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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Food: Like victuals from a working-class French bistro with a Southern chef