King & Duke's open hearth mesmerizes

With a flourish of her hands, the hostess gestures grandly at the towering bookcases in the entryway. “Allow me to get your wine encyclopedia from our library.” She proudly produces a hardback volume bearing the title “The Call of the Wild” by Jack London before ushering us to our table.

The thick tome houses a plastic-sleeved listing of wines, spirits and classic cocktails interspersed with literary references and quotes, appropriate for Ford Fry’s new King + Duke, a spot named after characters from Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.”

The restaurant, built around a 24-foot fire-fueled open hearth, makes quite a show of its cooking techniques. As the hostess guides you past the kitchen, you’re hit with waves of rippling heat and engulfed in the popping and sizzling sounds of foods cooked over the crackling blaze. Some diners stand mesmerized, watching as chefs manipulate an extensive custom pulley system used to adjust cooking levels.

Somehow, with all the pageantry and Colonial-themed decorations — including miniature gas-style table lamps and leather-strapped chair backs — I half expect to bump into Minnie Mouse on the way upstairs to my table as images of the Magic Kingdom’s Colonial restaurant Liberty Tree Tavern flash through my mind. At least our hostess wears no mop cap or white frilly apron, nor does she ring a bell announcing, “Hear ye, hear ye! We are now serving the (insert surname) family!”

For each new restaurant in his rapidly expanding empire, Fry develops unique concepts. JCT Kitchen explores Southern fare, while No. 246 is Italian-inspired. The Optimist delves into seafood, and a new restaurant going into Krog Street Market will feature Tex-Mex cuisine.

Fry was at the top of his game when he opened the Optimist. The restaurant received an initial fanfare of praise and continues to improve. With each success Fry raises the bar for himself, making it a risky proposition to follow that success with yet another new concept.

King + Duke may prove to be the first chink in Fry’s armor.

The open-hearth cooking imparts deep wood flavors into the majority of the dishes, many with savory success. But here’s the catch: As much as this cooking style distinguishes King + Duke from most other Atlanta eateries, it also can limit both creativity and execution.

Chef Joe Schafer, who hails from the kitchens of Murphy’s, TAP and Parish, helms the hearth. While cooking over an open fire suggests a simpler approach, his style is anything but. According to Schafer, his focus is on “showcasing different techniques and using as much of the animal as possible.”

Schafer demonstrates these aims with his aggressively seasoned entrees, where many items include multiple preparations. The Gum Creek pork ($26) comes served two ways, a little bonus not noted on the menu. On one side of the oval plate you have moist slices of brined loin; the other features a glossy square of citrus-cured belly. The slightly charred, slightly raw kale and sour cherries pop against the salty jus.

The Pekin duck ($29) and Mississippi rabbit ($26) echo the multiple preparations and seasoning issues. Same modus operandi, different animal. A fresh salad of over-salted red mustard greens and deep purple plums separate a hearty confit leg and layered slices of duck breast over velvety duck jus.

The rabbit includes a smoky pancetta-wrapped loin and a peppery beer-simmered banger that accompany the confit leg. True to his word, Schafer goes beyond the flesh, with chunky liver-and-kidney paté spread over charred bread.

My favorite of the multi-prep dishes are the dual offerings of the carrots and beets appetizer ($12). These soft smoke-infused vegetables are presented again in contrasting forms, sliced horizontally and pickled. A toothsome cube of sheep’s milk feta complements the medley more so than the oversized puddle of harissa.

As much as you might enjoy these fire-kissed entrees, you’d do just as well to order a round of appetizers and thumb your way through Jack London’s wine list, maybe settling on a dry Argyle riesling.

If you don’t mind a heavy hand with the mayo, you could start with the deviled eggs ($5), dotted with crispy Virginia ham bits and tiny cubes of pickled celery. Otherwise, the smooth filling may be death by Duke’s.

Move on to the octopus salad ($14), almost meaty enough to stand as an entree. The lemony “salad” brings together crispy chorizo rounds, perky snap peas and green olives to mingle with the brilliant char on the octopus.

Save room for the one dish that’s worth the price of admission — the candied lamb belly ($11). It’s a create-your-own-flatbread dish with feta, marinated cucumber and grilled triangles of housemade curry naan. Load them up with the slick orange-pepper cured lamb brushed with a sherry gastrique. Sweet, smoky and tender.

I expect dessert to be best in show with pastry chef Chrysta Poulos (formerly of Woodfire Grill and 4th & Swift) at the piping bag. Her signature sticky toffee pudding ($8) swirled with Sweetwater IPA cream is warm, rich and smudgy in all the right ways.

After that, I’m lost. Maybe I need subtitles for the other desserts, overwrought with multiple components, like the Three Milks ($8), a rectangular plate of not-quite-tres-leches-style lemon cake rounds with not-so-charred lemon curd, a not-so-crisp almond crisp and a muted blueberry sorbet. I long for the more composed Poulos-style desserts from the days of yore. Would be fitting, no?

For now, count me among those who stand mesmerized by the intricacies of the pulley system, smoke boxes and hearth cooking at King + Duke. Sign me up for the show. Seat me at the chef’s counter, where I can absorb the action with a few appetizers and a glass of bourbon. That’s how I’ll most enjoy this restaurant. I probably won’t make it back to Disney this year anyway.

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