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One Eared Stag restaurant review, Atlanta

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During these heady days of new Southern cooking, the most interesting restaurants around town sing a song of farms, tables and delicious pig parts — a now-familiar theme that you could say is a little bit country and a little bit rock ’n’ roll. Some do so in a classic way that brings vintage Allman Brothers to mind; others have the modern soulfulness of Tim McGraw. And, yes, there are more than a few Donnie and Marie Osmonds out there.

Review by John Kessler

Review by John Kessler

Now comes One Eared Stag, and if anything, it’s the garage band of the pack. This kitchen, still figuring itself out, seems rawer, edgier and somehow raunchier than the rest. Fried chicken livers? Forget that. How about fried chicken necks?

Set in the former Shaun’s in Inman Park, One Eared Stag opened quietly two months ago. Chef Robert Phalen and managing partners Robert McDonald and Zoë Cernut (the trio behind East Atlanta Village’s idiosyncratic Holy Taco) have stripped the space of its genteel veneer and devised an uncompromising menu to match. Skewered veal heart, fried rabbit with parsley salad, grilled sardines and pole beans with apricots are but a few of the dishes that jam to their own strange beats.

But if One Eared Stag delights you with its bold spirit, it may also frustrate you with its inconsistencies. The kitchen drops the ball at times, the service can be haphazard and the pared-down atmosphere is sure to alienate a segment of the dining public that needs more cosseting. This isn’t a polished restaurant by any stretch, but it is often a terrific place to eat and a true destination.

If you were a fan of Shaun’s, you’ll notice the room remains basically the same aside from the herd of stuffed deer heads that have moved in. An earless one over the bar gives the restaurant its name, but there are a dozen more gazing glass-eyed from the whitewashed brick walls. The front room has been reset with industrial bar seating, and the space with its concrete floors and naked windows feels harder. And louder. A mere three occupied tables in the main dining room raises the pitch from talk to shout.

The fried Mississippi rabbit, grilled loin and parsley caper salad is as melted as it is crunchy. (Photos by Becky Stein / Special)

The fried Mississippi rabbit, grilled loin and parsley caper salad is as melted as it is crunchy. (Photos by Becky Stein / Special)

But you may very well be yelling, “You’ve got to try this!” when the food hits your table. Here’s how I’d go about things. Start with a crock of rabbit rillettes ($8) for the table, a soft pâté with a peppery bite and a lavish crown of tasty fat that you spread over toasted bread rusks. Have a well made Pimm’s Cup ($9). Then delve into a sumptuous bowl of ripe cut fruit ($10) — peaches, Cinderella melon, pineapple — dusted with guajillo chile, salt and shaved coconut with some lemon oil and yogurt crashing the party. It does what an appetizer should: appetizes.

And then it’s back to the bunny for you. A braised then fried rabbit leg ($19), as melted as it is crunchy, needs only its bright parsley-caper and squeeze of lemon to make you revel. But when you poke your fork about the plate you discover a tender grilled rabbit loin. Lagniappe.

Chef Robert Phalen has a rock ’n’ roll spirit that lightens up for lunch.

Chef Robert Phalen has a rock ’n’ roll spirit that lightens up for lunch.

Here’s another way to go about things. Warm fried Marcona almonds and pitted olives ($6) in a wash of oil, herbs and aromatics. Pick them out carefully, lick your fingers and wash them down with Lagunitas IPA on draft ($5). Then move on to a six-minute duck egg ($6), ready for you to break open over its bed of romesco sauce, a thick puree of roasted bell pepper and almonds. For your entree, you’ve got a heap of gorgeous whole sardines ($13) — their backbones removed and replaced with an astoundingly flavorful spread of parsley, lemon zest, arugula and black garlic (a fermented product that is sweet and mellow).

The tone turns from edgy to nervy pretty quickly here, but the kitchen has a hard time following through with some of its more outré ideas. Head-on Gulf shrimp ($11) arrive in a huge glass bowl (you might remember these bowls from Shaun’s) in a buttery pool sauce glinting with garlic, almonds, preserved lemon, dried arbol chile and cilantro. Yum, right, but now what? Do you reach in and peel? Try and use knife and fork despite the 6-inch rims on the bowls? Eat the shells? I try all methods. As delicious and tender as the shrimp are, I’m left wanting a different dish, a finger bowl and a basket of bread for that really terrific sauce. This dish needs to be a little more rustic or a little more uptown.

Likewise, I’d love to give props to Phalen for serving a heap of fried chicken necks ($8) with kimchi. But the dark breading flakes off the unyielding necks, and you end up staring down a meat poultry part no different from the one you fish out of your stockpot. I gnawed for a while but gave up after my third mini-shred of meat. Phalen may one day figure out a smart dish, but for now, it’s just a dare.

One Eared Stag offers sumptuous fruit bowls tossed with guajillo chile, lemon oil, mint and lemon zest.

One Eared Stag offers sumptuous fruit bowls tossed with guajillo chile, lemon oil, mint and lemon zest.

Dinner can be a rollicking good time, particularly after everyone has a good laugh over their struggles with chicken necks. But lunch is almost the better service. Fewer guests means quieter conversation. Natural light streams in the high windows and ennobles this grand old room, which was the classic Deacon Burton’s back in its heyday.

And Phalen, despite his rock ‘n’ roll spirit, cooks well in a lighter vein. A crab roll ($9) comes as a thick hunk of toasted brioche filled with a luscious, lemony crab salad. That buttery warm toast tastes so good against the creamy chill of seafood, a Southern dish that channels the spirit of a Maine lobster roll. Add in a side plate of pole beans tossed with country ham bits of apricot ($6), and you’ll think you’re eating the best lunch in town. You very well may be.

