Under the Cork Tree and Hammocks Trading Co. would seem to have only two things in common — their Sandy Springs locations and chef William Sigley (who owns both spots with partner Jason Sheetz).
Hammocks is a spiffed-up seafood shack on Roswell Road. It’s so breezy-beachy, it feels like there should be sand on the floors. Nobody, meanwhile, is wearing flip-flops to Under the Cork Tree, a sexy Mediterranean restaurant in the Prado shopping center.
The place is full of tufted leather loveseats and banquettes, some the color of chocolate, others the deep green of wine bottles.
Speaking of, there’s wine everywhere, and a list so voluminous, diners have to scroll through it on a tablet. Also on this device, you can watch the old cartoon version of “Ferdinand.” The classic story of the peacenik bull who would rather smell flowers under his favorite cork tree than spar with matadors, inspired both the restaurant’s name and its logo, which depicts the reclining bull sniffing at a wine goblet instead of a blossom.
Which is to say, there actually is a touch of Hammocks’ happy-go-lucky vibe here. There’s an easiness, even a coziness, to Cork Tree’s upscale glamour. One night, I observed a diner abandon his chair to snuggle with his date on the cushy banquette. Someone from another table jumped up to give us his napkin when we had a water spill, then he stayed for a moment to chat.
Cork Tree’s menu also has entrees galore: pastas and bouillabaisse, steak and paella 30 minutes in the making. But the intimate vibe seems to call for lovely little dishes to be shared: tapas. So that was the part of the menu on which my group focused. Well, that and the $5 glasses of red and white sangria, which were delightful — lightly fizzed, fruity and finely balanced. They tasted like distilled sunshine.
There were times, as we dug into our generously portioned tapas, when I wondered if Ferdinand’s zen had been translated too literally into the food. A salad of compressed watermelon, shrimp and feta, for instance, tasted fresh and light and summery. But nothing jumped out and made me say, “Wow!”
And, yet, that sweet salad would not be dismissed. The more bites I took, the more I enjoyed its fresh simplicity. Each element was perfect: plump, sweet and cool — but not overchilled — shrimp; heirloom tomato chunks that lent just a hint of acid; basil and red onion to give a mild bite and plenty of aroma. Together, they created, not fireworks, but a fragrant garden, one where a certain gentle bull would feel very much at home.
I felt the same way about a diver scallop ceviche, a sumptuous pile of shellfish, greens, avocado and red pepper niblets and tiny, crisp pepitas, scattered with a golden pepper vinaigrette and just a hint of lime. It was a casually beautiful composition.
In the end, these dishes that I’d discounted at first won the day, especially over spicy but slightly muddy chorizo-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, or fried artichokes that were wonderfully salty and crisped, but drowning in oil.
And then there were the tapas that had both zip and the simplicity I’d admired in those first salads. Take the crispy lamb ribs — amazingly tender meat crusted with a precise layer of charred, spicy-sweet glaze. Served with a pile of thinly sliced, tartly pickled cucumbers, the ribs were bold and fun.
Some of our tapas had a single ingredient that made them sing: the splash of pomegranate on a spicy red pepper dip called muhamarra; the seasoned salt dressing up the crust of very nice margherita pizza; the bits of preserved lemon zinging up a sedate white bean salad on the side of octopus a la plancha.
But, even without these moments of wit, most of these tapas would have been solid. The proteins — especially that tender, saltily charred octopus and the sweet, clean scallops — were beautifully prepared. All the veggies were of-the-moment and treated with reverence.
If every dish here doesn’t wow, they still are worthy of a special night out. And, with Cork Tree’s massive menu, you have a lot of options. You could go big and bold with your meal by, say, ordering a platter full of jamon serrano, chorizo and bresaola, some huge goblets of Malbec and maybe a $34 lamb tagine.
Or, you could do as Ferdinand the bull would: “Sit just quietly and smell the flowers” under the cork tree. Here, that would mean lingering over succulent, seasonal tapas. It’s food that doesn’t need to wow to impress mightily.