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February 15, 2006

Krog Bar

Chef John, hiding behind serrano ham, largueta almonds and a tower of quince paste.
A good eating day!

After this afternoon's sojourn to Watershed, the day certainly didn't need another great new restaurant to be considered a wild success. As such, tonight's dinner was a wonderful bonus, especially considering that it may have been my second accident of the day. I was steered to Krog Bar by one of the folks over at LTHForum.com, who suggested I try "Krog", as he was a big fan of the chef and assumed that his new digs would be great, but that I might have trouble getting reservations. In doing a little internet research, I came across "Krog Bar", which I took to be the establishment he meant, especially since the proprietor, Kevin Rathbun, is a big culinary name with other restaurants around town. The only problem is that Krog Bar doesn't accept reservations. Did he mean Krog Bar? Did he mean one of Rathbun's other restaurants, many of which are on Krog Street? We may never know. For the moment, we don't care.

With my sweetheart in a work-induced coma and my stomach still happily filled with the afternoon's Southern shrimp bounty, I almost bailed on the Krog Bar plan. But when I started to get hungry around 11:00 and had no idea what else would be open, a little tapas and wine started to sound mighty appealing, even if I had to fly solo. So I hopped in a cab and after a quick jaunt found myself at Krog Bar. It's a small, standalone building in the corner of a large restaurant complex called Stoveworks. According to my cab driver (read: check my facts!), Stoveworks is an old, converted pot-belly stove manufacturing complex that is owned by a number of chefs, wherein they house their restaurants. And upon seeing the place, I don't doubt it. Stoveworks is a little industrial culinary oasis tucked away on a small back road, and appears to house a number of restaurants, including Kevin Rathbun's flagship restaurant, Rathbun's.

Inside, Krog Bar is trendy, but cozy. The lighting is predictably low, and the entire establishment can seat about 30 at assorted counters and high tables with stools. There's an abundance of wood paneling, steel beams above, somewhat mod light fixtures, and a long white marble bar behind which both drinks and foodstuffs are prepared in a tiny prep area. Immediately, I like this place. One of the things that always strikes me as somewhat wrong about tapas "restaurants" is that tapas isn't really meant to be served in a restaurant. When you go to Spain (and I've only been once, so I don't profess to be any kind of expert), you get these tasty little dishes that you munch on while you're drinking yourself silly at the bar. It seems to me that tapas, in its original format, isn't so much a culinary style as it is a happy drunken afterthought. Which, to be clear, isn't knocking happy drunken afterthoughts. Many of the world's greatest inventions, culinary or otherwise, were undoubtedly conceived while under the influence of a mind-altering libation. But elevating it to a full-blown high-end restaurant cuisine, while tasty, has always struck me as tapas selling out. Now, many of the dishes at Krog Bar clearly aren't going to be confused with whatever you'd pick up at a Catalonian corner bar, but it seems much more in keeping with the spirit of tapas than so many of the places that have cropped up in my hometown.

The menu consists of about 30-40 selections, mostly very simple. A good half of them are simply bits of cheese or slices of assorted cured meats. Right there, a good start. But in the rest of the menu, Krog Bar starts to distinguish itself a bit, mixing a number of traditional selections with some more creative neo-tapas, if you could call it that. In proper fashion, the dishes are all extremely small. I made a good meal out of six of them. Additionally, there's a fairly extensive list of 40 or so Spanish and Italian wines, which I'm told changes reguarly. But since wine is (regrettably) not my area of expertise, I'll stick to commentary on the food.

The first dish I tried was one of the more creative items on the menu, Yellow Tail with Piquillo Peppers, Chile Oil and Sherry Vinaigrette. It was just a touch spicy, extremely tart and extremely appreciated. Though the vinaigrette was potent, the fish still came right through, which I can only attribute to a good pairing. After the yellow tail, I moved on to the Bonita Tuna with Roasted Peppers, Green Onions and Sherry Vinaigrette. Had I been paying more attention and not blindly sating my desire for canned Spanish tuna, I probably would have realized that this was very similar in preparation to the yellow tail. It was. And it was still quite good, though I thought the assorted accoutrements worked better with the raw yellow tail than with the cooked tuna. Next up were the Grilled Artichokes with Lime and Mint Vinaigrette. These were also quite good, but they were extremely tart. I had made the mistake of doing three heavily vinegared dishes all in a row, and with such a suboptimal dish progression, I wasn't in the best place to judge it properly. However, I'm a sucker for artichokes, so I enjoyed 'em. It was at this point that I ordered a second round, making sure not to duplicate the trio of tartness. As such, I passed on the white anchovies, which was hard to do, but I knew I wouldn't be able to give them a fair shake. I instead dug into one of the specials, Lamb Albondigas with Tomato Sauce. Very traditional, and I loved it. To begin with, I adore lamb. I'm also fairly certain that some sort of sharp cheese was worked into the meatballs, which worked very well. It definitely was not a light tomato sauce. This was a heavily cooked, thick red sauce with bold character, and it was a nice pairing. After the albondigas, I dug into an item that I was shocked had eluded my eye on the first pass, the Chicken Liver Paté with Cava Gelée. This was fabulous, and definitely the winner of the evening for me. It was a very smooth and moist paté which was served in a small cup, topped with a thin layer of gelee. What really grabbed me, however, was the sweetness. It was very, very sweet with an almost grape-like flavor. I asked the chef, who was working a scant four feet away, if the paté was sweetned, or if it was just the gelée. He told me that, in fact, the gelée wasn't sweetened at all, and it was all in the paté. He went on to explain that he prepares a caramel and port reduction, which he then blends into the paté to give it the sweetness and "take the edge off the chicken liver." Mission accomplished. While I am one who appreciates chicken liver concoctions with said edge fully intact, the sweetness absolutely did mellow out the organ's pungency and made for an exceptionally smooth flavor. It was a new approach for me, and I absolutely loved it. I then decided to finish up with some good cured meat, and the manager suggested the lomo (paprika cured pork loin). I enjoyed it quite a bit, but in truth, I was still basking in the afterglow of the paté, and as such was a little distracted.

While waiting for my cab afterwards, I spent a little bit of time chatting with the chef, John. He was an extremely friendly fellow. It turns out he grew up in Atlanta, spent a few years in telecom, then somehow landed in the restaurant business. He's definitely in the right place. In the course of conversation, I mentioned that we'd been to Watershed for lunch, and when I commented that it was really a fantastic lunch, he jumped right in, praising both the chef and the establishment. By the time my taxi arrived, Rathbun himself had parked himself at a table and was enjoying a post-work glass of wine and a few nibbles, and I could only think of Thomas Keller's claim that he opened Bouchon so he'd have someplace to eat after he was done with his night's cooking over at the French Laundry. So, after a thorougly satisfying meal and a little friendly chatter, I hopped my cab back to the hotel and briefly considered rousting my ladylove out of bed for a late-night snack. Krog Bar closes "no earlier than midnight and no later than two", so I had a decent shot at making it back in time, but sadly, she was not to be moved. Her loss.


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