Restaurant Review: Cooks and Soldiers

Castellucci Restaurant Group's newest addition realizes its potential

Cooks and Soldiers has been open only four months — an infancy in the restaurant world — but it is shockingly mature for its young age. Restaurants at this stage are usually trying to fine tune, amplify what works, and edit what doesn't. Four months is all it took for this Basque restaurant on the Westside to hit its stride.

That success is largely due to the leadership of Federico "Fred" Castellucci III, the president of the Castellucci Hospitality Group, which also owns the Iberian Pig, Double Zero, and Sugo. The 29-year-old restaurateur possesses incredible calm and a laser focus. He speaks with sincerity when discussing his passion for hospitality. He talks often about those who work with him, how he likes to develop employees, and how some people have been with him for years.

Chef Landon Thompson is one such employee. The Columbus, Ga. native started with the restaurant group after working as the sous chef at Tom Colicchio's Craftbar until it closed in early 2011. Thompson took over the kitchen at the Iberian Pig, which gave him his foundation in Spanish food. That "crash course," as Thompson describes it, served as a good starting point for Cooks and Soldiers, where his performance and leadership earned him a James Beard nomination for Rising Star Chef of the Year this past February.

Thompson and Castellucci did their homework on an extended eating adventure throughout Spain's Basque region. A focus on fish, grilled meats, and layering bold flavors characterize the cooking style of the area, located on Spain's northern seacoast near France. This is pintxos — not tapas — country. The difference is relative to where you are in Spain and each establishment has its own standards. Traditionally, pintxos were skewered items (pintxos is derived from the Spanish verb pinchar, which means "to pierce"), but the term can be used for many different dishes. Thompson says the best advice he got when polling chefs of the region was "to cook what you love ... experiment." Much of the menu at Cooks and Soldiers is a hybrid of the rustic cuisine and modern techniques that have made Spain a culinary epicenter. Many of the contemporary techniques used at Cooks and Soldiers are the influence of executive sous chef John Castellucci, Fred's younger brother who completed a six-month stage at Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain — regarded as one of the best restaurants in the world, with three Michelin stars — before returning to Atlanta.

The menu, which will undergo a seasonal overhaul for spring, is broken up into pintxos tradicionales (toasts), pintxos especiales (small plates), main plates from the asador (grill), and side dishes. Nearly everything is made for sharing.

One of the most prominent food trends of the last year was toast. Cooks and Soldiers opened at the right time. Rosemary focaccia serves as the vehicle for most of the tradicionales. Sometimes the rectangular toasts are overloaded, making them difficult to eat. A tasty pipérade, a combination of cooked-down peppers, ham, egg, and sweet guindilla peppers, was unwieldy. The toppings slid off the focaccia after the first bite. I had to gather it back up with my fingers, which created more of a mess than my cloth napkin could clean. The hongos, with its layers of coal-roasted mushrooms, goat cheese crème fraîche, and black truffle, was more manageable. I find myself drawn to the simple pan con tomate: crusty toasted bread rubbed with raw garlic and tomato until the bread softens, but not so much that it loses its crispness.

Traditional croquetas de jamon are a popular fried and creamy Spanish small bite. The customary preparation involves a breaded and fried fritter filled with béchamel sauce and ham. After much time spent at the Iberian Pig getting the snack right, Thompson wanted to do something different. Cooks and Soldiers' croquetas resemble a fritter stuffed with runny French-style pig stew. The result is an off-putting filling that never solidifies, yet is also somehow too gelatinous.

The bikini, so named because the finished product looks like a bikini bottom, is a weirdly delightful combination of Wonder bread, American cheese, Jamón Ibérico, and truffle. It's gooey, delicious, and rich with umami. The Chistorra in a blanket triggered my inner glutton. The short, fatty, and spicy pork sausage similar to Spanish chorizo is wrapped in buttery, flaky pastry dough and brushed with a tangy cider glaze. Springy Sapelo clams cooked in a sauce of Basque cider and bacon get an extra briny pop from the feta in a topping of apple and fennel. Pieces of griddled bread are included to sop up the tangy broth.

