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First Look: King + Duke

Ford Fry brings blue-collar soul to Buckhead

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You rarely walk into a brand new restaurant that feels like it's been there forever. Yet, just a few days after opening, the king-sized King + Duke was packed. It was as if all of the well-heeled people in a five-mile radius were so eager for the place to open that they simultaneously and immediately descended upon it. Picture a very tan man in his sixties with slick black hair wearing white linen pants, a turquoise linen shirt, Ferragamo loafers, and an obscenely expensive gold watch. He is only matched in impressiveness by his pert, blonde, and equally tan cougar companion drinking a martini at 11:30 a.m. And then there are the 20-something sorority girls and their dates who are dead ringers for Christian Bale in American Psycho. People watching at its finest.

Ford Fry and company did their research before choosing a location. Buckhead has been hungry for something new since the rash of closings and construction rendered it a hospitality ghost town. With the opening of King + Duke and Umi, the corner of Peachtree and Roswell roads feels alive again. They spared no expense transforming the huge former Nava space using millworks as inspiration. It's got a certain vintage yet modern charm. There's a large main room, an enclosed mezzanine lined with what looks like chain-link fencing, and a huge outdoor space that Fry said he invested in because it was such a popular patio in its former incarnation. The main room is done up with copious polished woods and metal finishes. Lighting is another place where the designers flexed their creative muscle with numerous oversized light fixtures — like huge hanging domes - throughout the space. Given the tall window-lined walls that make the restaurant so bright, the noise level can creep up. Sitting upstairs or outside is quieter. The patio feels a bit nautical with the striped yellow canopy. It is especially pleasant on cooler summer evenings.

It's easy to imagine people getting judgmental about this being a typical Buckhead restaurant, but King + Duke retains a kind of blue-collar soul. Fry's "aw, shucks" attitude about opening north of the Westside is reflected in his choice of name, a nod to Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the classic novel, King and Duke were con artists pretending to be royalty. "We're just hillbillies grilling over some wood," Fry says. Hillbillies making a lot of money off willing Buckhead folks, that is. That wood they're grilling over is fueling the centerpiece of the restaurant — a 24-foot hearth fitted with a system of grills maneuvered by pulleys. Naturally, Fry and executive chef Joe Schafer created a meat-centric menu full of roasting and grilling and smoke. Ingredients are locally sourced whenever possible and they practice whole animal cookery, but nothing too outlandish for picky eaters.

Overall, the food has gotten progressively better since its first week although it is not without missteps. Most of the time success is narrowly missed by either a lack of, or excessive, seasoning or an improper cooking temperature with meats. Roast chicken on a lunchtime chopped salad arrived a bit undercooked. The otherwise juicy and delicious dry-aged "Duke" burger lacked any hint of sweet caramelization on the patty or the coal-roasted onions. These types of errors, I assume, are just the kitchen getting used to the grill, which is admittedly a unique configuration to Atlanta given the pulleys and size of the fire.

Appetizers and snacks are still the weakest part of the menu as nothing has emerged as a "must-get." The crispy wings were a bit unmanageable with the drumstick and wing still attached to one another. Roasted beets were a little gritty and the moonshine gelée that accompanies the otherwise tasty, off-the-menu rabbit terrine was overly sweet. The coal-roasted onion soup is a solid order, although a bit heavy right now considering the intense summer heat.

Lunch holds many salads and sandwiches like the roast pork French dip. Thinly sliced smoked pork on a sesame seed hoagie roll is slathered with mayo and comes with a small gravy boat of jus for dipping and a little container of homemade potato chips. One of the best things I tried was at lunch: chicken schnitzel salad. You get a crispy, fried-but-still-tender chicken cutlet topped with buttermilk-drenched petals of little gem lettuce dotted with shards of sharp Grafton cheddar cheese. Big chunks of warm, grilled asparagus soften the lettuce and incredibly buttery homemade croutons take this salad to a level of guilty indulgence.

One of the prime examples of how well the kitchen is cooking from nose to tail comes at dinner with the Mississippi rabbit. Virtually every part of the animal is used: roasted rabbit loin, rabbit sausage, rabbit liver on toast. Even the bones are used for stock. It's served with a gorgeous warm farro salad that makes the entire dish's earthiness come full circle. While this is one of the most adventurous dishes, the mammoth chicken for two is a sight to behold. A whole chicken comes roasted and hacked up on a cutting board with feet and claws intact. There's also a bone-in rib-eye steak called the "The King" that weighs in at one kilo. It comes with massive roasted marrow bones and is also meant for two. At $75, it's also the most expensive thing on the menu. If that's too spendy, you can get your red meat with the bar steak — a relative steal at $18 with a hearty serving of the homemade thick-cut French fries. When it comes to dessert, the simple loaded ice cream sundae with caramel sauce, peanuts, chocolate sauce, and maraschino cherry continues to be the one item every guest I take there craves. Skip the one-note black forest cake.

Service at King + Duke is a mixed bag. Sometimes you are overwhelmed with check-ins. Other times you can barely get your water filled. It just depends on your server. Veteran mixologist Lara Creasy leads the impressive cocktail program that's written in leather bound books (a nod to the restaurant's namesake along with the book-filled "library" that lines the hostess stand). There's also an extensive wine list with enough price points and varietals to satisfy everyone from novice to serious wine lover.

King + Duke feels like Houston's with a little more edge. You could take your grandmother here and you could also impress food-loving friends with the massive fires, craftsmanship behind certain dishes, and cocktails. There's a little something for everyone, the price points are relatively reasonable, and it's a scene. Is this the equation for longevity in Buckhead? If the crowds are any indication, Fry and Co. might have one successful long "con" on their hands.

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