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Fresh looks at One Eared Stag and Woodfire Grill

John Kessler is the chief dining critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

John Kessler is the chief dining critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The inverse rule of culinary stardom goes something like this: The more famous a chef becomes, the less likely the chance you’ll actually see him or her in the restaurant. There are events to attend, special dinners to cook, brands to build.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter. A chef with a busy schedule will tell you that he writes the menus and has full confidence in his team.

A chef who has built his brand solely on sweat equity may instead assert that he has to taste every sauce and watch every plate leaving the kitchen.

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I was thinking about this when a whole roast tuna collar ($24) landed on our table at One Eared Stag. Good grief! You should have seen this thing. It looked like some kind of double-sized scythe — a great, table-filling zigzag of sea beast, a bi-directional boomerang of bone and cartilage, fins and skin, and deep pockets of fat-bathed meat. Bracing globs of green sauce made with arugula, garlic, citrus zest and olive oil painted the top.

Farro and vegetables, One Eared Stag (all photos by Becky Stein)

Quail with rice grits and black garlic, One Eared Stag (all photos by Becky Stein)

We took to it like a posse of feral cats.

“How often do you serve this?” we asked the waitress, our mouths full of tuna.

“A couple of times a year at most,” she answered. There were only six orders that night, and we were very lucky to have dined early enough to snag one. It isn’t that often when a fish purveyor can provide enough tuna collars for a special, and it isn’t every chef who would think to order them.

Robert Phalen, most pointedly, isn’t every chef. His ever-changing menu at One Eared Stag may feature a pastured half-chicken ($24) with its still-attached foot hanging from the side of the bowl like a leg over the edge of a bathtub, or maybe a 2-inch-thick slab of porchetta ($32), the fatty pork rolled with herbs in its own thick skin and topped with a tumble of sausage chunks.

Farro and vegetables, One Eared Stag

Farro and vegetables, One Eared Stag

Phalen gives shoutouts to all the farmers and producers on his menu, local or otherwise, because he takes more than a passing interest in where his food comes from. So Hammock Hollow heirloom cucumbers ($12), knobby and sweet, get top billing in a stunningly good salad of bufala mozzarella, tomatoes, vibrantly sweet tomato water and slivered radish. Their green, melony grassiness carries the other flavors along for the ride.

I always see Phalen there, behind the open kitchen pass, paying intense attention to the plates he sends out. He’s no schmoozer who wanders the dining room, and I’ve never talked to him face-to-face.

But if I did, I’d tell him that he’s become one of my favorite chefs in Atlanta because his hand — and his completely whacked-out perspective — is so present in all his food. It makes sense that someone who’s cleaning thick collard stems would get the swift idea to pickle them as an accompaniment to a terrific smoked hamhock rillettes ($9). You spread this fatty goodness over toasted bread and sprinkle the crunchy, tangy bits of collard stem over the top.

With its dozen smaller plates and half-dozen entrees, this menu is big enough to serve as the chef’s playground. He cooks a memorable tribute to Prince’s hot chicken, the Nashville specialty. Phalen’s version ($7) features a hot-sauce-reddened thigh served over a slab of white bread with house bread-and-butter pickles. I shared an order with two friends; now I want my own. Then again, his grilled quail breast ($11) served over a bed of creamy rice grits with a smear of fermented black garlic (an Asian umami bomb of a condiment) could make a body just as happy. Phalen seasons well; his palate and mine agree exactly on salt.

He’s also a nervy cook. How cool that a chef in a funky Inman Park bistro attempts porchetta, but he needs to learn from an Italian how to better render the fat and crisp the skin. I enjoy his vegetarian entree of farro grain ($19) with little bits of turnip and zucchini, but its bitter arugula broth is best for arugula fanatics.

A doorstop shortcake with roasted strawberries ($7) makes me think desserts are an afterthought. The bar pours a great version of the Rosalinda margarita ($10) with grapefruit and rosemary from Phalen’s other restaurant, Holy Taco in East Atlanta Village. But the wine list needs some meaty, weird wines to go with the meaty, weird food.

This restaurant may not be for everyone, yet I can think of few places in Atlanta I’d rather eat. You can taste the cooking ideas happening here, which is why it keeps getting better.

Chocolate, caramel, peaches and shortbread star in this Woodfire Grill dessert

Chocolate, caramel and peanuts star in this Woodfire Grill dessert

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I’ve been to Woodfire Grill four times since Kevin Gillespie became chef. I’ve only seen him at the restaurant once. That was soon after his star turn on a season of “Top Chef,” when reservations were durn near impossible to come by and fans routinely interrupted his cooking to ask to have their pictures taken.

I really liked, rather than loved, the restaurant when I reviewed it soon after the “Top Chef” juggernaut. Service was topnotch and the wine list great. Gillespie cooked with flair and a distinctive Southern voice, but I found some of the dishes tasted interesting and well-constructed rather than flat-out delicious. I recall one tasting menu that featured a one-inch cube of salmon, then a one-inch cube of pork, each with a complex sauce that made me go “hmm” rather than “yum.” I assumed it was better to order off the small standing menu.

