First Look: The Cockentrice
The Spotted Trotter's new full-service eatery is not all hooves and snoutsThursday February 12, 2015 04:00 am EST
You see it from the main dining hall inside Krog Street Market — the retro marquee arrow with the word "Cockentrice" traced in shimmering bulbs. "Sounds kinky," a man whispers to his friend. Then the friend, undoubtedly a fan of the Renaissance Festival, says, "Well actually, a cockentrice is a medieval dish where two mismatched animals are sewn together to make a mythical creature that is stuffed and roasted on a spit, not to be confused with a cockatrice serpent, which can kill with a glance." Good to know, dude. Don't overthink the name, just head inside. For the record, Cockentrice chef and co-owner Kevin Ouzts does not have mismatched, fused-together, roasted animals on the menu. But there is definitely something magical going on inside the six-week-old meat temple.
Designed by Square Feet Studio, whose clients include the General Muir and Kimball House, the space honors the industrial bones of the building as well as the history of butchery. Past the hostess stand, the Cockentrice is divided into two sections: a restaurant with a soaring ceiling, rows of metal and wood tables and a bustling open kitchen to the left, and a small, tavern-looking bar area lined with brick and cozy banquettes to the right. Antique cooking and metal butchering tools adorn the walls.
Along the market hall side of the restaurant and 15 feet in the air there is a glassed-in display case filled with gorgeous hanging salumi, hunks of beef, and giant prosciutto legs in various stages of the curing process. The humidity, temperature, and air speed are manipulated inside the chamber to create an ideal environment for the months-long process of curing and ageing meat.
The Cockentrice's robust dinner menu is meat-centric, to say the least. Focused mainly on pork and beef, the menu devotes half its space to the slices and shavings that make up a charcuterie board. "To Commence" is a selection of fermented, cured, dried, or smoked bits like the nut-buttery Southern smashed noisettes ($6): sliced rounds of cured pastured pork flavored with cayenne, toasted peanuts, and garlic. "Prepared Charcuterie" includes cooked meats like spreadable salami and blood sausage. Meltingly moist cubes of suckling pig grattons ($12) come skewered on glimmering metal swords. The skewers are served over a silky sunchoke puree and topped with a tart, brandied apricot gastrique and tangy pork belly mustard.
"To Immerse" is where the larger format plates devoted to beef, pork, bird, fish, and game come into play. In many cases, Ouzts manages to elevate simple cuts and scraps into nuanced and deeply meaty dishes. Burgundy braised beef pillows ($18) made from succulent beef tail are reminiscent of a classic beef bourguignonne, served with creamed sunchokes, maitake mushrooms, and glazed turnips. One night, the lone "fish" option on the menu turned out to be charred baby octopus ($24), smoked chorizo, and crispy coins of confited fingerling potatoes.
There is also a section called "Seasonal Verdure and Supplements," with a few thoughtful, vegetable-driven plates such as the impressive Study in Vegetables ($15). It's fun to navigate the daily selection of seasonal veggies charred, fried, sautéed, and elevated with purees, risottos, and sauces dotted and dolloped around for an endless combination of bites to be created. It's unlike any vegetable dish in town. A salad of baby lettuces ($12) was simple yet flavorful. The intensely earthy mushroom custard with bone marrow ($11) was a bit much for one person, maybe even two people.
What is (weirdly) missing from the Cockentrice's rather sprawling menu is a standard chef's choice charcuterie board, but with so many options, it is easy enough to build your own. There is a selection of regional cheeses from Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia. Meats and cheeses arrive on slate or wooden slabs accompanied by various pickled veggies and fruits, not too crunchy crostini, and grainy mustards. One board was highlighted with something we'd never had before: swollen, fruity stalks of Japanese raisin fruit.
Even cocktails at the Cockentrice follow the meaty mantra. Prêt à Mangiare, a seamless, well-balanced mix of bourbon, maple syrup, and egg, gets some depth and zing from a bit of butcher's trimmings skewered in the glass. This evening it was a bacon lardon. Servitors (yep, that is what servers are called here) are eager to explain the menu and help pair from the decent sized wine list, which excludes Burgundy. (What are they braising those pillows in?)
The Cockentrice will be many diners' first exposure to Ouzts' chef chops — to witness more than his skills as a butcher or the Spotted Trotter's charcutier. Ouzts is making some seriously creative and seriously sophisticated food. To be fair, the whole experience comes at a premium. It's easier for two cocktail-drinking, charcuterie-eating people to rack up more than $100 at the Cockentrice (pre-tip) than it is to explain what a cockentrice is without Googling it first. But if you love food, it's worth it.