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$20 dinner with Robert Phalen

One Eared Stag's roguish chef shows his improvisational chops

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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

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