Out to dinner at King + Duke
What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Huckleberry Finn? It might be “floating down the Mississippi River on a raft,” or “friendship with Jim the runaway slave,” or maybe “smoking, cussing, fibbing… with a heart of gold,” or even “escaping ‘sivilization.’” Chances are you’re not going to say “food.”
I think of the original outsider voice of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Then I think of the predicament of Jim floating down the Mississippi away from freedom, having missed his escape point of Cairo, Illinois, and getting deeper and deeper into danger. That’s the point in the story when Huck and Jim meet two con men who bilk whole communities of their money before being run out of town. Once their paths cross, Huck and Jim are stuck with the duo, who quickly establish the pecking order on the raft. In this sound clip, one of these “rapscallions,” having listened to the other declare himself a Duke, declares himself to be a King (Joe Cahoun reads from Chapter XIX):
It doesn’t take Huck but a few paragraphs to realize that the two are “low-down humbugs and frauds.” The King and the Duke then team up for various exploits including putting on pseudo-Shakespearian plays (Romeo and Juliet and the sword fight from Richard III!) and trying to cheat a family out of its inheritance. Eventually running short of cash, the King sells Jim back into bondage.
So you can imagine my curiosity about a restaurant in Atlanta whose website says it is “Named after characters in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” According to the website, “King + Duke nods to classic literature and American traditions. The locally sourced dishes harken back to the way food used to be prepared: cooking over fire is a primitive technique that lets the ingredients speak for themselves.” Les and I took the opportunity to dine at the restaurant last week.
I was unable to reach chef-restaurateur Ford Fry, who now operates 9 restaurants in metropolitan Atlanta as well as a few in Houston where he is from. But he outlined his concept shortly before the restaurant opened in a February 2013 Atlanta Magazine article:
The King and the Duke are these grifters who put on airs and pretend to be hoity-toity royalty, when in fact they’re a couple of hillbillies who live in the woods, so I think it’s exactly what Buckhead needs….It’s not what Buckhead is used to, and whether it’s what people want or not remains to be seen. In any case, I didn’t think this area needed another traditional steakhouse.
It sounded to me at first like possibly self-deprecating humor about some charming hillbillies opening a down-to-earth restaurant. But it was Fry’s fourth restaurant and his first in Buckhead, so probably the comments about Buckhead were the most salient. I would like to have asked Fry, “I know who the King and the Duke are in the novel. Who are the King and the Duke in the restaurant?”
The hostess led Les and me past a gigantic deer head over the bar and past a series of fire stoves and across a crowded room to our table. Judging by the crowd the evening we went, the restaurant seems to be giving people what they want. There were more men than women — perhaps travelers on expense accounts, Les theorized.
The table was lit by a small charming kerosene lamp, reminiscent of campgrounds. Our waiter asked if we wanted cocktails. Drinking cocktails did not seem like something Huck would do, especially not those with highfalutin literary names like The “Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” (after Laurence Sterne – blanco tequila, yellow chartreuse, pineapple gose, agave) the “Portrait of a Lady” (after Henry James) and “A Rose for Emily” (after William Faulkner), etc. We declined.
The waiter noted that the restaurant was “casual,” and I observed several waiters wearing plaid shirts. He explained that King + Duke specializes in hearth cooking: “We try to have every dish touch the fire in one shape or form at least once.” He left us to study the menu.
If you’re anything like us, your eyes just “bugged out” (to use one of Huck’s expressions) at the bottom item, “The King,” the $109 “tomahawk” ribeye. We asked the waiter about the tomahawk and he said that some people take on this 40-ounce monster single-handedly as a challenge, others share; all enjoy. We could also have ordered “The Duke,” a $24 burger. Tonight our waiter recommended three “fresh slaughtered” cuts, the lamb shank, the pork chop, or the short rib. The lamb shank had been “brined” in coffee grounds to keep the moisture in. This sounded strange but novel. We ordered one of those. The pork chop was a “sweet-savory dish” with pineapple and radishes – an unusual combination and not exactly primitive but it was less expensive than the short rib, so we ordered that as well. We declined vegetables a la carte. I reckon Huck would not have ordered them. We did order a side of shiitake mushrooms, which sounded especially earthy and appropriate.
Our waiter set a slab of wood containing white cheddar popovers and butter to the table to enjoy by the light of a small kerosene lamp. They were delicious and we were able to reorder them (twice).
While waiting for our entrees, we had a chance to look around the restaurant and take in some of the likenesses of writers featured on the opposite wall – namely Edgar Allen Poe and Ernest Hemingway. There was a loft-like second floor with more tables, the bathrooms, and a back book-lined room reminiscent of a library. On the way back downstairs, I noted a likeness of the British poet Byron, but we did not find an image of Mark Twain.
Our entrees arrived, two hunks of meat along with lethal-looking wooden handled steak knives. Les navigated the Braised Lamb Shank but was not especially thrilled with it. I tasted it and liked the intensely smoky flavor along the bone, but I did not try the sauce, which Les said was somewhat bitter and grainy.
The Pepper Crusted Pork Chop was hefty, sweet, with thin-sliced radishes balanced on top in a small bed of radish sprouts (a vegetable!). It also had a nice intensely smoky flavor. I was less excited about the pineapple bits. The shiitake mushrooms came on a large plate and were swimming in a dark sauce. At first it seemed that there were mushrooms of various sizes, a few large ones and many small ones but I caught on pretty quick that there were only four shiitake mushrooms and the rest were raisins.
As we were finishing the meal, a large concave slab of meat extending over the edge of a plate sailed by and was delivered to the next table. I asked our waiter, “Was that the tomahawk?” “That was the tomahawk!” The couple appeared to be on a date, and I was wondering who was trying to impress whom.
Only by reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn can the diner fully appreciate the restaurant’s conceit. $85 later (without alcohol, appetizers, vegetables, or dessert), we lit out for the territories.