The restaurant industry, like the music and fashion industries, tends to fall into ruts. An idea emerges, and then gets beaten (or eaten) to death. It takes a chef with vision to break out of the rut.
We are currently in a New Southern, farm-to-table rut. It's a pleasant rut to be in. But it's also, most definitely, a rut. Almost every new restaurant has a familiar menu and philosophy. There will be trout, and lots of pork, some inventive veggie appetizers and possibly a cute take on the deviled egg. All of which is lovely, if not a little boring. Where's the excitement? Where's the newness?
At One Eared Stag, the new restaurant from Holy Taco's Robert Phalen, boredom is not a problem.
To Phalen, One Eared Stag must seem like somewhat of a homecoming. An alumni of Shaun's, Phalen has reclaimed that restaurant's space for his latest venture. It's somewhat eerie pulling up to this storied corner where Deacon Burton's, Son's Place and Shaun's have all come and gone, each leaving a gaping hole in the landscape of Atlanta dining. Son's Place still stands empty, despite rumors of a vegan bakery taking over the space. One Eared Stag has changed little in look and feel since the building's life as Shaun's — more taxidermy on the walls is the only discernible difference. The long communal table still takes up the center of the main dining room. It feels chic and airy, the perfect neighborhood corner restaurant. Phalen has even continued the Shaun's tradition of serving things at the bottom of huge glass bowls.
And what you'll find at the bottom of those bowls is unlike what you'll find anywhere else in town.
Phalen's brand of inventive cooking seemed like a revelation when he first unveiled it at Holy Taco, the East Atlanta Mexican restaurant where he is also the chef. Without relying on gimmicks or molecular techniques, Phalen managed to challenge perceptions and palates with ramped up flavors and unusual ingredient combinations. Creamed corn was served with shaved lardo on top. A side of potatoes came punctuated with smoked trout roe.
At One Eared Stag, that challenge continues, but without the distraction of tacos. Phalen's inspiration here is vaguely Spanish and heavily Mediterranean, but boldness of flavor wins out above all else. A rabbit loin and fried leg comes with a salad of capers, radish and parsley, and a lemon to zap through the crunch of the leg's breading. Surf and turf here means tender, deeply flavored braised short ribs accompanied by mussels.
Rather than opting for salmon or tuna or even flounder, Phalen goes for the kill with whole grilled sardines, stuffed with Meyer lemon, black garlic and arugula. Sardines are a criminally underused fish, so charged with flavor that Americans have typically shied away. But those who love them know that beyond the low-tide smell lies a sweet, rich flesh.
Roasted Vidalia onions take a wickedly delicious turn when topped by Cabrales, a pungent Spanish blue cheese. A slow-cooked duck egg is topped with homemade hot sauce and hackleback roe, basically a heady black caviar. Hanger steak comes over romesco, with almonds and Padrón peppers as garnish. The small charred green peppers provide vegetal charm with the occasional spicy bite.
The entire menu is an exercise in boldness, in defying cliché, in taking a flavor and presenting its opponent. If the tussle that ensues isn't always 100 percent successful, it's at least an interesting ride. That hanger steak was a touch tough, as hanger steak can be. One of three sardines was undercooked one night. There's unevenness to some of the cooking here — Phalen comes across as more of a creative force than a perfectionist. But any inconsistency is made up for by the sheer pleasure of newness.
Which isn't to say that this food is particularly bizarre. Most dishes rely on a base of tradition. One of the best things I've had all year is Phalen's clams cooked in cream with bacon, potatoes, fresh field peas and peppery arugula. Ranging from soft to bold to saline to sweet, the creamy mishmash of flavors is both soothing and exhilarating.
Apart from a touch of perfectionism on Phalen's part, what could be done to bring this restaurant into the ranks of the city's best? I've heard tales from other patrons of lapses in service, which I didn't experience, in part because the restaurant was fairly slow each time I visited, even on a weekend night. Another factor may be that I'm known to Phalen and his crew, and was well and truly busted as a critic.
The wine list could use some work. It's fine — succinct, and with few surprises. As such, it in no way matches the rollicking ambition of the menu. Cocktails, too, are completely passable — creative, seasonal, thoughtful — but it would be nice to see something more revolutionary here as well. If we're breaking out of a rut, let's break out on every front.
One Eared Stag is a true original. As such, I worry for its longevity. But it's restaurants like this we should rally around as a city. Anyone can cook pork chops; it takes gumption, talent and originality to successfully break away from the pack.
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