Hotel restaurants in Atlanta tend to have a rough go of things.
Especially with the influx of swankier, big-name-chef driven restaurants that popped up in 2008-2009, the economy played a big part. Just as we are entering a recession, triggering a mass shift towards more casual and semi-casual dining, restaurants like Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Market opens to a city no longer ready to sustain it. While having 20 or 30 floors of patrons stacked over your kitchen can certainly be an advantage, the unnaturally expanded hours can quickly level the playing field with increased overhead. Unless they hook the local diners, it is an often unsustainable uphill battle.
It seems that the team at Culinary Concepts Hospitality Group, the management company that operates Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurants based out of Starwood Hotel & resorts, saw that a change was in order.
Their new concept, Cook Hall, dials back the pretension and the price points, shifting the focus to the more popular –
though no longer original – cocktail-and-small-plates format. The servers traded white linen for denim and Chuck Taylors. What was once an awkwardly modern and stuffy décor is now instead a much more inviting gastropub with plenty of warm, dark hardwoods and Edison-bulb lighting.
CCHG smartly enlisted James Beard Award-winner Belinda Chang to design the cocktail program, and the bar serves as the bedrock for a good night at Cook Hall. The most talked about addition to the program, and one I cautiously recommend, is the Cook Hall Cocktail Kit. This do-it-yourself cocktail kit speaks to the inner mixologist in each of us and, depending on your experience level, may be more like how a karaoke bar speaks to our inner rock stars.
For the price of the spirit of your choice, plus a $5 upcharge, your server will bring a 2-ouce pour of your favorite poison with a basket of various shrubs, bitters, herbs, fruit, and house-made sodas, complete with the jiggers, muddlers, and strainers to put them to use. In a sort of crowd-sourcing of recipes, the kit also comes with a little black book where previous diners jot down their creations for you to try, or where you can record your own.
While the kits were once homogeneous, the bar now tailors the selection of mixers to the type of spirit. So, an order of your favorite tequila will likely come with the fresh ginger soda, but they save the blood orange shrub for the kits going out with a shot of whiskey.
During my visits, I tried my hand at playing barkeep four times. I got two drinkable cocktails, one rye and spiced apple shrub concoction that I loved, and one abject failure, wasting a good glass of bourbon.
So, there is something to be said for leaving it to the professionals, especially when you can skip the anxiety and the upcharge and just order a crisp and frothy Hibiscus Flip ($9). The blend of gin, hibiscus maraschino, and egg white is sweet, slightly sour, and refreshing. For a heavier, but equally enjoyable glass, go for the liquid breakfast ($12), a near-milkshake of Duck Rabbit Milk Stout, Cio Cara Amaro, beer syrup, and egg.
Much like the cocktail kit, the menu at Cook Hall is best enjoyed with friends. Chef de Cuisine David Gross stayed on from his tenure at Market, a wise hold-over by management, and he packs a lot of flavor onto each of the shareable plates.
A trio of pork belly sliders with chili mayonnaise ($12) along with an order of three crispy duck and chipotle coleslaw tacos ($12) proves to be a crowd-pleasing, though not revelatory, way to start things off. On the lighter side, I’m surprised by how much I enjoy bites of the house-made ricotta ($10) with honey and flatbread.
If you are light on company, or just don’t feel like sharing, the chicken soup ($7) is a comforting bowl of home, especially if your mother knew how to subtly use shaved black truffles to season her broth. This makes for a great lunch, especially alongside the Kale Caesar salad ($11) topped with a light lemon vinaigrette and a breaded six-minute egg.
Nothing about the popcorn shrimp ($10) – quite literally a plate of fried shrimp and actual popcorn drizzled with ranch dressing – should work. Both on paper, and in person, it sounds bizarre and a little gross. But, somehow, we
unanimously love it. I selfishly insist that we order a second plate.
But that could be because for the first time in my life, I have a plate of unfinished deviled eggs ($6) in front of me. Where the out-of-the-box popcorn shrimp works, the addition of blue crab doesn’t, making for an egg that is simultaneously too fishy and too sulfuric. This combo may work for some, but I find it off-putting.
Especially after a long night of passing plates and refreshing cocktails, saving room for dessert can be challenging. But if
you have room for just one, make it the stout beer ice cream Sunday ($6).
While, the format isn’t new to Atlanta, it is one that has been lacking in the heart of Buckhead, and Gross’ team executes it well. Time will tell, but I can see Cook Hall successfully breaking the hotel bar mold and outlasting its predecessor. If you are in the neighborhood, this is worth a stop, but you might want to brush up on your mixology first.Cook Hall