My very good friend V., explained to me long ago that her mother, who was from Barcelona, was actually Basque. She explained how the Basque people are an independent bunch and unique when compared to Europe or even the rest of the world if you look at the research that suggests their genetic profile is unique and their language not replicated anywhere. And then there is the cuisine…
There is an Atlanta restaurant called Cooks and Soldiers, at the corner of 14th Street and Howell Mill, in the hottest part of Atlanta right now – the Westside – that you should try if you are curious about Basque cuisine or you simply want to eat tapas. Cooks and Soldiers is the Basque inspired tapas restaurant of the Castellucci Group; owners of The Iberian Pig, Sugo and others. It won the Restaurant of the Year for 2015 from Eater Atlanta. I happen to work with some very cool and up-on-what’s-trending Millennial types and they finally talked me into trying it.
Now, tapas are small dishes, little bites, and at Cooks and Soldiers you can certainly have all your small dishes to yourself, but my group decided to share all as we enjoyed cocktails. Basque cuisine has a heavy emphasis on seafood and we began with Vieiras: two scallops set among citrusy apples and fennel with a hint of rosemary. Excellent and hard to share. Small bites go a short way. Next, we tried the Trout Navarre, which is Georgia trout, but one that is treated with the flavors of Iberia – hazelnut romesco, Jamon Iberico, black garlic.
From the Pintxos menu, we ordered a bruschetta-like Hongos y setas, or coal roasted mushrooms with a goat cheese creme fraiche. This was rather like someone opened a can of mushrooms, added Liquid Smoke and set them on a piece of toast. Avoid it. I should point out that “smokiness” is a theme of the food at Cooks and Soldiers. Either you are OK with that or you aren’t. My own taste buds rebel. Smoke is rather a bully in the food world. It masks every other flavor and can itself be a bad flavor if you don’t love it. When we ordered the Tolosa con Tocino, or black beans, pork belly, piperade, a sous vide egg and a guindilla pepper, I made the mistake of expecting the American smokiness of pork belly – bacon. Not so. In fact, the flavors of this dish were completely off putting to me due to the treatment of the pork belly.
There were 2 tapas that were so outstanding it made the negatives worth enduring and were really the highlights of the evening. The first was the miraculous Tartare. Now, this is not a beef tartare; rather, it is a tomato tartare. Somehow, someway the chef has devised a way of combining tomatoes, infusing them with a bit of their own invention – a squid based seasoning – presenting it with a “raw egg” in the middle, which is actually a kind of carrot puree, and doing all this so that it tastes close enough to the real thing. Beef tartare was an enormously popular dish in the 1970’s, popular because when done correctly, it tastes like the best steak you’ve ever had. But, it went by the wayside. I’m happy to see it being revived in places like Ford Fry’s King and Duke, and at Cooks and Soldiers, albeit in a vegetarian version. It was outstanding.
The other tapas extraordinaire was the Foie Gras. This was perhaps the one tapas dish of the night that deserved to be small because it is so luxurious and rich. For the un-initiated, do not think that Foie Gras is like cow’s liver or chicken liver. Indeed, there is nothing liver about this dish. The Foie Gras at Cooks and Soldiers is first seared, then served over a black pepper sponge cake, dotted with a bit of rhubarb and then drizzled with a 25 year old sherry vinegar. It melts in your mouth like butter. Outstanding.
It takes awhile to get all the small dishes we ordered. We asked for the check at 8:30, making it a 3 hour evening. And by 8:30 Cooks and Soldiers was packed with people and loud – not from music, rather from people talking. Cooks and Soldiers is the place to have a cocktail, tapas and talk. This is rather the point, actually.
The price tag for all our tapas and 2 rounds of cocktails, does not bear repeating, due to the embarrassingly high number I would have to type here. If you want a filling steak and baked potato type of dinner this is not your place. Indeed, you don’t really leave Cooks and Soldiers feeling quite full. But if you feel like experimenting with some fabulously creative cuisine, are conversational and enjoy all that with a bit of wine or cocktails, then you will enjoy Cooks and Soldiers.
Copyright © 2016 by Julie A. Hogg
All rights reserved. This article or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the owner and writer.