I get hung up on authenticity. It’s not a good trait. When I encounter a restaurant serving a cuisine I don’t know, I start researching it and holding the restaurant to a standard that is likely of little interest to the owners and chef, who need to answer to the marketplace—not to someone looking for an edible textbook.
Cooks & Soldiers has me covered. The founders did time eating and researching in the Basque Country of northern Spain to learn the cuisine they wanted to feature at their new restaurant, a Westside follow-up to the Iberian Pig, their perpetually crowded Decatur mainstay. Where Iberian Pig takes its inspiration from all of Spain, Cooks & Soldiers focuses on the Basque region, which gained an international profile during the craze over molecular gastronomy and its first exponent, Ferran Adrià of elBulli.
The best part of the molecular gastronomy movement, with its manipulated ingredients and gelling agents that made food behave in unexpected ways, was the attention it brought to the region’s cooking: tapas with grilled bread, tomatoes, and the world’s best ham; fish and meat grilled simply over a wood fire; and piperrada, a mixture of bell peppers, onions, and tomato that serves as the basis for many Basque dishes. He may have made the components unrecognizable, but Adrià, a native of Spain, knew and revered the ingredients. Other chefs followed in his footsteps, including Juan Mari Arzak—a three-star Michelin chef who started his own culinary renaissance in San Sebastian, the cultural capital of Basque Country.
In preparation for Cooks & Soldiers, sibling owners Stephanie and Federico Castellucci spent two weeks in the region during the summer of 2013. They brought along Landon Thompson, the Iberian Pig chef who would be in charge of the new kitchen, and met up with their brother, John, who was apprenticing at Arzak. The four bounced around flashy molecular gastronomy places as well as traditional ones, like pintxos, bars that serve the Basque version of tapas; sagardotegi, brewpubs that serve not beer but naturally fermented cider and that feature small plates of simple foods; and asadors, country restaurants that make visiting eaters swoon over wood-fired meats and seafood.
The asador plates at Cooks & Soldiers certainly made me swoon. They’re as suave and confident a use of wood and flame as I’ve had in a year of eating at new restaurants that all seem to feature both. Part of Cooks & Soldiers’ success is thanks to an adjustable grill made by the Washington, D.C.–based Grillworks—like the one at Ford Fry’s King + Duke—that uses a pulley and cables to adjust distance from meat to flame, allowing the cook to use the grill as either a barbecue or, farther from the heat, a hearth. But most of the success lies in the care that the kitchen takes in buying and preparing chuleton (an enormous—2.2-pound—bone-in ribeye) and pork tenderloin, both of which are persuasive cases for huge, expensive portions of meat.
Cooks & Soldiers builds on the parts of Iberian Pig that work, like the long, open bar that serves both drinks and a full menu. But it’s more polished, with all of the youthful energy that pulses through the Decatur restaurant but a more refined look. Where Iberian Pig could be confused for a pub decorated on a budget, Cooks & Soldiers is slickly designed, with a lacquered oxblood wooden panel separating the bar from the square dining room, which faces a kitchen visible through a long glass window. The colors are slate, charcoal, and light wood, with glass teardrop-shaped light fixtures arranged in circles. Dove-gray leather banquettes are pleasant for conversation, which is possible only if the restaurant isn’t full.
The food is more polished too. If Iberian Pig dishes lean toward the muddled and sometimes sloppy, the tendency at Cooks & Soldiers is toward dainty, artful tapas that seem less Basque and more like a caterer’s conceits: small dishes with pretty bits scattered across the plate like colorful Kandinsky swirls or, in some desserts, like a windstorm blew them in.
Boquerónes are classic tapas—small salt-cured anchovies on bread. Here the imported anchovies are silvery and fresh, but I could hardly taste them through the thick smear of sweet blood orange marmalade and the green apple and serrano salad laid over the jam. Pan con tomate is another Basque classic, in fact the classic tapa: grilled, usually stale bread rubbed with very ripe tomato and fresh garlic. Out of season, Thompson sensibly grates the best tomato he can find. But he lays the garlic on too thick, and each of the two times I ordered it, both the bread and tomato tasted out of the fridge.
Small plates pick up confidence. “Tartare” is an ingenious vegan take on steak tartare, with tomato standing in for beef, vegan Worcestershire (no anchovies, plenty of fermented soy), and Dijon and red onion. But octopus with rosemary olive oil powder, served with rosemary oil contained in a tiny plastic pipette to be squeezed over the octopus, crosses the line into useless and bland modernist whimsy.
Meaty, ivory-colored Sapelo Island clams, though, in a broth flavored with Basque cider and bacon, have a terrific smoky-salty tang. Chistorra sausage, rolled in croissant dough and brushed with a cider glaze, makes a pretty pig in blanket; served with a sweetish maple-mustard aioli, the dish succeeds because the sausage is so mild and porky. And though scallops with asparagus tips, peeled supremes of blood orange, and quarter-moon slices of roasted beet may be too preciously plated, the scallops themselves—seared to the hardest and most irresistible crust I can remember—are superb.
Protein is where the kitchen excels. Huge prawns are slathered in a blood orange and rosemary mojo heavily peppered with sweet Espelette, blackened over the wood fire, and served with head and shell, for those who like licking their fingers—or who, like me, will happily eat the shell along with the miraculously moist flesh (a minute too long on the fire turns prawns to cardboard). Berkshire pork tenderloin is beautifully carved into thick slices that are charred on the outside and rosy inside. Very rosy. Some diners will be put off. I wasn’t, having long ago written a piece called “Cook Pork Pink.” That’s how to get the best flavor and softest meat (yes, it’s safe!). The tenderloin would easily serve three; at $30 it’s a relative bargain, and even comes with a side of butternut squash, plus bits of sweet, lightly peppered morcilla blood sausage.
But back to that huge chuleton, made so memorable partly from dry-aging but mostly because of Thompson’s discerning cooking method: Two stages of grilling are interrupted by a long rest, so the meat cooks to a medium-rare straight to the bone without drying out and toughening the exterior. Afterward is another rest, so the juices won’t trickle out when the steak is carved. Decide at the start of the meal if you’re going to divide the $74 entree among four people, which the one-kilogram cut can amply serve.
As if that isn’t enough umami, there’s a princely mushroom mix seared to the same crust-outside-cream-inside as the scallops (though, as also happened with the scallops, it was disappointing on another night because of a relatively wussy grilling). A side of the mushrooms served with pork demi-glace and grated Idiazabal, the aged hard sheep’s milk cheese of Basque Country, offers almost all the satisfaction of meat without the actual meat.
Desserts are back to modernist cuisine and silly, though kids will be (and were) tickled by unflavored pop rocks-—they’re called “Culinary Crystals,” Thompson told me—with chilled cider gelée. They’re served with the best of the desserts, a soft almond Basque cake filled with lavender-flavored pastry cream and served with sugared Marcona almonds and brandied cherries. Really, though, you don’t need dessert. Fire and flesh seldom marry as memorably as they do here.
Rating ★★ (very good)
691 14th Street, 404-996-2623, cooksandsoldiers.com
Good to Know
Protein is where the kitchen excels, so home in on scallops, pork tenderloin, and the 2.2-pound bone-in ribeye. Reservations are highly recommended for weekend tables.
Photographs by Amber Fouts
This article originally appeared in our March 2015 issue.