First Look: HD1

Richard Blais and his haute dogs

I'm an expert at making friends roll their eyes. I've provoked some skull-rattling episodes lately, when they asked what was going on with the building that formerly housed San Francisco Coffee in Poncey-Highland.

"Oh, that's Haute Doggery," I say. "You know, like 'haute couture,' except it's 'haute dogs.' You know, like 'hot dogs.'" Cue the epic eye rolls.

Mercifully, the name did not stick or has at least been abbreviated. When "Top Chef" star Richard Blais and Barry Mills opened their new hot dog joint last week, it bore the name HD1 (664 N. Highland Ave., 404-815-1127). Well, actually, there was nothing on the building's exterior to identify the restaurant at all last week. Whether that's hubris or delays, I have no idea.

The building's design is by ai3, which is also responsible for the look of Flip, the hyper-trendy burger boutique owned by Blais and Mills. Whereas Flip features ai3's spare, bright design, HD1 is dark and hard to characterize. Two words come to mind: "slats" and "linear." Dark wood slats both outside and inside create something of the feel of a '60s paneled den with a then-modern pitched ceiling. All seating is comprised of stools at rectangular community tables or at the long bar which bumps into the tiny, open kitchen.

You order from the menu of "bits, pieces, stuff, plates and soft serve i.c." at a counter next to the bar and the super-friendly, highly knowledgeable staff delivers your food.

I've visited the restaurant three times at around 10 p.m. to avoid the crowds. The menu, which will change somewhat from time to time, is posted on a blackboard. I was immediately happy to see that executive chef Jared Lee Pyles is mainly utilizing sausages instead of anything like the classic mystery-meat gut bombs of my youth. The dogs, like the kinky burgers at Flip, are composed; you don't pick your own toppings.

Of everything I've sampled, the most astonishing was a hot dog that wasn't a hot dog or a sausage at all. It was a carrot on a bun with sauerkraut and mustard. Pyles prepares carrots sous vide style, slow-cooking them in a vacuum-sealed container so that no juice is lost and the carrot is evenly cooked. My first bite of the carrot stunned me. It tasted like a hot dog. I realized then how much hot dogs depend on toppings for their flavor. The brain just automatically recalls the classic flavor. After a second, I got the carrot's intense flavor and amazing texture.

You can order the carrot to substitute for any of the seven dogs on the menu. (There's also a vegetarian dog.) Unless you avoid meat, you do want to try the sausages. My favorite has been a classic lamb merguez topped with red currants, mint-cucumber relish and thick labneh yogurt. This Middle Eastern dog balances sweet and spicy flavors, along with chewy, crisp and creamy textures. The bun, like all buns here, is made of slightly sweet, soft Ghana bread.

I also ordered an all-pork fennel sausage with grilled radicchio, grated fontina cheese and a bit of palate-startling San Marzano ketchup. I love radicchio's slight bitterness and I think it's genius to use it atop a sausage spiked with fennel. Another I didn't try is made of beef pastrami with a hash of ox tongue and tripe.

It's appropriate to think of everything on the menu as a small plate (the hot dogs are all $7 or less). So, unless you've just stopped to nosh and drink, you'll want to order more than one thing. Deviled eggs were stuffed with a layer of deviled ham and topped with the creamed yolks and a bit of a hot Thai pepper, served on a plate of broken spicy-hot potato chips. The idea is to add crunch to the creaminess, but I'd be much happier with a plain deviled egg.

"Prawn dogs" aren't dogs at all, of course. They are jumbo shrimp skewered and fried in a coating of grits. Clever and very tasty, thanks to the unusually good flavor of the shrimp.

My least favorite dish was the brisket chili topped with a spoonful of yogurt and some scallions, served with oyster crackers flavored like ranch dressing. Oy! Classic chili, like the usual hot dog, is never something I've liked. (Perhaps it was watching my mother literally gag while she made it.) HD1's beanless chili was super intense with the aroma and taste of chili powder. It's the only dish I didn't finish. You might love it.

What else? How about chicken-wing confit with lemon curd and sichuan pepper? I didn't love this and I didn't hate it. Naturally, the confit style meant the wings were deliciously oily. The lemon curd, to which I once was addicted, was a bit too sweet for the dish. Had the sichuan pepper been more aggressive, I think it would have worked better.

Fried chicken livers were perfect, served with a big clump of my favorite: mustard greens. There was hot sauce for dipping the livers. One complaint: The serving seemed really small for $8 compared to the rest of the dishes I tried.

Finally, HD1 is serving dirt-cheap ($2) soft-serve ice cream for dessert. You can have chocolate with crushed Red Hots or vanilla with sea salt and charcoal dust. The latter is about as weird as things get here. Blais has mellowed. So, if you're looking for Vienna sausages frozen in liquid nitrogen and topped with popcorn rolled in pâté, forget it. However, popped sorghum is on the menu.

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