at the Spotted Trotter. Of the dozen or more choices, I best love the rossa espezia, a coarse, garlicky fermented salami made with beef and pork. There will be a funky and well-aged prosciutto made in-house from an heirloom variety pig, perhaps an Old Spot. The soft, spreadable pâté gelée delivers a brilliant punch of Southern flavor. Think of a richer (and less offal-intensive) head cheese flavored with pickled sweet red peppers. It’s like the meat version of pimento cheese.
For me, the greatest object of obsession on this menu comes from those hunks of beef you see hanging in the meat locker by the entrance. The slate-roasted, blue cheese-cured rib-eye steak is funkier than Bootsy Collins, but, man, you will not forget the way its flavor washes over your tongue again and again and again. It comes presented with “edible stones” consisting of roast potatoes coated in ash-white kaolin. My only quibble with this astounding plate is the beef demi-glace sauce, lusciously sticky when hot, but it quickly cools into that adhesive used to glue new credit cards to paper.
Ouzts looks to old English and French cookery for inspiration, so you might find something called “butcher’s batter” — a kind of fluffy buckwheat dumpling baked in a deep soup plate, then topped with tender pieces of guinea hen, glazed turnips and chestnut cream.
This food is highly processed, sometimes to a fare-thee-well. A fried “hot Reuben terrine” with all kinds of deconstructed molecular doodads on the plate lost me somewhere between salt and fat. Ditto the much recommended dish called “our study in vegetables,” a panoply of Georgia produce that has been roasted, fried and pureed beyond recognition. Maybe this is what cockentrices like to eat. Meanwhile, a fantastic savory bread pudding layered with grilled beef and gruyère cheese needs something fresh and bright on the plate to cut its richness. What it gets is a fried pig ear salad.
One more complaint: I find nothing convincing behind the bar. You will wait a long time for a 3-ounce, $11 cocktail with a clever name. The Proboscis brings a too-sweet and too-minty rum concoction with a kaffir lime perched on edge of the glass, speared with an expensive looking toothpick. How much better this drink would have been had the bartender smashed the leaf with his fist and shaken it up inside.
There are a few decent beers on tap and wines by the glass, but this food needs a booze list with more wit and edge. I’m thinking weird sparkling wines, European pilsners, knife-edge rieslings, even a pineau d’aunis by the glass.
But I can never complain too long about this generous restaurant. Every meal comes outfitted with wickedly fun little palate cleansers between courses, and fun chocolates and cookies with the check. The restrooms feature not only wallpaper flocked with images of vintage meat slicers, but also dental picks and wrapped peppermints. Yes, you can take a handful and no one will see.
This fierce, strange Cockentrice — neither swine nor fowl — is the most beguiling creature skulking around Atlanta today. Don’t be put off by its carnivorous intensity, even if you’re the kind of person who normally eats lower on the food chain.
Now about that turducken …