Shareable main dishes are centered on the asador, a woodfire grill found across much of Spain. The grill operator can raise or lower the grate with a lever or, in Cooks and Soldiers' case, a pulley system. The star of this part of the menu is the bone-in chuletón. It takes 30 minutes to prepare. The aged 1 kg (2.2. lbs) bone-in rib-eye is cooked on the grill until crusty, then sliced and served on a cutting board with the bone and a mound of lettuce, shaved endive, and onion dressed in a tart cava vinaigrette. The steak also comes with a little silver pitcher of tempranillo bordelaise, which is the most interesting version of the mother sauce I've ever had — sweet, mellow, mysterious, and a deep mahogany. My husband drank the remaining sauce from the little silver pitcher once the steak was gone. A whole loup de mer wowed with its simplicity and price: $21 (market price) for a whole fish treated simply with a brush of seasonal citrus-based mojo sauce and finished with fried garlic. Those flavors, some fresh herbs, and the intense heat and smoke of the wood fire were plenty to transform the fish's mild flesh.

John's experiences with molecular gastronomy influence many of the desserts. You see the playful irreverence of the form in dishes such as the berries and amaro. Frozen bits of berries arrive in a large bowl like a natural version of Dippin' Dots ice cream. The mound of blue and red berry shards is topped with fior di latte gelato and finished with a small pour of amaro from a cup full of dry ice fog.

The restaurant's version of a gâteau Basque, a traditional dessert with an exterior like caramelized angel food cake and an interior of lavender pastry cream, also gets a modernist wink in the form of a sparkling cider gelée, bits like unflavored Pop Rocks, and drunken cherries. Cake and pop rocks? Your inner child will revel in delight. The restaurant recently hired pastry chef Ashley Auer, so expect some changes. Let's hope she gets rid of the fried fruity pebble cereal "milk," which oozed what looked like hot Pepto-Bismol from the crust.

The beverage program, run by Christopher Dobson, is the one weak spot. There are plenty of interesting Spanish drinks, but the rest of the cocktails feel disconnected from the Basque menu. Thompson says that's something they are working on. There are traditional Basque beverages such as the lightly carbonated Txakoli (pronounced CHAK-oh-lee), Spanish ciders, a customizable gin and tonic menu, assorted beers, and wine from southern France and Spain. Depending on which bartender you encounter, your drinks will vary. I've had a perfectly balanced C&S Old Fashioned and another that I left at the bar because it was too astringent.

Fred wanted to replicate the feel of a traditional pintxos bar by placing the prep area near the restaurant's entrance. There are hanging hams, a large shiny red meat slicer, and butcher knives hung from their blades. Under the bar, there are handy napkin dispensers where purse hooks would normally hang. The space is loaded with grays and black iron. It feels like something Restoration Hardware would design if it partnered with Ferrari. The intricate lines of the tiled floor borrow inspiration from the colorful patterns of Mediterranean design.

Front of House Manager Stewart Barnes is another employee who has been with the company for a long time. Barnes started as a server at the Iberian Pig and worked his way up to secure the managerial spot at Cooks and Soldiers. He's joined by Rudy Santos, a veteran of Craft and 4th and Swift, at the front of the house. Everyone seems invested in making the guests' experience memorable, and that's because of Castellucci's training and discipline. There is a seamless enthusiasm and professionalism that begins with the warm welcome from the hostess the moment you walk in the door to the guy who never let my water glass get less than half full. You feel attended to, but not in such a way that your conversation is constantly interrupted.

Although this restaurant group has built up a loyal customer base across all of its establishments, Cooks and Soldiers feels the most realized, the most mature. The employees are great hosts, and the food is well executed and reasonably priced. Fred Castellucci's leadership and an intense year of preparation, research, training, and tasting after tasting have paid off. (3 out of 5 stars)

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