First Look: One Eared Stag
Robert Phalen's creative cooking hits Inman Park
Adjectives are not my strong suit. In fact, in journalism school their use was virtually taboo and, as an editor, I enforced that rule. Then I began writing food stuff. I found that the pressure to be intensely descriptive produced a cloying lexicon.
I have, for example, avoided the word "foil" since 1975 when I edited another food writer, because it absolutely requires adjectival upchucking. (Hey, that was descriptive, wasn't it?)
But here I am during my third meal at One Eared Stag (1029 Edgewood Ave., 404-525-4479) and I want to tell someone, anyone, about the adjectival flip-flops my palate is undergoing. Unfortunately, it's lunchtime and, except for a table of obvious friends of the owners, the restaurant is empty. Thank God for Twitter.
What am I eating? It's a bowl of clams with such a shocking flavor it's evoked a buried memory of a lunch in Virginia Beach so long ago its visualization is as grey as the clam shells. I was 18, a college freshman, and couldn't believe the flavors of the clams I'd been served at a beachside cafe. I told this over and over again to my server. She laughed and an hour later dragged me upstairs to her bed. In the middle of things, a sailor, her boyfriend, walked into the room and joined us in bed. Hello, world.
The kid in me is feeling emotional. The clams are awash in a bacon-infused cream. Little chunks of the salty meat — not cooked to nubs as usual — are scattered throughout the bowl, nestling in some of the shells along with fresh field peas. A few fingerling potatoes are also in the bowl. I mash the potatoes in the cream at the bottom of the bowl, scooping up some peas with the fork. (I've done the same with some thin, crackly bread garnishing the bowl.) Now I've finished all the clams, depositing their licked shells on a plate, and I grab a spoon, tilt the bowl and consume every drop of cream and every pea.
This lunch costs $12 and is a bargain. Besides kind of enjoying the cinematic memory evoked by the meal, I'm feeling unexpectedly full. Cream and bacon will do that to you.
The alchemist who created this evocative dish is Robert Phalen, the owner/chef of Holy Taco in East Atlanta Village. He and his partners have taken over the spot formerly occupied by Shaun's, across from the Inman Park MARTA station (thus making it convenient to downtown folks). The look is little changed. There's a big patio out back, plenty of taxidermy besides the stag with one ear, a large dining room, and a cozy bar area where you can also enjoy the menu of mainly small plates, five or six larger entrée portions, and creative side dishes such as pole beans with apricots and cured ham. (Phalen is curing most meats on the premises.)
The idea here, obviously, is not to replicate Holy Taco's food, but it does share Phalen's delightfully playful style. Here, the menu is international and will change regularly. I've not had a dish I didn't like.
My second-most favorite dish has been the whole, grilled sardines. If you've eaten and played around the Mediterranean, you'll find this dish as sensually evocative as I found the clams. Phalen splits the beauties and stuffs them lightly with chopped black garlic and arugula. Meyer lemon also figures in the dish, communicating notes of sweetness, like the garlic. I've sent a couple of friends to eat the sardines and they complained that the fish are served with bones intact. Jesus, it takes about 10 seconds to lift the filets from the tiny bones.
An entrée of Niman Ranch pork Milanese was large enough to split. The slightly crunchy flour coating of the pork filets had a hint of cayenne. They were topped with a fried egg that seemed superfluous, if pretty, to me. A tomatoey pipérade of mysterious depth, on the other hand, was the stuff of compulsion. It reflects Phalen's interest in Spanish and Basque cuisine.
There are a few somewhat challenging plates, such as grilled veal heart, roasted beef tongue and buttermilk-fried chicken necks. I tried the latter. They were interspersed with kimchee, creating a funny riff on Buffalo chicken wings. I did find the batter a bit heavy; it outweighs the meat by far. An earthy pork terrine was served with palate-pricking pickled mustard seeds and some pistachio bits. God, it was good. It wasn't served with bread and, in truth, you get more flavor eating it straight up.
A soft-shell crab with a papery-thin, crispy top was served over a salad of field peas with yellow tomatoes and radishes tossed with mint. Pea tendrils tangled with the other ingredients. So far, the only dessert offered has been toasted bread topped with Nutella and roasted strawberries. It's a perfect ending to a meal here.
I've lately enjoyed few restaurants as much as One Eared Stag. As soon as I get tired of the small-plates thing, something like this comes along and blows me away. As I said, I found the food immensely evocative, but I feel confident it won't hurl you into a bisexual threesome. Then again, if you're looking, the kitchen is open every day of the week until 10 or 11 p.m., the bar even later. I'm sure you'll get lucky eventually.