$20 dinner with Robert Phalen

One Eared Stag's roguish chef shows his improvisational chops

As his constantly changing menu at One Eared Stag shows, Robert Phalen is not afraid of surprising you. Rabbit livers with watermelon rind chutney, confit pork jowl with salsa verde, fried chicken necks with kimchi. These dishes aren't just exercises in the unexpected, though; they're the work of a chef who understands tradition and wants to play with it, to riff on French technique and Latin flavors or Southern comforts and Asian style or any other combination that seems to come to his mind at the moment, like a guitarist playing a solo of Indian scales in the middle of a 12-bar blues number.

Who is this Phalen character, with his longish hair, studded belt, and perpetually unshaven face? Was he eating veal sweetbreads in elementary school? Already bored with bourguignon as a teen? From what culinary upbringing does an iconoclast like this spring forth? "Well, if you ask my mother," he says, somewhat sheepishly pausing to push his hair back while standing among the vegetables of the Dekalb Farmers Market. "I was a hamburger and fries kind of kid."

Once he gets around to explaining it, that version of the story actually makes a sort of sense. Aside the butcher cases, Phalen recalls a time in college, when he got his first restaurant job as a dishwasher, working in the back of a kitchen. Phalen, who often speaks in short, clipped sentences, becomes suddenly descriptive, recalling the clang of pots and the heat of the line and the cramped urgency of the dinner rush. It's like hearing the description of a lover that changed his life: Phalen is still very clearly in love with the kitchen today. The kitchen showed him a world much larger than burgers and fries.

At the Farmers Market, Phalen doesn't have any trouble keeping his budget under twenty dollars, reaching, as he does, for parts like black grouper throat and beef liver. He hasn't come today with a menu, preferring to let the options and freshness of ingredients guide him. He turns his nose up at a tuna collar that has passed its prime. He arranges little combinations of ingredients in his cart, seemingly developing each dish as he passes through the aisles.

As he gets started working at his kitchen at home, Phalen explains, "I don't really have a plan." Mild-mannered as Phalen is this afternoon, the statement seems to be as much boast as admission, like a pool shark saying "Look what I can do with my eyes closed." He wears a stylish, pinstriped apron while setting the kitchen in motion: a pot of pork fat on low to render, a quick marinade on some tofu, a scattering of herbs atop the liver as he brings it to room temperature. Modest Mouse rattles out of a small stereo.

Phalen's introduction to Atlanta's culinary scene came through chef Shaun Doty. Phalen first worked under Doty at Mumbo Jumbo, which he describes as only the beginning of a rather fierce mentorship. Though Phalen had already graduated culinary school, he credits Doty for never being satisfied with his work, for giving him entirely unrealistic deadlines, and, in this way, for elevating his ambitions in the kitchen. "He pushed me a lot and if he hadn't pushed me, I wouldn't be here doing what I'm doing. So for the same reasons I hated him at the time, I love him now."

In a somewhat ironic turn of events, Phalen's One Eared Stag occupies the former location of Doty's now-closed namesake Shaun's. Doty jettisoned that revered Inman Park staple to focus on his Yeah! Burger chain. There's a bit of irony, perhaps, in the fact that the protégé is now making ambitious food while the master is dealing in burgers and fries, but Phalen doesn't note it. Instead, he gets rather quiet while he cooks, moving from one dish to another, making a tweak here, an adjustment there, and, more than once, completely switching gears in the middle of making a dish.

Dissatisfied with the cuts of grouper, he decides to use them for a broth, though he can't say at the time what exactly he'll use the broth for. Halfway into blending pineapple rinds for the beginnings of a Mexican-styled beverage, he changes course entirely and decides to concoct a dessert soup. He's constantly tasting, re-evaluating, seemingly lost in thought. You can see the plan developing in front of him, but Phalen doesn't waste words on explaining it. He's clearly more interested in the food speaking for itself. "I kinda know what I'm doing," he demures. "But I don't look like I know what I'm doing."

As the dishes near completion, another factor comes up. Phalen says, "I'm nervous," and it seems, quite visibly, true. Despite Phalen's recent adoration from local food critics, despite his reputation as something of a bad boy, he doesn't have any ambition for the spotlight. He doesn't have a PR firm. He recalls that a friend once set up a meeting for him with a certain well-known TV show. Phalen just didn't show up. "Too nervous," he says.

Each dish arrives with intense inspection from Phalen, who wants to know exactly what is and isn't working. Almost all of the dishes are experiments for him, new versions that he's trying for the first time, too. The grouper becomes a delicately salty soup, enlivened by the simple addition of chopped romaine. Phalen is unimpressed with the tofu confit, an experiment that doesn't quite live up to his standards. The beef liver and caramelized onions feel decadent, despite costing hardly anything. Creamed romaine is pure comfort. The pineapple soup looks entirely original, prepared as it is, and it finishes with a perfect balance of tang and cream.

