By Megan Volpert
Full disclosure: the entire Castellucci family is very near and dear to my personal heart. However, they earned their way in–as did I into theirs. You’ll find that most Castellucci Hospitality Group evangelists have this level of friendship, cultivated through years of hanging out with the family while eating at their dining establishments, gradually becoming a regular and eventually becoming a family friend.
Because CHG has never been about making a splash in Atlanta or doing the trendiest thing in cuisine, what the Castelluccis do best is know who you are – feeding, comforting and entertaining you accordingly, with tailored consideration to detail. They’ve thought about what West Midtown needs and they’ve delivered Cooks & Soldiers.
It’s a minimalist space with giant picture windows on both sides that beg for a serious brunch drenched in sunshine. The restroom lights are motion sensitive, progressively brightening as you walk through. Exposed bulbs over the dining area, bar facing the weird people-watching options on 14st Street, viewing window to the action in the kitchen, complete with innovative grill tech. The serviceware is swank, the staff is extremely diverse and so full of contemporary look that you could definitely hold a super tough “best haircut” contest or even a “least ironic facial hair” contest. In short, it’s more than just passably modern – the Castellucci siblings are increasingly showing their own hip yet sustainable style, distinct from the more comfy environs designed by Mr. And Mrs. C. C&S is pretty sleek, but never tips over into being merely slick, because there is so much attention to service. The true hallmark of a CHG establishment is its genuine hospitality, and in this respect, C&S resembles their other restaurants – its staff has all been raised right.
At the helm in the kitchen, two young men of extraordinary potential: Landon Thompson and John, the youngest of the three Castellucci siblings and the only one of them trained in cuisine instead of management. John spent a long while in San Sebastian picking up everything about Basque cookery, and then a long time in Atlanta with CHG vet chef Landon, filtering traditional comfort cookery through their thoroughly modern sense of plate and unceasingly playful sense of recipe. They do have a tightly controlled interest in molecular gastronomy that peeks out of many dishes. It’s long been said that Atlantans don’t care for chemists in the kitchen, but with the rise of Richard Blais’s Flip Burger empire, that’s clearly not true. Besides, what is West Midtown good for, if not living on precisely this type of edge? The result of Landon and John’s collaboration is unerringly lovely to look at, thrilling to the mouth, and often something worth reflection.
So let’s get to the food. The menu has three main sections: tradiciones, which are all four-bite toasts of house-made sourdough topped with various accoutrements, especiales, which are larger tapas plates or small entrees, and the asador, which are huge grill dishes to share between several people. I ordered eleven dishes for a party of three, and we all got totally food drunk. You really can’t go wrong with any of the options, or as our friendly server put it, “just do you cause it’s all gonna be delicious.” Here’s the breakdown:
Cana y frutas: apple, bruleed queso de Cabra, mango, blackberry. Looks like it had caviar on top, but those are spheres of blackberry gel. You expect salt and you get tart, a cool surprise that doesn’t overwhelm. Not a super big personality in the taste, but bright and refreshing. A good option for a palate cleanser between bigger plates.
Boquerones: white anchovy, blood orange marmalade, apple-serrano salad. This is a killer salty plus sweet bite, though the heat from the serrano is likely a little bit too far forward for some palates. Just avoid the one pepper on top, and you’re in the clear with an equally well-balanced alternative bite.
Bruleed fig: Cana de Cabra, Bayonne ham, 25 year sherry vinegar, torn mint. Three plates deep now, I see how expert they’re toasting this bread. Fork or fingers, whatever suits you. The bread holds firm against the weight of what’s on top, but it tears apart with ease when you bite into it. The contrasting crunches of fig and toast on this one, plus the smooth finish of the cheese, made this bite an instant topic of discussion at the table.
Tartare: cured tomatoes, traditional accompaniments, carrot ‘yolk.’ This is the show stopper, and I will likely order it every time. The beef is actually tomato. The yolk is actually carrot. It just works. It looks familiar on the plate but is totally unfamiliar in the mouth, and it is seriously tasty. Vegetarians will rave and carnivores will not be disappointed.
Chistorra in a blanket: Chistorra sausage, croissant, cider glaze, maple-mustard allioli. Crust is flaky but still holds up well under the knife. The real gem here is the dipping sauce, some kind of maple-mustard miracle that is neither too sweet nor too burning. If they wanted to bottle it and sell it at the bar, I’d buy enough to take a bath.
Huevos revueltos: soft scrambled eggs, wood grilled local mushrooms, truffle, toast. This one is still a work in progress. One challenge of tapas is remembering to prioritize dishes likely to get cold more quickly. Alas, our table faltered. This dish positively reeks of truffles, and the warmth emanating from that scent lulled us into a false sense of security about how long it would stay at peak deliciousness. The mushrooms were terrific, but the eggs didn’t hold up too well.
Pulpo: grilled Spanish octopus, charcoal potatoes, piquillo emulsion, rosemary. These guys really know how to do octopus. The piquillo pepper sauce comes in a plastic dropper, which is speared into one of the tentacles. The plate arrives precariously at the table, and then you get to pull out the dropped to sauce it yourself. The meat is delicious, and the pitch black charcoal potatoes are a strangle feast for the eyes.
Bikini: White American, Jamon Iberico, black truffle, white bread. Another superstar on the menu. How can you resist ordering a bikini? It’s a cracked-out version of grilled cheese. Gooey without being stringy or drippy, just enough ham, a hit of truffle more in scent than on palate. They should be fielding this dish for the next Taste of Atlanta, and give their own Iberian Pig pork cheek tacos a run for their money as best hand-held in the city.
Marmitako hot-pot: grilled tuna, Iberico broth, piperade, chorizo peppers, garlic-parsley pistou. Fans of Double Zero’s l’arrosto will recognize the situation here. It’s a build your own, very communal, same type of hearty flavor palate. Almost like a Basque version of pho, this broth is designed to cure what ails you. The tuna was seared so perfectly it was almost a shame to pour the broth on top of it, but it did cook to a perfect medium-rare, and continued to shape-shift as I added various accents from the four options provided.
Chocolate and corn: chocolate tarte, corn gelato, aerated horchata. A great combination of sweetness, pairing the traditional flavor with the more thoughtful flavor. And of course, the CHG restos all have excellent homemade gelato, and the corn flavor warmed my Midwestern heart. This dish was hard outside, soft inside, and came to the table in a majestically tall pillar that only looked better as the gelato began to melt down.
Fruity pebbles: cereal croquetas, goat’s milk gelato, marshmallow. You will not forget this. The plate is huge, the croquetas are surprisingly warm, and the goat’s milk gelato covered in crushed fruity pebbles and marshmallows is…well, just eat it. After that magic texture and taste combo, the croquetas are almost superfluous. It made me feel like a kid again.
So, the Castelluccis are still making food that comforts, but there are also some grand new ideas in here. For all it does to meet the edgy expectations of West Midtown, Cooks & Soldiers still bears the deeply unpretentious stamp of unmatched hospitality that is the lynchpin of CHG’s success.
Cooks & Soldiers is located at 691 14th Street. For more information, visit cooksandsoldiers.com.