When I’m there for lunch one day with a friend, the waiter persistently pushes the one dessert. Toast with Nutella and roasted strawberries? Sure, why not? It doesn’t sound super-fantabulous, but it doesn’t sound bad.

In fact, this dessert is just about pitch perfect. The slice of country toast — crisp, sour and salty — holds a veneer of the sweet chocolate-hazelnut spread and a sumptuous mound of warm-from-the-oven berries. Three textures, three flavors, one harmonious chord. Each time you chew you get a sensation of berries at their peak expression.

This kind of surprising, insightful cooking is what will keep me coming back, time and again, to One Eared Stag.

ONE EARED STAG
1029 Edgewood Ave., Atlanta 404-525-4479
3stars5Food: Like victuals from a working-class French bistro with a Southern chef
Service: Very, very nice. But the place gets busy and servers get hard to track down.
Best dishes: Grilled sardines, fruit salad, fried rabbit, toast with Nutella and roasted strawberries
Vegetarian selections: Some small plates and sides
Price range: $$$
Credit cards: All major ones
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Children: Not a great choice for small kids
Parking: Self parking on street
Reservations: No
Wheelchair access: Yes
Smoking: No
Noise level: Blaring
Patio: An enclosed courtyard, but you might feel like a bug under a magnifying glass in the heat
Takeout: For lunch only
ratings_key_febUSE

18 comments Add your comment

carla roqs

July 21st, 2011
8:56 am

hmmmm, john…hmmmmm.

Steve

July 21st, 2011
9:20 am

This place is a gem and a new favorite for me. The staff is extremely friendly and the food is unique (in a great way). There are always a few off the menu specials each night that are worth a try (had an amazing tuna collar a week ago…WOW).

John, how long ago did you dine there? They seem to change the menu frequently as a bunch of the items mentioned above were not on the menu last time I was there.

Katherine

July 21st, 2011
12:23 pm

The crab roll is amazing. Great review.

Edward

July 21st, 2011
12:24 pm

Three stars? Really? Nothing sounds that appetizing and the misses don’t win any favor, either. It sounds like it is desperately trying to be so cool. I’ll pass on this fad.

jack trent

July 21st, 2011
1:17 pm

“The kitchen drops the ball at times, the service can be haphazard and the pared-down atmosphere”

3 stars?

carla roqs

July 21st, 2011
1:45 pm

i hate agreeing w/edward, but outside of the “desperately cool” part, i do. coming home this weekend, need some comfort food- hitting flying biscuit for shrimp and grits and the blue willow or the waterside. i roll w/you john, but mmmmmmmm, this place? jack trent hits it on the head for me too, unfortunately.

Cassie

July 21st, 2011
3:00 pm

This place is a gem! It’s what Atlanta’s been missing. The food is delicious-everything from the small plates, to entrees, to dessert. We’ve been to OES on several occasions, lunch and dinner, and the food and service have always been impeccable. Definitely a new favorite! Robert Phalen is one of the best chefs in town. 3 stars–I would’ve given it 4.

Twyla

July 21st, 2011
3:27 pm

This is a great spot for a date, dinner with family/friends or just grabbing a drink. The staff is welcoming and friendly and both the crab brioche and the pork belly BLT are excellent. I did not get the impression the place is trying to be “desperately cool” at all and I like the minimalist decor. It is a solid addition to the neighborhood and I look forward to enjoying the patio in the fall.

M. Johnson

July 21st, 2011
4:20 pm

Had a great meal there. Loved my dessert of panna cotta with cherries. I’m a regular at Holy Taco and wish they offered more desserts at that location.

Congrats to Phalen and his team on another hit. Atlanta needs more low-key spots like this.

sansho1

July 21st, 2011
9:22 pm

Was talking about this space with some friends earlier tonight — we liked The Patio, and really liked Shaun’s, although we thought the price point a little high for what should IMO be a downbeat neighborhood joint. Well, it appears the $$$ is there to stay, but even so I’m looking forward to checking this out. I admit to being predisposed to liking whoever tries to make a go of it there — the place is so unobtrusive that anything feels like a secret discovered. I wonder if JK feels the same, as I’ll agree with some other commenters that the rating seems a tad aspirational.

sheila

July 22nd, 2011
4:45 am

Love the decor, especially Robert’s interesting pickling jars. Didn’t notice the noise, & I’m usually uber sensitive to that. The sidewalk seating is maybe the quaintest, most relaxing place to lunch in the city. Everything I’ve had so far has been great, wanting to go back & try more

IntownWriter

July 22nd, 2011
4:10 pm

I’ll pass on this one. Chicken necks? Heads-on shrimp? I don’t even want to see that on the table next to me. Sorry, Mr. K., but I’m just not that adventurous.

Ear today, gone tomorrow

July 23rd, 2011
1:35 pm

You sure that’s a photo of fried Mississippi rabbit? Looks like we may have found that stag’s missing ear.

New Orleans Boy

July 23rd, 2011
11:22 pm

Nice use of Laignappe. Makes the point well.

Baltisraul

July 24th, 2011
11:19 am

IntownWriter…..whats wrong with jumbo shrimp w/ heads? Twist them off and enjoy. You don’t have to suck the heads if you don’t want to. Chicken necks are a little labor intensive for what it produces. But if you have the patience, thay are really good eating. Will go to this spot soon. My guess is that a mess of greens are not on your table every week?

NomNomNomATL

July 25th, 2011
11:22 am

Can’t say enough about this place. Great food, adventurous and welcoming at the same time. Delicious drinks and a reasonable wine list. Knowledgable and professional service. Deserving of 4 stars. You need to make another visit JK.

NomNomNomATL

July 25th, 2011
11:22 am

My only gripe…lose the glass bowls Rob.