I decided to give the tasting menu another shot recently. Gillespie, still chef, but no longer a co-owner, was not in the house. No surprise.

We opted for the five-course menu at $70 rather than the seven-course version for $90. The courses — one surprise after another — began arriving. We liked our tiles of raw tuna with cucumber and fennel in a chile vinaigrette . Then we were blown away by fillets of boneless trout in a lacy batter. They sat over pools of gushy creamed potato, and once we started poking around, we found pockets of olivy puttanesca sauce hiding under the fish. Suddenly, this rich dish turned sharp and dynamic.

Trout with creamed potatoes and some puttanesca sauce peeking from under the fish at Woodfire Grill

Trout with creamed potatoes and some puttanesca sauce peeking from under the fish at Woodfire Grill

A wood-grilled quail with smoked peach puree didn’t have the crisp skin and meaty chew of the quail at One Eared Stag. But it did have an intriguing gaminess that set up the next course of smoked pork loin with melting pork belly, candied quince and turnip puree. A milk chocolate and caramel terrine with crushed peaches, crumbled buttermilk cake, peanut crisp and all kinds of fun business took us back to bliss. (The dessert pictured features oranges instead of peaches.)

This menu felt pretty safe — the kind of meal a chef might sign off on rather than tinker with. But it was also a perfectly choreographed ballet, timed with skill, cooked with finesse and portioned to leave you satiated rather than stuffed. I loved the way the vinegary first flavors gave way to sweeter ones and how seasonal peaches showed up in different courses (including a terrific shot of peach agua fresca served mid-meal as a palate cleanser). I loved the way this meal made me feel.

If Gillespie were there, I’d imagine he’d sing the praises of E. J. Hodgkinson, his skilled chef de cuisine, and Chrysta Poulos, his smart pastry chef. They are part of a team that creates a superlative dining experience.

The mad genius cooking at One Eared Stag is more to my taste, but Woodfire Grill is where I’d go for my anniversary. Both places have improved since I first reviewed them and merit a higher rating.

So, to answer my question: Does it matter if the chef is in the kitchen or not? That depends on the restaurant — and the chef.

WOODFIRE GRILL
1782 Cheshire Bridge Road, Atlanta; 404-347-9055; woodfiregrill.com
Price range: $$$$
Credit cards: All major
Hours of operation: Tuesday-Thursday: 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-11 p.m.
Vegetarian selections: Yes, even a vegetarian menu
Children: Older kids would be fine
Parking: Valet
Reservations: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes
Smoking: No
Noise level: Moderate
Patio: No
Takeout: No
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ONE EARED STAG
1029 Edgewood Ave., Atlanta 404-525-4479
Vegetarian selections: Yes, and interesting ones
Price range: $$$
Credit cards: All major
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: High, due to poor inside acoustics; the patio is the place to go for quiet conversation
Patio: An enclosed courtyard
Takeout: For lunch only

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26 comments Add your comment

Baltisraul

June 21st, 2012
7:19 am

One Eared Stag sounds really really good. Can’t wait t try it.

BC

June 21st, 2012
7:22 am

John-
Great review and thanks for mentioning the chefs that are actually doing the heavy lifting. You have to give the head chef some credit for blazing the trail, but I think it’s unfair not to mention those that are executing flawlessly day after day and perhaps adding their own interpretations here and there.

Hungry Gringo

June 21st, 2012
8:21 am

I heard a rumor the cast of the Walking Dead likes to hang out at One Eared Stag… and none of them have Southern accents in real life.

Krystle Meyer

June 21st, 2012
8:21 am

Richard Blais take notice! So far, The Spence has put out some stunningly mediocre and unimaginitive food. A far cry from the dishes he put out at One Midtown Kitchen’s Summer Chef Series dinner. Looks like he is enjoying getting paparazzi’d on the dining room floor, but the kitchen is worse off for it.

M Long

June 21st, 2012
12:33 pm

@Krystle Meyer GET A LIFE. What is it that you do for a living???? I’m sure you are just fantastic at it. Loser.

Mark

June 21st, 2012
1:55 pm

Thanks for a great re-review of WF, particularly the shout out to EJ Hodgkinson, who is now responsible for much of what emerges from the kitchan. He’s truly an emerging talent on the ATL scene. Add to that Nick Quinones’ wine list, the most interesting in ATL, and it’s consistently one of the best in this town.

RK

June 21st, 2012
2:30 pm

I’m not trying to run him down, but how is Robert Phalen a celebrity? I’m familiar with the name and restaurant, just because I love to eat out, but it’s obvious why you would all Kevin famous.

Krystle Meyer

June 21st, 2012
2:50 pm

@ M Long

lolz, graduated law school magna cum laude, pulled 6 figures at ATL’s #1 law firm. I’m a f*cking fantastic at what I do for a living.

You asked…

John Kessler

June 21st, 2012
3:08 pm

RK – I think I said “the more famous a chef becomes, the less you’ll see him or her in the restaurant.”

