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Something to Crow About

No cock and bull: Though Rooster has changed owners, the cock remains king.
Stephen Karlisch

The Eskimo Cookbook has the following instructions for boiled owl: Take the feathers off. Clean owl and put in cooking pot with lots of water. Add salt to taste. The instructions for cooking a loon are even more succinct: Never cook a loon. Do not make loon soup. The book suggests boiling a fresh snowy owl instead.

The book has no instructions on how to cook a rooster, either. But that has nothing to do with flavor, as it does with the loon (fishy taste, tough flesh). Chickens, even the free-range kind, aren't fond of ice floes and outdoor hockey. For rooster recipes, it's probably best to consult attorney Todd Tracy and his wife, Amanda. In 1997 they founded Rooster on Oak Grove Road in the former Messina Culinary Center. Over the next five and a half years the pair shed a couple of partners, weathered three executive chefs and surrendered a couple of rooster paintings from the collection that graces the dining room walls. Yet through these tremors, Rooster has kept its feathers largely in place. The menu, with its various formulations of grits, hominy and roasted corn this and that, has remained much the same, deviating only here and there.

But the real test of the Tracy Rooster recipe is yet to come. By the time you read this, the Tracys will have completed a sale of their restaurant to Javier's owner Leo Villa, who recently aborted a move to install a Mexican-continental steak house called Leo's Maximiliano on Cedar Springs. Amanda Tracy insists nothing will change at Rooster, including the menu. For the most part, that's a good thing. The food, a "New Southern" fusion fit, attempts to marry home-style Southern grub with myriad other cuisines. But the food is not as spooky as it might sound. Most of the meldings--Creole, Cajun, Mexican, French--have geographical relevance.

Like the Carolina pulled pork chile rellenos--a mouthful before you even get to the roasted corn relish and the cilantro pesto applied to the pepper surface like a smear of cold cream. The pepper is stuffed with juicy pork shreds soaked with just a little smokiness. Along the edge of the plate rests a plash of dark barbecue sauce, a satiny puddle harboring an exquisite compromise struck between sweet and tang. Still, the delicious pork didn't have a chance in this deluge. It's easy to see how the corn relish fits into this ensemble, and the barbecue sauce has its place, too. But the pesto? It seemed more like a "New Southern" gimmick, a pointless add-on.

The fried jumbo asparagus had that feel, too. What a freak. Served on a bed of field greens and roasted corn relish (the corn relish isn't as frighteningly ubiquitous as you might think) with an addictive, smooth mango-serrano chili cream sauce, the battered and fried asparagus stalks looked like battle-hardened insect legs. But never judge asparagus by its duds. The stalks were delicious, with a crisp exterior and a crunchy stem that didn't dry out or go mushy from frying.

Pan-fried Louisiana crab cakes had legs, too--the figurative kind. Juicy rich crab scraps are molded into pucks (sans fistfuls of bread filler) with Cajun rémoulade and roasted corn poblano relish (swear to God, some dishes escape the corn relish swarm). Despite the ethnic designator, the rémoulade has no sass; it was little more than a pinkish dab of middling dip with the edges rubbed out.

Creole-spiced Black Angus beef tenderloin suffered from the same lack of assertiveness. Though the meat was tender, the green peppercorn demi-glace was a wet blanket of sweetness, all but canceling the natural tooth in the meat without adding anything even marginally compelling to compensate.

The Vidalia onion soup was thick, creamy and rich, with little slivers of onion sown throughout the bisque. It resembled stroganoff in hue, and there were no flaws in this bowl. But there were no breakout flavors or focal points, either. The taste had a shallowness about it, one void of verve to fuel a sensual plunge deep into the bowl. It yearned for something to send some ripples through its pristine viscosity, a splash of Cognac perhaps.

This onion soup has been steaming around Rooster tables since David Burdette, Rooster founder and partner, served as executive chef after vacating his post at The Grape. He and Rooster front-of-the-house manager/partner Cameron Morris broke free of their Rooster posts little more than a year after it opened to launch a catering company, which took over the food operations of Brent Place in Old City Park. In the wake of the Burdette/Morris departure, sous chef Billy Webb assumed the kitchen throne. When Webb unbuckled in 2000, Rooster sous chef Jorge Cruz assumed the slot. This kept the top kitchen post constantly nurtured by the Rooster corporate stepladder, maintaining culinary consistency. It kept some of the minor blind spots in place as well, the most glaring of which is the wine-by-the-glass service. Rooster serves its pours in narrow, generic glasses, blush tumblers that have a clumsy lip and leave no air space for bouquet development. Why accompany this adventurous cuisine with these cheesy goblets?

Like the onion soup (and the glassware), other dishes have little pockets of pathos buried in otherwise serviceable ensembles. Wood-fired pork tenderloin, slices of gray but juicy pork leaned into a mound of cheesed potatoes edged with roasted corn-poblano relish (I swear, there's no roasted corn relish in the cobbler or the coffee), was smoky and not at all confounded by the dribbling of pear-port reduction across the slices. But the waxy application of half-melted cheddar cheese over otherwise astute mashed potatoes seemed so...Luby's.

Pan-seared maple leaf duck breast had only itself to blame. The breast slices are propped against a mound of creamy jack cheese grits, and the smooth dark blackberry-balsamic reduction had the fruity notes jostled with bite (balsamic is getting to be such a tiresome squatter on menus) without the engulfing sweetness or the extracted pungency. This was crowned with apple chutney and a tangle of sweet-potato shoestrings. Yet despite all the well-tailored furnishings (the sautéed vegetables--green beans, asparagus, carrot--were remarkable), the duck slices were fatty and tough.

But the rest of the entrées were flawless, even though they flaunted daring guises. Honey-mustard and pecan-crusted rack of lamb in a pan reduction was tender and satiny, with clean sweet flavors. The rosy flesh nearly slipped off the four ribs, and the pan-dripping sauce flushed the meat with savoriness without blanketing its slight sweetness. And though the menu description broadcasts the presence of mint jelly, we didn't find any evidence of the stuff, thank God.

Chicken is viciously worked out of its Southern sensibilities. Not by pelting it with organic kumquats or some other precious strain of bourgeois refinement, but by impaling it with sugarcane, a tact often taken in Vietnamese kitchens. Here it's called spitfire sugarcane chicken with lemon butter, and it's damp and crisp, and there's a little smoke to work on the sweet to make it seem more complex than a simple piece of fried breast. It rested on hominy cakes, pucks of corn that were dank, with a loose grainy texture, rolling around the mouth like a spoonful of risotto. The food was fringed by a tomato papaya salsa that lent intensity to the proceedings that a mere sugarcane stalk couldn't hope to provide.

The peach cobbler was simple--just peaches, cake and sauce with a scoop of vanilla. The cake was fluffy and sweet. The peach slivers were juicy and tart.

If new owner Villa can keep this same lively consistency the Tracys were able to generate at Rooster, he'll be poised to reap some substantial rewards. The real question is, will he see fit to change out that dreadful glassware? (And where will he put the roasted corn relish?)


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