It's hard to pin down Phalen's style, to give it a name, exactly. He just says, "I don't know. I like to put things together that don't belong together."
Next: Five delicious recipes from Robert Phalen


Black grouper soup

?• 2 cuts of grouper throat
?• 1/4 onion, chopped
?• Bay leaves
?• 2 cloves garlic, sliced
?• 1/2 cup romaine, thinly sliced
?• 1 Thai chili, thinly sliced
?• Optional: bread crumbs, trout roe
?• Salt to taste

Directions: Combine grouper throat, onion, bay leaves, garlic, and a pinch of salt in a pot with enough water to cover, at least 4 cups. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Cook uncovered for at least an hour.

Strain broth, reserving grouper and broth liquid. Discard remaining broth ingredients. Flake grouper meat from the bones.

In two separate bowls, divide grouper meat, Thai chilis, sliced romaine, and add, if available, a spoonful of roe or bread crumbs for flavor. Pour a cup or so of broth over ingredients.


Tofu confit

?• 1 pound tofu, quartered
?• 1 Thai chili, thinly sliced
?• 1/2 pound pork fat
?• 1/4 onion, thinly sliced
?• 1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
?• 1 tablespoon olive oil
?• Bay leaves, bruised
?• Sprigs of thyme
?• Lemon zest, to taste

Directions: While pork fat renders over medium-low heat in a small pot, marinate quartered tofu in oil olive, bay leaves, Thai chilis, garlic, sliced onions, thyme and lemon zest.

Once fat is fully rendered (reserve a couple tablespoons for the beef liver recipe), add tofu and marinade to pot. Cover but be careful to keep the heat low enough to not fry the tofu. Cook for as long as you're willing to wait, ideally a few hours.

Remove tofu and let cool. Cut tofu quarters into 1/4-inch slices. Serve with a generous amount of lemon zest, onion slices, a pinch of salt and a splash of olive oil.


Beef liver with caramelized onions

?• 1 pound beef liver
?• 2 slices bacon, cut in half
?• 1 apple, peeled, cored and quartered
?• 1/4 cup flour
?• 1/2 onion, thinly sliced
?• 1/4 tablespoon brown sugar
?• 2 tablespoons rendered pork fat
?• 2 tablespoons butter
?• 1 tablespoon olive oil
?• Splash of balsamic vinegar
?• Chili flakes, to taste
?• Black pepper, to taste
?• Salt, to taste
?• Thyme, to taste

Directions: Marinate beef liver at room temperature with olive oil, chili flakes, a generous amount of black pepper, thyme sprigs. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a small skillet over medium heat, add rendered fat from confit and onions. Once onions are translucent, add brown sugar, stirring constantly. Deglaze with a splash of balsamic vinegar and remove from heat to cool pan. Keep over low heat while cooking liver, occasionally adding water if onions appear dry.

In a skillet, cook bacon over low heat until done but still chewy. Remove bacon, keeping fat in pan, and add quartered apple, cooking until brown. Set aside.

Remove liver from marinade and toss in flour that has been generously salted and peppered. Add liver to a skillet with butter over medium-high heat until a crust has been seared on either side, a few minutes on each side. Once both sides have been seared, remove pan to oven and finish for three minutes.

Let liver sit for a few minutes before slicing and serve with onions, apples and bacon.


Creamed lettuce

?• 1 head of romaine, roughly chopped
?• 1 8-Ounce container heavy cream
?• Onion scraps, thinly sliced
?• 1 Thai chili, whole
?• 2 tablespoons pork fat, rendered

Directions: In a pan over medium heat, sweat onion scraps in bacon fat. Remove from heat for a minute, add whole container of cream and chili. Cook over low heat for a minute or two and then add lettuce, cooking slowly until lettuce is fully wilted and cream is thick.

Pineapple soup

?• 1 whole pineapple, peeled, cored and cut into long chunks (reserve the peel)
?• 1 cup Greek yogurt
?• 1 tablespoon butter
?• 1 cup sugar
?• 1 large pinch powdered sugar
?• Lime zest, to taste
?• Splash of vanilla extract
?• Ice

Directions: In a buttered pan over medium heat, cook a few reserved large chunks of pineapple until soft and browned, at least five minutes.

Combine yogurt, lime zest and powdered sugar in a bowl, whipping until fully combined.

Put remaining pineapple (including peels), sugar, vanilla and some ice in a blender. Blend until fully smooth. Force through a strainer, removing any trace of peels.

In a shallow bowl, combine browned pineapple, yogurt and pour over blended pineapple.

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