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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: $$$$ Credit cards: All major Hours of operation: Tuesday-Thursday: 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-11 p.m. Vegetarian selections: Yes, even a vegetarian menu Children: Older kids would be fine Parking: Valet Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Moderate Patio: No Takeout: No ______________________________ ONE EARED STAG 1029 Edgewood Ave., Atlanta 404-525-4479 Vegetarian selections: Yes, and interesting ones Price range: $$$ 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