On the Friday before Christmas of 2012, a day that some people predicted to be the end of the world, chef Robert Phalen invited about a dozen chefs into his restaurant, One Eared Stag, to prepare an apocalyptic-sized feast. There is nothing convenient or simple about inviting 12 knife-wielding control freaks into a space built for one; conventional wisdom tells us what to expect from too many cooks in the kitchen. Logistics and proverbs be damned, Phalen and company expanded his cozy neighborhood kitchen into a sprawling makeshift cookery that included a storage room transformed into a banquet table for cold plating, a sidewalk commandeered for tabletop Binchotan charcoal grilling, a trailer-sized smoker parked outside the back door, and a kitchen line that turned over like a well-oiled revolving door. The kitchen worked late into the night, the world did not end, and, at some point, I realized that I had spent the last year worrying about Atlanta, about the past, and about the South in general. But by the end of the evening, I had also decided that I wasn't as worried about those questions anymore.
If that feels like an odd statement to make about what was, essentially, a bombastic dinner party, so be it. I find it increasingly hard to differentiate between my own experiences dining in Atlanta and an objective consideration of the restaurant scene here. That might be an indication of my failings as a reporter or, I hope, a sense of perspective that comes from trying to immerse myself in the culinary life of our city. Either way, what I'm saying is that the dinner felt to me like a sea change in Atlanta dining and I'd like to explain to you why.
On the Sunday before that dinner, I spent the afternoon watching a matinee dance performance at the Goat Farm. Afterward, a couple of friends and dancers and I decided to drop into One Eared Stag for cocktails and a few small bites. Not long after we arrived, AJC dining critic John Kessler walked in with a friend. A little while later, Atlanta magazine's dining critic Bill Addison arrived with Kim Severson, the Atlanta bureau chief for the New York Times and author of a number of food-related books. Picture that: a restaurant with a food writer for every table.
I spent some time that night trying to make a joke out of it. What's the punch line to "Four food writers walk into a bar ..."? At least for me, the gist of it was a minor existential crisis: "Is Atlanta really that small of a city?"
Most of the chefs I've talked with in recent months aren't wringing their hands and furrowing their brows about Atlanta's relationship to other cities in the country, about whether or not we have an image problem, about how much (or little) we're living up to that world-class city status that the Olympics supposedly cemented. They've got more pressing concerns, like food costs or how to find a line cook who'll stick around.
On the other hand, most of the writers I know in Atlanta are, at least occasionally, worried about those questions. This perception was perhaps exacerbated by my time as deputy food editor earlier this year at Atlanta magazine, during which I worked on a themed issue that gravitated around the questions "How Southern are we? (and should we even care?)" It is a good issue as far as magazines go. The editors there managed to wrangle a number of smart, articulate people to weigh in on those Southern concerns. I can't say that I had much of anything to do with it. I filed a few short features and occasionally sat at the conference table while discussions were had about it. But after the issue went to press, I was still troubling over those questions, turning them over until they became little polished stones, easier to look at than in.
When I wasn't in Atlanta, I spent a lot of time in New York this past year, mostly in the East Village, mostly drinking and eating as much as my body would allow. More than a few of those afternoons were spent sitting at Ssäm Bar, eating bowls of duck and rice with my girlfriend, and talking about what it means to live in a Southern city, or what it means for anything to be "Southern" at all. Eventually, that became a question of Atlanta versus New York or, more accurately, Atlanta's relationship to New York.
At Ssäm Bar, we always ordered a plate of country ham first, usually Benton's. Ssäm Bar treats that ham without kitsch or gimmick. The dish is simply a plate of good country ham served thin and uncooked, as literal as Pacific Coast oysters. Between those smoky, fatty bites, we tussled with a little problem: that almost nothing ever arrives from the South as unburdened and unadorned as that ham. Southern culture always seems to come with the kind of unwieldy baggage that threatens to upstage the thing itself, like a trout meunière drowning in its own sauce.
Which is to say that Southern culture is too often self-consciously Southern, reaching to some former, well-established definition of Southern-ness. If we assume that the Southern novelist must write in dialect and about race and God, that the Southern song must be played on a banjo, and the Southern restaurant has to serve fried chicken and sweet tea, then we're insisting on defining a place by the past, rather than the present. These are, of course, dated clichés, but they are performed by people living in the South as much as they are perpetuated by people living outside of it. As a person who heartily enjoys a crispy drumstick, bluegrass, and Mark Twain, I can tell you these are not things that I'm ashamed of, but that they simply don't have much to do with what makes Atlanta an interesting place today.
