Thirty-year-old John Castellucci has returned to the kitchen at Cooks & Soldiers (691 14th Street Northwest), the Basque-inspired Westside restaurant he helped launch in 2014. After years of working his way through the Castellucci Hospitality Group kitchens—most recently at the Iberian Pig in Buckhead—he is revamping the Cooks & Soldiers menu to focus on wood-fired asador grilling.
“We want to expand the menu to include more smoke,” Castellucci says. “There’s a lot of stuff that looks simple on the plate but takes a long time during prep. We even have some charred garnishes. On the crudo, the fennel is slowly charred throughout the day to impart the smoky flavor into the dish.”
He credits his time working at Michelin-starred Restaurant Arzak in San Sebastian and dining at famed restaurant Asador Etxebarri for his inspirations. New menu items include alcachofas made with wood-grilled artichokes, bayonne ham, garlic mojo, and lemon; trucha à la vizcaína, a seared local trout with bayonne ham, pickled red onion, vizcaina sauce, and herb salad; and pulpo a la Gallega with pimenton, canary island potato, piquillo pepper, and crispy garlic. Castellucci is also excited about the arroz caldoso, a bomba rice stew with shrimp, chorizo, spring pea, and smoked mushrooms; and chuleta de cordero, grilled lamb chops with mint pistou, asparagus, wild onion, smoked beef fat foam, and hazelnuts.
To go along with the new menu, Cooks & Soldiers is updating its interior with new fixtures, dark and masculine leather upholstery, and classic steel finishings. There will be new curtains, new rugs, and new mirrors, but the biggest change is an upgraded patio with plants and a surrounding enclosure. The renovations will be complete by September.
We spoke to Castellucci to learn more:
What exactly is Basque cuisine?
Basque is an autonomous region with its own identity. The rare mix of being so close to the ocean and mountains creates a lot of ingredients indigenous to the region. There are charcuterie, cheeses, lamb, goat, and beef (chuleton).
The cooking has some classic influences of France and Spain, but the sauces are indigenous to the region, such as Vizkaia sauce. We have dried peppers flown in [to the restaurant].
How would you describe the menu direction at Cooks & Soldiers when the restaurant first opened?
When we first put the menu together, Basque was pretty foreign to most people. At that time, Cooks & Soldiers was our most upscale restaurant. Dishes had a lot of components: two sauces, four garnishes, a lot of texture. We were going for something really elevated.
Wood-fired grill wasn’t part of our identity. [Former Cooks & Soldiers executive chef] Matthew Ridgway added Middle Eastern spices for his take on Basque cuisine. Now, we’re getting back to the basics. We want to make it more asador-focused.
How did your work at Restaurant Arzak influence your cooking?
I was there for eight months in 2013 and then traveled throughout the Basque region eating and drinking as much as I could to absorb the culture. They have a real passion for eating—it’s a central point to everyone’s life. In Basque country, you stop for mealtime, have a glass of wine, and a good meal. They take so much pride in their ingredients. If they slaughter an animal, they use every single part. It influenced the way I taste things and the ingredients I bring in. I’ve been studying old Basque cookbooks that aren’t in print anymore and reading more about their history.
How did your experience dining at Etxebarri impact the menu at Cooks & Soldiers?
The concept is focused 100 percent on wood fire. Dining there was a transformative experience for me and my brother. It was refined but also very rustic. Because of that, we cook over embers and coals: we grill peaches for our salad, smoke whipped butter for mountain bread, and leave mushrooms over the asador all day.
What’s new at the bar?
We have a new cocktail menu that delves deeper into the Basque cocktail culture. We’re making our own tonics and bringing in liquors indigenous to the region, using sherries and ports, and serving the drinks in new glassware. A riff on a Manhattan, our “Escape from Manhattan” uses port syrup for a heavy Spanish influence.
How does the interior refresh go along with the menu overhaul?
We’re giving the space fresh energy. We wanted to make it feel like a new experience.