Wednesday, June 26, 2013

King + Duke vs. Gunshow

King + Duke and Gunshow are two of the buzziest restaurants to open in Atlanta in ages. When Ford Fry and Kevin Gillespie cook, Atlantans and even the national food press pay attention. So we lured my parents ITP to take care of our little bean so we could head out on a couple of date nights recently to check them out.

If you're anything like us, you have to choose your special nights out sparingly, so you might be wondering, which one do I go to first? To answer that question, we've put them head to head to see which is most deserving of your date night money and time.


Atlanta restaurant review of King + Duke
King + Duke's bar

King + Duke took over the Nava space but doesn't resemble the much loved Southwestern spot at all. Instead it looks like a hip library your rich uncle might have in his home. Think high ceilings and dark walls and lots of wood and exposed brick. I loved the little touches like the cocktail menu that came bound like an old book.

Atlanta restaurant review of Ford Fry's latest restaurant
King + Duke's cocktail menu

Gunshow is comparatively undecorated. It's a big airy room with lots of windows and exposed duct work. If you're looking for a setting as sexy as your date, King + Duke wins this round hands down.


Being in Buckhead, King + Duke naturally attracts a more Buckhead Betty crowd. Gunshow is in a part of town that many OTPers or even in folks Buckhead never venture to so you get more of a hipster or at least hip crowd. That said, Gunshow isn't set up to have a bar scene, so if you want to pick up vs just ogle the crowd, you should choose King + Duke. But if you just want to soak in the coolness of your dining compatriots, then Gunshow all the way.


Both restaurants have somewhat unusual concepts. When I first heard that King + Duke would be "early American" I imagined cooking over an open flame and dishes like pheasant. That's not too far off, but the reality is less crazy than you might have guessed. Yes, there is an open hearth and lots of grilled meats. But the menu is still decidedly modern. It's different enough from anything else in Atlanta to be exciting but not so different that you're left hungry or confused.

Kevin Gillespie's Atlanta restaurant Gunshow

Gunshow is quirkier. Think dim sum but not Asian food, Southern but not the farm-to-table upscale Southern you might be used to. Gillespie was inspired by his own trailer park childhood, but it was tough for me to tell how that actually manifested in the menu. I may not have seen anything I'd expect to find in a trailer park, but it definitely felt substantially different than more mainstream upscale Southern spots like JCT. The dim sum concept is relevant because you don't order. Rather, chefs and waiters come around with dishes that the kitchen has prepared and offer you some. You pick what you want and get charged based on what you choose.

The dim-sum style service sounds like more fun than it was. I definitely like that you are eating what the chefs were inspired to make that day based on what's fresh and piquing their interest. But the reason dim sum works is because the kitchens are cranking out food so you can pick from an array of options rather quickly. You receive a menu upon sitting down so you know what will be on offer, and we were told the whole experience should take about an hour.

Kevin Gillespie's California style burger at Gunshow
West-coast burger at Gunshow

However, the reality of the service during our visit to Gunshow was plates coming out at a glacial pace so that you're sometimes left twiddling your thumbs for an awkward amount of time. And more frustrating is that by the time they'd get to our table, they would often have only one small plate left. When you have five people at a table, one tiny plate of anything isn't going to go very far. I literally had a single bite of some of the dishes because we couldn't get our hands on any more. In the end, two hours passed without several of the dishes ever coming by the table.

I'd suggest at Gunshow that you go with a much smaller group than we did. We went big because we thought that would be a good way to try more, but I'd prefer next time to have fewer dishes but leave fuller. I'll be curious to see how this restaurant evolves. Having chefs out on the floor serving food is cool because you get to interact with the likes of Kevin Gillespie, but personally I'd rather he and the rest of his team cook more so they can get more plates out on the floor faster.

Top Chef alum Kevin Gillespie at Gunshow
Gillespie serving up tostadas at Gunshow

Gunshow wins for originality but King + Duke wins for execution. I'd prefer a well executed concept to an original but at times annoying one, so the edge here goes to King + Duke.

