Restaurant Review: The Cockentrice
Chef Kevin Ouzts' meat-centric solo effort is big, bold, and needs better balanceMonday May 18, 2015 04:00 am EDT
Have you ever met someone who oozes creativity; a person who, if not creating, wouldn't be living a full life? That's how chef Kevin Ouzts comes across when you talk to him and eat his food. Asking him to explain how he prepares one dish yields a lengthy response with a seemingly endless list of ingredients and techniques. He has the kind of wide-eyed optimism, intense desire to serve, and endless imagination a chef needs to succeed. But he needs to learn to achieve more balance at his new restaurant, the Cockentrice, to become the great chef he aspires to be.
The Cockentrice is like a meat-themed amusement park. Everything is big and bold, as fun diversions from everyday life are meant to be. You come to the Cockentrice for spectacular rides through landscapes made almost entirely of meat. Whether it's a spin around the charcuterie menu or a brush with intrigue like the blue cheese-cured rib-eye and edible "rocks," dining here is all about thrills.
Ouzts has one foot firmly planted in modernist technique and the other in medieval meat cookery, hence the restaurant's name. A cockentrice is a dish of spliced animals such as the front end of a pig sewn to the bottom half of a capon or turkey. Ouzts says he found inspiration in the spirit used to create such an oddity, which was a response to the nobility of the day asking cooks to entertain them.
Ouzts was born and raised in Atlanta. The Le Cordon Bleu graduate worked for many respected local chefs, including Linton Hopkins and Shaun Doty. He left Atlanta in 2009 to do an externship at the French Laundry.
Although chef Ryan Smith introduced Ouzts to charcuterie at Restaurant Eugene, it was Ouzts' time at Napa Valley's Fatted Calf that led him to return to Atlanta and open the charcuterie shop the Spotted Trotter in 2010, first as a mobile business at farmers markets and later as a physical store. His ultimate plan was always a restaurant. (He deferred doing so since loans for restaurants were not easy to come by in 2008.) When Krog Street Market beckoned, Ouzts and his wife, Megan, went all in with a second location for the retail store and a new restaurant. In addition to their own personal investments and small business loans, the couple raised more than $100,000 in crowd-funded donations for the venture via Kickstarter last August.
Big hunks of meat hang in the refrigerated case across the entrance hall from the Spotted Trotter's retail store. High above the restaurant's main dining room sits an illuminated jewel box of salami. Is butcher shop cool a school of design? It is now. The restaurant is sharp, metallic, and wooden. In fact, Ouzts says he doesn't want diners to feel too comfortable in their seats so that tables can be turned over more quickly. Mission accomplished. I haven't felt especially comfortable in any area of the restaurant. The music is sometimes too loud, which, when layered with the cacophony of the kitchen, bar, and patrons, can make conversation difficult. To showcase his intricate plating, the chef chose large white dishes in many shapes and sizes. The plates simply do not fit on the tables. If you are more than a party of two and plan on sharing, you will find yourself playing dinnerware Tetris during your meal.
The menu is separated into contemporary charcuterie, prepared charcuterie, cheese, "seasonal verdure and supplements," and entrées broken up by protein. The charcuterie on the menu is not sold in the store and vice versa. Oddly enough, the charcuterie, which is how Ouzts made his name, is my least favorite thing on the menu. There is overly salty coppa, funky foie gras mousse, and salami that lack a silky mouthfeel. There is no composed charcuterie plate so the diner is left to figure out the right mix of offerings with some help from the staff. I want to be taken on a ride, not asked to help build one. I've had equally little success with the prepared charcuterie. The crispy morcilla fries sounded cool, but the skinny, blood sausage-stuffed empanada dough just tasted like fat, salt, and iron.
Ouzts is a mad scientist of medieval meat — many of the dishes have modernist elements. For the hot Reuben terrine, a riff on the classic sandwich, Russian dressing is presented as shiny globs of creamy caviar and the pumpernickel as a tempura coating on the carrots. Slices of lamb saddle are tender and rosy. A creamy purée of hakurei turnips dotted with bright green fava beans adds a layer of umami intensity. Vegetable "lentils," spheres of juiced celery, cauliflower, and carrots, provide pops of vegetal intensity to counter the dish's richness. Carrot vermicelli is a fantastic riff on pasta, but salt and sugar is its undoing. The carrots are topped with a ragu of lamb that is so cloying and salty, not even the fatty, velvety yolk of a fried bantam egg could save it. A hulking hunk of suckling pig has skin as crisp as carnitas and a moist interior emboldened by toasted amaranth, apple, cornbread, lemon zest, and game stock.
I searched the verdure and supplements section of the menu for something, anything to give my palate a break. The restaurant's study in vegetables changes daily, as a different chef prepares each item. It's a cool concept, but the result is disjointed. During my visits, the greens were too salty, the salad too sweet, and the addition of a piece of stale bread with cheese on it was an odd choice for a vegetable plate. The assemblage was not a respite from all the meat, salt, and fat. Where is the acid on the menu?
Pastry programs in Atlanta normally are easy to pass up, but the Cockentrice's desserts — most notably the goat cheese panna cotta and chocolate génoise — are impressive. The chef responsible recently left. Let's hope the replacement can keep the momentum going.
The cocktail and wine programs lack cohesiveness and the quality I would expect at a restaurant where a meal for two can easily reach upward of $125. The bartenders are lovely, but the cocktails are often overwrought. A drink with bourbon, maple syrup, whole egg, and Spotted Trotter trimmings sounds fitting in theory but was unbalanced and weird. Smoky and fatty food doesn't need smoky and fatty drinks.
Staffing issues have not eluded the first-time restaurant owner. Ouzts says Atlanta is experiencing "a deficit of cooks" and finding the right people to execute the nuanced menu has been challenging. The front of the house, which was managed by Ouzts' sister Daisy Nagel until recently, has been a weak spot. This is especially true on busier nights when you can feel the staff's stress. Table service has been mixed. Servers seem confused, as if they are unsure what kind of service — casual versus fine dining — they are trying to execute. These shortcomings are even more amplified when you watch Ouzts, who is so focused on plating his food and running his kitchen. If only he could transfer that to his employees.
Ouzts needs to find more balance between excess and lightness. It often feels like he is speaking through his food, saying, "Look what else I can do." A restaurant cannot solely exist as a showcase. But Atlanta needs restaurants like the Cockentrice to challenge us as diners. Such creativity — even if it is unbridled — pushes us beyond the monotony of tired trends and makes us better as a restaurant town. (2 out of 5 stars)
Editor’s note: This story has been updated since its original publication to include all sources of the restaurant’s funding.