A few months ago I was fortunate enough to enjoy a preview of the southern food being developed by Kaytrin and Devin of Crave for their new restaurant venture, and it was a true joy. You could tell they were passionate about the project, and the food was well-executed and interesting. I was dying for another bite of the marinated watermelon salad, the crispy green tomatoes with pimento cheese, and the beautifully fried chicken drenched in honey hot sauce.
The new restaurant finally opened up this fall in the former location of the Ginger Man, and I was excited to check it out. The Cuckoo’s Nest has a really nice menu that varies from small plates and chicken sandwiches to larger, hearty entrees like pork chops and steaks. The menu is heavy with southern flair, including dishes that incorporate cornbread crumble or remoulade or sweet tea poached pears. I had a tough time deciding between quite a few tempting options.
In the end we settled on starting with a few biscuits (key to any successful southern restaurant), as well as the grit tots to share. The biscuits were a little on the small side but were baked delightfully, with a crispy outer shell and a very flaky and moist interior. They were served with a sweet honey butter that was the perfect complement.
The tots were served in a pool of rich sausage gravy and topped with cheddar cheese, chopped chives, and a splash of hot sauce. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the texture of the grit tots, but they were definitely enjoyable. The consistency was more soft and grainy than a traditional potato tot, but the outside was fried to a perfect crispy brown, and they melded well with the other ingredients. I especially liked the little taste of hot sauce mixed in, which helped to lighten the heaviness of the sausage gravy and cheese.
We also tried a couple of the smaller plates, including the smoked beets and the watermelon salad that had originally piqued my interest at the restaurant preview.
Maybe it was just the fact that this watermelon was less ripe than the version I tried a few months ago, but I didn’t love this salad as much as I remembered. Even the “marinade” seemed a little different – more pungent and spiced from the cumin seed vinaigrette. The watermelon was mixed with arugula, cotija cheese, jalapaneos, and pickled watermelon rind (which was very, very strongly pickled. Perhaps almost inedible to me, although my dining companion liked it). Overall this dish was good but not great, and I was bummed that the candied pecans listed on the menu were MIA.
The smoked beets, on the other hand, were fabulous. There was a lot going on with this plate, which had two varieties of beets that were cooked to a nice smokey char, on top of a curry yogurt sauce and topped with little fried strips of sweet potato and beets. The beets were tender and a had a great earthy, smokey flavor that played nicely off the tangy yogurt sauce.
For an entree, we tried the shrimp and grits – another classic southern dish that I was happy to see on the menu. This version was served with a chipotle tomato cream sauce and a roasted corn salsa, which added some nice color to the plate.
Although I wished there were a few more shrimp included, there were some really interesting components to this entree. I liked the hint of peppery spice from the chipotle seasoning in the sauce, and the grits were cooked to a creamy perfection.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10. The Cuckoo’s Nest gets points for a very creative and full menu, as well as a newly renovated space that is charming and cozy. It offers a nice mix of southern classics, like biscuits and sausage gravy and grits, along with some unexpected flavor combinations. Plus there is a parking lot out back, which is quite the valuable commodity for a restaurant in this central Pine Hills neighborhood.
But at times it felt like some of the big, bold flavors were competing with each other. Most of the dishes had a LOT of garnishes – sprigs of fresh herbs and bits of pepper and pickled vegetables and chopped chives and very rich sauces. All of the toppings and extra bits of seasoning added to dishes that were already on the brink of being over-salted, so the experience got a little muddied. I tend to have this same feeling at Crave, where the more elaborate burger combinations almost go a step too far and all I can taste are a few overpowering toppings instead of the meaty burger that I originally wanted. But I am still impressed by the creativity of the menu and the potential that this place has – and I have a lot more menu items to work my way through (including some truly decadent looking desserts).