As New York magazine noted a few months ago, plenty of successful chefs from elsewhere risk their reputations every year to make it in that city. In large part, this is because being successful in San Francisco or Atlanta is just that, being successful in San Francisco or Atlanta. But being successful in New York is being successful in the world. That level of a playing field implies a kind of freedom unburdened by regionality. Regional culture is always hyphenated, loaded with the baggage of coming from a place, while culture from New York is not regarded as New York Culture as much as capital-c Culture.
The best meal I had in New York this year was at Maison Premiere, a restaurant centered around absinthe, seafood, and Owen Wilson's idea from Midnight in Paris: the nostalgia shop. The central joke of that movie is that nostalgia isn't a longing for how things were, but a fantasy woven into your current life. Likewise, eating at Maison Premiere isn't about eating in New Orleans or Paris in the days of absinthe houses or New York in the heyday of never-ending oyster platters, it is about eating in Williamsburg in 2012 with the fantasy of 19th-century New Orleans and Paris carefully arranged into seafood towers and glasses of absinthe drip. The place makes absolutely no effort to be a New York restaurant, which is exactly what makes it undeniably a restaurant of that city.
The best meals I ate in Atlanta this year were at One Eared Stag, a restaurant whose menu sometimes feels like a painter's sketchbook, constantly shifting and improving upon concepts, stealing images here and there, inventing entirely new things to see, occasionally producing a masterpiece, and so forth. The roast tuna collar served this summer was one of the most stunning and satisfying dishes I've ever had, but the menu was also always revealing something new: gazpacho and crab, coddled egg and uni hollandaise, little roasted padrón peppers, bowls of tomatoes and flowers and fresh bufala, and, yes, fried chicken. Phalen serves it every Monday and it happens to be some of the best in the city, without being anything near the most interesting or significant dish to come out of his kitchen.
Like Maison Premiere's relationship to New York, One Eared Stag is a Southern restaurant that doesn't try to be one. It has absorbed the lessons of seasonal, farm-to-table cooking and ignored the boring California style that came along with it. It works with Southern cuisine without being beholden to it. Phalen's talent is idiosyncratic and he's created a restaurant that allows for him to do what he does best.
Perhaps because of my enthusiasm about it, I spent a fair amount of time in the past year fretting over whether Atlanta liked One Eared Stag enough. I'm exaggerating a bit, but not much. I find it easy and obvious to say that capital-c Culture in New York ignores the finer points of Southern culture; I'm more anxious about admitting that my own city often enjoys its clichés more than its innovators. In my mind, the food at One Eared Stag should be cause for a month-long wait for reservations, but the reality is that I've never had to wait for a table there. The fact that there were plenty of open tables at Maison Premiere when I ate there on a weeknight bothered me less, and I can only attribute that to the vagaries of regional pride.
During the dinner on the Friday before Christmas, I hung around in the back and at the pass, taking pictures and notes while the dishes went out. The seats for the dinner had sold out in a matter of minutes and the restaurant was packed. Tyler Williams of Abattoir and Andy Carson of Bacchanalia plated bites for the mingling crowd — foie gras bonbons with duck blood ganache and octopus ceviche on chicharrónes — before heading back to their own restaurants to work service for the night. Cody Taylor and Jiyeon Lee of Heirloom Market BBQ brought their smoker, a massive trailer that played a part in a number of the dishes throughout the night. Guy Wong of Miso Izakaya grilled skewers of Kobe beef and quail eggs over Binchotan charcoal. Adam Evans of the Optimist put together a spicy brisket-wrapped smoked scallop.
No one that night was unclear about whether or not we were in the South. Was a dish more or less Southern because the chef did or did not use the smoker? Was the night more officially Southern because some chefs were drinking moonshine or less because some of the dishes were paired with Italian wine? No one asked those questions, nor did anyone bat an eye when Bobby Britt, a farmer that sells produce to the restaurant, showed up in a full-body camo hunting jumpsuit, because everyone was too busy actually being in the South. Ryan Smith was marveling over Drew Belline's jar of pecan truffles. Drew Van Leuven was helping plate Shaun Doty's beef heart. And, at some point, I was reminded that Atlanta is much, much larger than the clichés and schlock, the hyphenated baggage that passes for our image, and that Faulknerian past. For a moment, I wasn't even worried about the people who can't see that.
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