Comfort Food at Cook and Dagger

You'll forget all about its unpolished decor after a single, satisfying bite.
cook and dagger
Ricotta gnocchi Bolognese (house gnocchi, beef and pork Bolognese); pan seared scallops (spring pea puree, bok choy, XO sauce). Photography by Angel Tucker.

Cook and Dagger looks a little rough around the edges, a young restaurant whose space is still playing catch up to its formidable kitchen. This only matters, of course, if your allegiance lies with your eyes rather than your stomach. The restaurant is a homegrown effort, created by chefs Chris Kattawar and Aaron Thorpe and now owned by Kattawar and partner Taylor Krickl. It’s clear that, despite Kattawar’s time at the more polished Mill’s Tavern, Cook and Dagger is designed to satisfy a deeper carnal craving.

There’s no way to avoid saying that the space is unremarkable. Nearly seventy-five seats are spread throughout two sparse rooms, with several coffee dispensers to greet you at the main entrance. Walls, tile and ceilings are neutral to the point of unnoticeable and it can be hard to find a nook to call one’s own. The bar, with its backdrop of seasoned wood and copper countertop, is the most hospitable seat in the house, not only in aesthetics but because diners sit in the wake of the bartenders’ amiable banter. “The whole place went deep on margaritas last night and, without a plan in place, we all ended up at a diner. I’m still trying to piece it together,” says one server tending the taps.  Another remarks to a solo diner reading Walden that she longs to live out in the woods in a yurt. These are the ways in which the restaurant gains warmth and community, even without the boozy adventures.

What does meet its mark, however, is the food. If Kattawar knows one thing, it’s the space in our psyche where certain foods become fundamental components of our lives, the things we know, we crave and we return to week after week. These dishes are rarely ornate but they are always unique, if not in concept than in execution. The rotating menu has a straightforward philosophy: Start with something simple and crank it up to something just shy of crazy. (Think Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel extolling the range of his amplifiers: “These all go to eleven.”) Nearly everything on the menu is something recognizable but reimagined for the better.

Clockwise from top left: Croquettes (manchego cheese, serrano ham, chipotle aioli); octopus salad (baby spinach, grilled octopus, miso smoked eggplant, pickled radish, red onion, poblano vinaigrette); roasted baby carrots (house ricotta, brown butter vinaigrette, pistachios). Photography by Angel Tucker.

So what does this amplification look like? It’s manifest in the kitchen’s small dishes, which play out like a drag race: exhilarating because of their audacity. Braised meats are treated like gravy at Cook and Dagger, poured over starch with indulgent abandon. Toasted bread is covered in duck confit, apple chutney and camembert; roasted fingerling potatoes are smothered in pulled short ribs, caramelized onions, manchego cheese and a fried egg ($12); and, in an ode to breakfast, toast is smeared with bone marrow and topped with brisket marmalade and lime ($13). There’s a sense that someone in the kitchen is trying to one-up the American appetite, testing our ability to covet what’s most decadent. Turns out, those wagering have won. Every rendition of this approach is a marriage of fast food and French technique, akin to finding out that Roy Choi showed up in your kitchen to make a plate of nachos.

This is the heart of Kattawar’s mission: to make a weeknight meal more festive than we would expect, without forfeiting the tangible variables — oozing cheese, the taste of char, anything fried — that define something as a favorite. But it doesn’t mean that every dish is overtly brazen; the kitchen shows a decidedly more restrained, almost formal approach to entrees.

Large dishes are still a riff on something classic but without feeling derivative. Chicken and dumplings offer refinement to a rustic plate — a sliced, crispy-skinned breast fanned over baby carrots in a light herby sauce. Dumplings originate from the restaurant’s biscuit dough, which is baked up and served in paper baggies at the start of the meal. There’s something unexpectedly pure about the biscuits when compared to the rest of the menu. They taste like a grandmother’s legacy — nothing more than the simple interaction of flour and shortening, a southern canvas on which stories are painted. As dumplings, the dough is poached, bringing out sweetness and images of Sunday dinners. Ultimately, the dish accomplishes what the space cannot: It lures people in with its finesse but rewards them with its depth.

Kattawar’s accessible adeptness is what will determine Cook and Dagger’s success and if it requires overlooking the staid surroundings, it’s well worth the reward. He transfigures familiar plates with ease: Bolognese is served with colossal, fist-sized ricotta gnocchi ($22); fried chicken is wedged between Texas toast with tomato aioli ($13); fish tacos are paired with buttermilk dill slaw and plantain chips. But there’s still room for surprise. Seared duck breast, Tasso ham and shishito peppers sit on top of a Guajillo chili and chocolate sauce. “We might call it a mole,” says one server, “but the kitchen insists that’s a generalization.” Categorization won’t make the plate any less successful though; it’s an intensely flavorful approach to the diversity of American cooking. The same goes for pork loin with sweet potatoes, pickled papaya and jalapeños. It’s a dish that proves food can be aggressive without being one-dimensional, a principle that’s manifested through the interplay of sweet and heat.

cook and dagger

Fish tacos (cornmeal crusted fish, pico de gallo, buttermilk dill slaw, guacamole, plantain chips). Chef Chris Kattawar. Fried chicken sandwich (Swiss cheese, house smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato aioli, grilled Texas toast with hand cut fries). Photography by Angel Tucker.

The restaurant also offers Sunday brunch, the week’s most popular meal. It’s not wholly surprising as diners are less demanding of a soothing space to eat their chicken fried steak or breakfast in a jar (braised short rib, bacon, potato hash, truffle and poached egg in a mason jar).  Herein lies the essential hurdle for Cook and Dagger: to bring the aesthetics up to the level of the food. There’s a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum in that customers must overlook the dearth of decor in order to provide the owners with enough capital to address the issue. In this case, one hopes the neighborhood steps up to the plate because there’s much to gain from making Cook and Dagger a local fixture. It would be faith well placed.

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566 Putnam Pike, Greenville, 349-3927, cookanddagger.com. 
Open Mon., Wed.–Sat. for dinner, Sun. for brunch. 
Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Lot parking.
Cuisine The holy union of French technique and late night bar food.
Capacity Roughly eighty, including the bar.
Vibe What’s on the plate makes up for the cafeteria-style dining room.
Prices Appetizers: $7–$14; entrees: $13–$26; dessert: $7.
Karen’s picks Crispy fingerlings, gnocchi Bolognese.

Key Fair ✱✱Good ✱✱✱Very Good ✱✱✱✱Excellent Half-star

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