Basque restaurant a fun ride

The Castellucci Hospitality Group is a metro area family affair. Patriarch Federico Castellucci II founded the once-flourishing Northside chain of Roasted Garlic restaurants and then the smaller Sugo group, of which one branch remains in Johns Creek. Two of his children, Federico III and Stephanie, opened the Iberian Pig in Decatur and Double Zero Napoletana in Sandy Springs.

The Castelluccis specialize in a cheerful, if loose, interpretation of Mediterranean cuisines — Greek, Italian, Spanish — portioned with abandon and seasoned with many liberties.

As long as they’ve had restaurants (starting in 1999), writers in this newspaper have commented on their twin instincts for warmth and excess. Fred II, the dad, wrote flowery menus, kissed ladies’ hands and never thought there was such a thing as too much cheese. Fred III, the son, turned heads at the Iberian Pig for serving an entire pork tenderloin in a rococo cherry-walnut sauce as an entree for one.

The family’s latest, Cooks & Soldiers, feels like a new direction as well as their most mature effort yet. Set on the ground floor of the new Elan Westside apartment building (across from White Provision), this restaurant serves a menu inspired by the pintxos bars and asadors of Basque country in Spain and (to some degree) France. The name refers to the Tamborrada, an annual festival in San Sebastián where drummers dress as cooks and soldiers and parade through the streets.

To his credit, Fred III toured the Basque region with his chef, Landon Thompson, and brother-sous chef John Castellucci, and their resulting efforts pay real respect to both the traditions and new culinary directions of this gastronomic mecca.

Sure, Cooks & Soldiers performs like a tribute-band restaurant — and at times I get a little of that old Castellucci feeling that some dishes might benefit from three fewer components — but it has soul. Not to mention that familiar warmth. If there’s one thing this family knows, it’s how to make guests enjoy themselves.

You will want to start your evening on a stool facing the bar, which the bartenders soldiering through their cocktail orders share with a small band of cooks. The latter slice ibérico ham and toast thick slices of bread on a griddle for pintxos (“peenchos”), those anything-goes canapes that are a staple of Basque bars.

That bit of griddle heat turns these piled-high creations into sloppy kisses of flavor, pushy but welcome. Caña Klasikoa combines creamy goat cheese with roasted tomatoes, green pepper, shallot jam and a few pistachios for good measure. Another sets coal-roasted mushrooms sliding about on a slick of crème fraîche, while a third heaps duck confit shreds with brandied cherries, caramelized onions and blue cheese. (Too much for me, that one.)

Want something a bit more austere? The pan con tomate — crunchy grilled bread with a blood-red swipe of garlicky tomato puree — tastes good, particularly with the proffered cured ham or boquerones (pickled anchovies) on top. A quibble: I wish they had rubbed the tomato into the bread a bit; that’s where the magic happens.

This galley bar, narrow and cozy, stands nicely apart from the usually packed dining rooms, open and loft industrial, facing the exhibition kitchen. One night we got to know the bar quite well, as our table wasn’t ready until 45 minutes past our reservation time, though the house did pick up a round of cocktails as apology.

I understand why guests don’t want to leave, as the dining room has great energy, smart lighting and nonhorrible acoustics. (Consider this an excellent locale for a gray-hair double date, my people.)

The menu comprises, in addition to the traditional pintxos, a dozen small plates as well as a handful of shareable large plates off the wood-fired asador grill. It’s a fun ride, with many surprises and a couple of thrills.

A chistorra sausage wrapped in croissant dough is like a pig in a blanket voiced by Antonio Banderas. Clams steamed open with bacon and cider taste all the sweeter against ribbons of fresh, crisp Granny Smith apple.

A small portion of cassoulet, with sausages and duck confit baked in white beans under a crumb crust, would be terrific with a spoonful less salt. Nothing could improve a whole daurade fish off the asador, its milky flesh and crackling skin enhanced by a sprinkling of crunchy garlic chips.

But, for every comfort dish, there’s a zinger. Consider a round of tomato tartare topped with a spherified orb of carrot puree that so perfectly mimics beef tartare in appearance, texture and umami richness that you do a double take.

Some of the edgier new Spanish items come from John Castellucci, who, in addition to eating his way through the Basque region, worked at one of San Sebastián’s iconic modern restaurants, Arzak. He smartly saves a lot of the molecular razzle dazzle for desserts, when the billowing liquid nitrogen and frozen berries appeal.

Instead of the expected patatas bravas (fried potato cubes), we have batter-fried potato strips crunched out to a fare-thee-well and served with Idiazabel cheese fondue. Instead of the homey Basque tuna and potato stew called marmitako, there is a deconstructed version that presents a grilled tuna steak, a pot of ham broth with potatoes, sausages, piperade, and two seasoning sauces. It’s busy and gets a little tiresome if it’s your dinner, but four people would enjoy passing it around.

That leads us to the menu items that seem fun and trendy but don’t work. Coal-blackened carrots in a smear of dribbly things and smoked yogurt just tastes like something rescued from a three-alarm house fire. A bikini sandwich of American cheese, ibérico ham and black truffle sounds so kinky but is just bad grilled cheese.

While the bar has had the good sense to address Spain’s infatuation with the perfect gin and tonic, it doesn’t follow famous chef José Andrés’ lead and offer knife-sharp concoctions scented with discreet herbs and spices. Here the G&Ts are sweetened with colorful juices (blood orange! yuzu!) like yesteryear’s martinis.

I haven’t been a huge fan of any of the cocktails here. The Curious in Navarre, with gin, strega, agave, tarragon and molasses bitters, bulldozed my tongue with burning alcohol, viscous sugar and strange botanicals. It gave me the same unease as a David Lynch movie, but I may be getting over craft cocktails. It was a relief when I switched to a glass of Tres Picos Garnacha.

But, if I may say, such is the Castellucci experience. The flavors might pile up and topple over, but there will be something for everyone. They want you to walk out of the restaurant happy, and whatever ups and downs you may encounter with your food, you will.

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