Baltisraul

June 21st, 2012
3:26 pm

Krystle……you sound like a lawyer but I doubt you are one!

Krystle Meyer

June 21st, 2012
3:47 pm

@ Baltisraul

Its the internet – I can be anything I want! Today – hotshot attorney defending big corporations against greedy plaintiffs by day, slightly-plus-sized-but-still-kinda-hot-at-first-glance-but-then-not-really-so-much-after-you-get-to-know-me foodie by night.

Tomorrow? Know-it-all stay-at-home mother of Chipper Jones’ illegitimate triplets, advocating the benefits of breast-feeding through the first grade, chastising moms for their spineless submission to oppressive baby books and out-of-touch pediatricians.

PS Seriously though, Blaise is a great chef, I just wish he would be a chef again, that was my point.

PPS To be honest, magna cum laude at Tulane Law School is not really that big of a deal.

Victor

June 21st, 2012
4:06 pm

it’s Blais not Blaise. what is it with Atlanta’s #1 son that Atlantans can’t get his name right. and yes, the Spence was lackluster at best. but what do you expect from a chef who doesn’t work at his own restaurant 80% of the time. his credibility is fading even more with every plate that comes out of the kitchen. let’s hope he changes that around soon but don’t hold your breath.

M. Johnson

June 21st, 2012
4:09 pm

Great reviews. Like you, I love One Eared Stag and think Phalen is brilliant. Unfortunately, I live closer to Holy Taco and often feel that restaurant suffers as a result of Phalen focusing on the larger spot.

Holy Taco is much better than the other Mexican restaurants in East Atlanta Village, but that isn’t saying much. I always peruse the menu, then end up with an excellent margarita, okay chips and yummy guacamole on the patio.

eatoutatlanta

June 21st, 2012
4:15 pm

I worked for 5 celebrity chefs that have TV shows and books, it is a thrill for people to see them at their restaurants, but when you have multiple locations across the country don’t get mad cause the celebrity chef is not there when you visit. You are just eating their food that a sous or chef de cuisine cooked for you. And Krystle Meyer…good piont… There are a lot of great local restaurants in Atlanta that have amazing delicious food that some people still have not had…

RK

June 21st, 2012
4:18 pm

JK — thought so — the byline said “celebrity chef” on the food page.

Jeffrey

June 21st, 2012
5:52 pm

Haven’t been to wood fire lately but thinking I might have to change that soon. One eared is my favorite and I almost thought it was too good to recommend to some folks, but I bought my dad a gift certificate and he and his picky wife loved it. Dad agrees with you John desserts are an after thought.

Me

June 21st, 2012
6:21 pm

Interesting that we have been to Woodfire Grill four times – all post “Top Chef” – and Kevin was there three of the four times. Regardless, however, we have always chosen the tasting menus and have been very pleased each time. In fact, it’s about time for us to head back! Have not tried One Eared Stag but will now have to give it a try.

foodiegirl

June 21st, 2012
8:25 pm

Love OES, always a great night there….WF grill has it’s moments. Really like Kevin G….did a party with him…super nice guy and dedicated to his craft. Was impressed with the Spence on first visit, too loud, but food was good and service was PERFECT! (thank you Kevin!) I still think Rathbun’s is the gold standard for fine dining, I’ve been at least 25 times, always great….. Need a great, fast, affordable lunch? Perla on Piedmont is the best. So fresh, awesome service. I know they aren’t trying to be “high end”, strictly a taco joint, but there is something about folks trying to do food right and actually doing it that is refreshing. They just know what they are doing. And it’s GOOD!! Not affiliated in any way, just went for lunch today and was AGAIN very happy with the experience.

Baltisraul

June 22nd, 2012
7:11 am

Krystal…….If it is true, congrats! Did you ever come on these blogs and pose a a pole dancer from Tulane? I can see the nuns running for cover from here!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Roger Pratesi

June 22nd, 2012
7:42 am

John, I loved your review of these two fine restaurants. You captured the essence of the dining experience so well.

NomNomNomATL

June 22nd, 2012
8:44 am

You ‘re killing it Robert! Congrats on the 4 stars!

Baltisraul

June 22nd, 2012
9:00 am

NomNomNom……Who is Robert?

I'm Lovin' It

June 22nd, 2012
12:02 pm

Krystal, you rock!

gigithebartender

June 22nd, 2012
2:33 pm

I wish there was a ‘like’ button to push because Krystle is crazy and deserves one. I love JK’s revies (as does my Grandmother-91) but I also love reading the comments! Can’t wait to try One Ear Stag soon!

dessert lover's husband

June 22nd, 2012
4:50 pm

We ate at One Eared Stag last Saturday evening. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed our meal. The taste let down was the dessert. At best there was a hint of the flavors mentioned in the menu. If they get your message, John, I hope they communicate it to the patrons. Otherwise, on my next visit, we’ll stop eating after the entree.

OBAMA

June 24th, 2012
10:21 am

Krystal, give me a call