The Cockentrice

Can Kevin Ouzts’s first restaurant bring home the bacon?
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As I listened to Kevin Ouzts, the very affable chef-owner of Krog Street Market’s the Cockentrice, describe how he makes a number of dishes on the menu, I thought what I did during my dinners there: Is this a new form of extreme eating?

Study in vegetables

Photograph by Amber Fouts

The dish in question was called grilled beef and Gruyère bread pudding. If, as I did, you imagine something like grilled slices of loin or even flank steak with a few blobs of eggy baked bread—say, a firmer and cheesier Yorkshire pudding—think again. There was no grilled beef in sight; instead there were tuna-can rounds of savory French toast, served with diced oxtail (almost the fattiest cut of beef) and chuck indistinguishably blended into a dark puck that arrived shiny from a last painting of melted butter. On top lay fish-fin-shaped shards of cartilaginous brown somethings that turned out to be meat from the pig’s ear—deep-fried “to make it more decadent,” Ouzts told me. This is called a pig ear salad (to be fair, the meat in pig ear salad is usually deep-fried). There was a tiny patch of something that could be described as a conventional salad on the side of the plate—red pearl onions with vinegar, which the menu calls a “high-acid dressing.” “To cut through the fat,” the chef told me.

Fat chance.

I could go on in this vein: oxtail “marmalade,” a slow-cooked ragout of that very fatty cut, with sweet potatoes cooked in cream; a “Reuben,” ground home-corned brisket mixed with a Mornay sauce heavy on cream and cheese, then dunked in a beer batter made of pumpernickel and molasses and deep-fried. The vegetable accompaniment? Long, thin carrots, tempura-fried—and pretty oily at that.

Still, the Cockentrice is bringing something new and bold to Atlanta. And that alone is worth celebrating: an all-meat restaurant that isn’t a steakhouse, and that blends original takes on traditional cured meats with modernist techniques. Ouzts succeeds admirably at some of these endeavors, but others seem miscalculated, just fat upon fat. If only it were always true that nothing succeeds like excess.

Charcuterie
Charcuterie

Photograph by Amber Fouts

Ouzts grew up in Atlanta, where his mother managed the downtown restaurant Flamingo Joe’s. He studied film and TV at the University of Georgia and worked in white-collar jobs at UPS, Home Depot, and Microsoft. It took Ouzts’s wife, Megan, to convince him that his true love was cooking and that he should leave the corporate world to study at Le Cordon Bleu. There he established a chapter of Slow Food, the Italian movement that champions local farms and cooks. He worked at Restaurant Eugene under Linton Hopkins, then at the French Laundry in California. While he was in Napa, a producer of charcuterie took Ouzts under his wing.

On the cross-country drive home from California, Ouzts decided that Atlanta needed a neighborhood charcutier, which didn’t exist, and butcher, which hardly did. That’s what he gave us with the Spotted Trotter, which caters to neighborhood families and wholesale customers. The second Spotted Trotter opened last November at Krog Street, with staff cutting salami and selling sausage and Southern-produced cheese to cheery music wafting from the dark restaurant still under construction behind the counter. It caught my eye.

Even after the Cockentrice opened, the brown walls and stained tables kept the place pretty dark. But it isn’t gloomy, partly because of the bright and bustling open kitchen on one side and partly because of the crowd. High on one wall are glass cases where home-cured salumis are hung to age, like a cross between an Italian salumeria and a museum of natural history. Union meat-cutter pins are embedded in the locally made tabletops, and displayed at the entrance is an original scale from the Krog Street Stove Works. Who could not like this place?

Photograph by Amber Fouts
Photograph by Amber Fouts

But then, who could eat this way very often? Once or twice, maybe. You can manage a few bites of everything. But there’s very little that’s fresh or isn’t stewed in its own fat, deep-fried, served with a mayo or butter sauce, or, not infrequently, all three. I came to assume that the Cockentrice’s motto is All the Fat That Fits.

Over time, I evolved an eating strategy: Stick to a selection of charcuterie from the menu’s two cured meat sections, and try one or two hot dishes from the cooked sections. That way you’ll get a range of the home-cured products, some of which are notable. Those are where Ouzts is at his most confident.

Rosso espezia, a cured mixture of beef and pork like a fat salami, had the right mixture of sweet and hot with a pleasantly musty overtone. Black pepper sorghum salami was long on the “long pepper,” presumably named for its shape, and short on the local sorghum, but the pork was naturally sweet enough. The bread-and-butter pickle flavor of the sweet mustard made the mortadella an enticing mixture of Italy and the South. But other cured meats were excessively seasoned. Georgia Espelette salami is named for the Basque red pepper, which Ouzts persuaded Georgia farmers to grow for him. But while the Basque version is sweet with a warm edge, this can be chokingly hot.

The part of the menu titled “Hams, Whole Muscle, Pâté” is more variable. “Heirloom prosciutto” was nearly as salty and dry as country ham the night I tried it—not the silken slices one expects from prosciutto. Ouzts stews all of his bacon ends in their own fat and grinds them into “bacon butter” with peppers, brown sugar, coffee, and bourbon. With more work, this might better reflect the ingredients listed; currently, it’s an amiable spread that’s very smoky and slightly peppery. Pâté gelée—pork belly and cheek simmered and cooled in rich pork stock and then gelled—was the most technically accomplished item on the list: simple, mild, and lovely.

But then we’re back to cooked fat land, and I can’t recommend spending much time there. The trouble with the oxtail marmalade and the bread pudding isn’t really all the fat; it’s that both dishes have so little textural contrast beyond the bony shards of the pig ear salad—so little flavor for the fat to enhance. And without crunch or fresh vegetables, you’re left to focus on the various kinds of goo, some involving modernist gelling agents, and the somewhat relentless shades of gold, tan, and brown.

Deviled tasso ham
Deviled tasso ham

Photograph by Amber Fouts

More successful was the salty deviled ham with a poached egg on top—really a plate of fried maitake mushrooms with welcome leaves of mâche, because the tasso is ground and mixed with a béarnaise sauce, gelled with the numerous gelling agents Ouzts likes to use, and, yes, deep-fried. But as a kind of inverted and switched-up eggs Benedict, it’s fine.

If you’re looking for freshness, there’s the “study in vegetables.” Typical elements were buttery root vegetable risotto and tempura-fried mushrooms in vodka batter. Ask how the brown circle of Jerusalem artichokes is cooked, and the waiter will cheerfully reply, “This is the South; we fry everything!” But there was a watermelon radish salad with little sweet squares of Arkansas apple compressed in a sous vide machine, practically the most refreshing thing I tried; peppery, salty collard greens that seemed very Southern and not even cooked in that much pork fat (though maybe I was inured); and tiny florets of barely steamed cauliflower in what tasted like a thin yogurt sauce.

Yes, most of what’s on the “study” is fried. But everything on the plate was made with attention and expertise. It showed Ouzts’s full range of techniques—an ability to bring out and complement a main flavor without piling on excessive components—and his commitment to seasonality. The dish releases a straightforwardness, if not leanness, in the chef that I’d like to see him apply to the meat dishes. When I spoke with him, Ouzts chuckled and said the study in vegetables is the top seller on the menu. Maybe he should take that message to heart.

Rating ★ (good)

Vital Stats
99 Krog Street
470-428-2733
thecockentrice.com

Good to Know
Vegetarians won’t find much love on this meaty menu, but the lone vegetable plate is a top seller. Otherwise, the kitchen shines at charcuterie.

This article originally appeared in our May 2015 issue.

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