Food & Beverage

This is clearly the most important category, and both restaurants fared well. Every single dish I had at both restaurants tasted great. Even the bread plate and King + Duke, which was popovers rather than rolls, was the business. Seriously, these things are good enough that we had seconds.

Popovers at King + Duke Atlanta
King + Duke's popovers

Roasted marrow is rarely found on Atlanta menus, and King + Duke had an excellent appetizer. We shared three entrees- the roasted duck with plums, the pork roast with sour cherry and charred kale and the lamb saddle chops with potatoes and minted salsa verde. I liked each so much, I couldn't pin down a clear favorite. Each dish was deeply satisfying with just a hint of smokiness, and I loved the use of fruit to balance the hearty meats.

Marrow Appetizer at Ford Fry's King + Duke in Buckhead
Marrow appetizer at King + Duke

As we've come to expect from Ford Fry restaurants, the cocktail list is pretty darn compelling. Inspired by old timey cocktails, this wasn't your typical cocktail list. The black + brown featured rum, Watership brown ale, lime and velvet falernum (a spicy Caribbean syrup). I appreciated the spiciness and unique flavor combination, but this definitely isn't the kind of cocktail I could have more than one of in a sitting.

Black Forest cake at King + Duke in Atlanta
Black Forest at King + Duke

Desserts at King + Duke were simple but oh so delicious. Dates + ale combined sticky toffee pudding and a pleasantly bitter sweetwater IPA cream to balance out the sweetness. The black forest paired a chocolate cake with smoked cherries and black pepper ice cream. It's rare to get sweet, smoky and spicy all in one bite on a dessert, and this dish nailed it.

The only flaw with food at Gunshow is that I wanted more of it. Their take on the In-n-Out burger was a divine mess (although ours is just as good!) and fried quail and a chicken mole tostada were highlights. Dishes are relatable but creative.

Kevin Gillespie tableside at Gunshow

As I mentioned above, some dishes on the night's menu never made their way to our table. We tried repeatedly to come by the pork skin risotto to no avail. We mentioned it to every waiter who came by and were promised it would be out at some point. When it finally did come out towards the end of our meal, we were understandably frustrated that it ran out before coming to our table. Gillespie himself promised us he'd fire up some more of it for us, but then a few minutes later our waiter came by to say it wasn't happening. Imagine our dismay when we left moments later and saw them coming by our table with a plate of it through the window. Guess our waiter didn't get the memo. I get that at dim-sum you get what you get when you get it, but it would be nice if you could get a little more clarity about when you might get your hands on something.

Ribs at Kevin Gillespie's Gunshow in Glenwood Park
Ribs at Gunshow

It's wine and beer only but there are plenty of well priced and interesting options. We never saw any desserts come by so we missed out on that. Although I liked his Southern riffs on global cuisine, I left hungry and headed to Morelli's to top ourselves off with some ice cream. It was just too hard to get my hands on what I wanted to eat in a reasonable time frame. In terms of quality, it's a draw, but since I left more satisfied, point to King + Duke.


We actually spent more money at King + Duke but for the reasons listed above, I felt like it was better value. I had the sense as I was eating that Gunshow was more expensive because the small plates are pretty pricey for their size, but in the end we actually had a hard time spending a lot for 5 people because we were never able to get more than two plates of anything at the same time. Not sure how our table was always last in line? Neither restaurant is cheap, but $26 for a hearty portion of duck felt like a better deal than $11 for a cheeseburger with no sides.

King + Duke Lamb Saddle
Lamb saddle at King + Duke
And the winner is...

So in the end, King + Duke wins a clear victory. I admire Gillespie's originality, and I'm so glad to have something generating national buzz, but I think they need to work out some kinks in the concept before I'd be ready to go back. If I were going to return soon, it would definitely be at a table for two.

King+ Duke Roasted Duke
Roasted duck at King + Duke

King + Duke, on the other hand, is totally ready for primetime. Everything from the setting to the service to the entire menu is topnotch and totally worth splashing out on a babysitter. Throw in a hot chef and you've got yourself something special! All of that said, Gillespie is both affable and insanely talented, so he's the type of guy you want to see succeed. I suspect that given some time, Gunshow will become not just a must-try restaurant, but a must-return-to restaurant.
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