$20 Dinner with Angus Brown
Octopus Bar's executive chef creates one last meal and bids farewell, for now
In the last three months, Brown has butchered three live goats, a lamb, and two chickens. He says his first kill, a goat at an area farm, was intense. "But then after you do it a few times, it gets easier," he says.
On this particular visit to Rouse's backyard chicken operation, however, Brown is in the market for some eggs. In fact, he made the special detour through East Atlanta to procure what he's found to be the best eggs he's ever worked with. "They have super bright yolks and I think it has a lot to do with the feed and the way that they're treated, no stress," Brown says. "Hudson's eggs are the bomb."
When he's not out butchering small farm animals for food, or building relationships with local farmers, Brown is the executive chef/partner at East Atlanta's Octopus Bar. But in mid-January, nearly two years after meeting his business partner, So Ba owner Nhan Le, and launching their popular late-night-dive-meets-fine-dining experiment in East Atlanta, Brown is leaving to spend several months in Asia, to eat, cook, and learn in Tokyo and Vietnam. "I just want to do a little bit of traveling, get it out of my system. I'm 30 years old. I'm not married, I don't own a house, so I might as well go now while I can," he says.
Back at his Castleberry Hill studio apartment, a record player sits in one corner next to old wine crates filled with records. A former German biergarten table, its bright orange paint cracked and worn with age, conjures visions of Oktoberfest in the open concept kitchen. Brown admits that as much as he'd like to, he never really cooks at home. He does, however, get plenty of cooking done at Octopus Bar, where creative freedom and an ever-changing menu have allowed the young chef to explore and develop his own culinary style. Brown prefers to let the ingredients do most of the work, crafting his own farm-to-table blend of global soul food that incorporates regional Southern, Italian, and Japanese influences. He's especially grateful for the mentor he's found in Le. "Nhan's awesome," Brown says. "He's extremely talented and has taught me a lot. He's Vietnamese, grew up in a Korean household, and is trained in Japanese so his Asian knowledge is huge."
Brown grew up in the Buckhead area, leaving the city at age 15 to live with his father in Scotland. Not one to gather moss, he's been on the move ever since, touching down in all four corners of the United States before circling back to Atlanta in early 2011. He landed a position at Miller Union, but only intended to stay for six months while waiting for an opportunity in Boston to unfold. Little did Brown know, a late-night encounter with Le at Bottle Rocket in Castleberry Hill, would alter those plans significantly. "Nhan who owned Bottle Rocket at the time knew my landlord, so he stuck his head out the door and invited us in. We became friends instantly, drinking all night long just talking about the things we liked to eat but never got to cook," Brown says. A few successful pop-up dinners later and the concept for Octopus Bar was born.
Brown busies himself with preparation, shucking clams and deboning chicken thighs. His ideal dining experience consists of three, progressive components: "I like starting raw, then something fresh, and then eating a composed dish, hopefully something interesting and delicious," he says. Following this formula, the menu du jour begins with three raw clams, followed by a light salad, and finally, his version of oyakodon, a traditional Japanese soul food dish. Brown explains that in Japanese, "don" means "bowl," while "oyako" more or less translates to "parent and child." Appropriately, the dish consists of stewed chicken and lightly beaten eggs over rice.
Cooking on a budget is nothing new for the self-taught Brown who has spent most of his adult life working in kitchens — a career path, he found, that frequently left him broke. "I used to eat a lot of fried rice and eggs, and stuff like that because I didn't have any money. I'd go buy one radish or something like that and try to make something happen with it," he says. "You start to get real creative."
Brown's kitchen cabinets — shelves suspended by chains from the ceiling — sway as he extracts different-sized plates and bowls. A stuffed boar head named Boris oversees the commotion from his perch on an opposite wall. Brown tends a simmering pot of dashi — a steeped seaweed and bonito flake stock — chicken, maitake mushrooms, and soy sauce. A sweet, exotic aroma swims forth with the additions of mirin, a sweet Japanese cooking wine, and fresh ginger.
As he puts finishing touches on three delicate clams on the half-shell, and a citrusy salad of dandelion greens, red radish, and avocado, the conversation shifts to Brown's exciting, albeit uncertain, future. Apart from spending time abroad, Brown's ultimate goal is to open a long-standing, full-service restaurant. For the foreseeable future, that vision is a planned expansion of Octopus Bar with a focus on larger plates and "curated" sashimi, ideally here in Atlanta. "I feel at home here, but I want to see some other things and maybe I'll get it out of my system in Asia," he says. "And if we find an investor, a partner I guess, to really make our vision happen, then I'll do it and I'll stay here. There's a great connectivity between everybody here. We all seem to have a common purpose and common goals. It's very different from the Atlanta I grew up in."
Little neck or Cherrystone Clams 3 ways
1 sour orange
Editor's note: Brown sourced the following garnishes from ingredients used in the meal's accompanying dishes.
1 slice of radish (from the radish used in the salad)
1 cilantro leaf (from the cilantro used in the salad)
1 pinch of sliced green onion (from the green onion used in the oyakodon)
1 pinch of grated ginger (from the ginger used in the oyakodon)
Directions: The goal is to have a progression of flavors, with each garnish stronger in flavor than the previous. Shuck all three clams. The first clam is served by itself in its own juices. The second is served with a squeeze of sour orange, finely cut radish, and cilantro leaf garnish. The third is with ponzu, finely sliced green onion, and grated ginger.
Ponzu (yields 3 cups)
1 cup citrus juice (I used the juice from the sour orange and some fresh squeezed lemon juice.)
1 cup dark soy sauce
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
3 tablespoons mirin
1/2 cup dashi leftover from the oyakodon.
Directions: Mix all the ingredients. You will have plenty left over for later use. Refrigerate and the ponzu will keep for a very long time.
Dandelion greens salad
1 bunch dandelion greens
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
1 Satsuma orange
1 large red radish
Salad directions: Chop avocado. Slice radish. Slice the peel off of the Satsuma. Working over a bowl to reserve any juice that falls for use in the dressing, segment the Satsuma using diagonal cuts to separate the fruit from the membrane. Squeeze all remaining juice out of the remaining membrane into the bowl and set aside. In a large bowl, lightly dress the greens before adding the avocado, radish, and Satsuma sections. Season the salad with fresh ground black pepper and Kosher salt. Toss lightly and garnish with cilantro leaves.
Dressing directions: Add all remaining juice from the segmented Satsuma. Add finely chopped shallot, salt, and pepper. Whisk in a nice Spanish extra virgin olive oil. The ratio of olive oil to citrus juice is usually 3:1.
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 chicken thighs
2 cups dashi stock
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup mirin
1 fresh ginger root, small, cut in threads
1 sweet onion, cut diagonally
1/4 cup maitake or shiitake mushrooms
4 cups cooked white rice (preferably a Japanese variety)
1 green onion, thinly sliced
Thinly sliced toasted seaweed (nori) for garnish
Directions: Lightly beat eggs and set aside. Debone chicken thighs. Cut with skin on into 1/4-inch pieces. Combine dashi, soy sauce, mirin, ginger in a shallow pot or pan. Bring to low boil. Add chicken, onion, and mushroom, simmer for 5 to 7 minutes or until chicken is cooked. Stir in lightly beaten eggs all around the shallow pan. Do not stir, but gently shake the pan to disperse the egg. Cook on medium-high heat until the eggs are barely cooked. Serve over two cups of cooked rice per person in a deep bowl. Garnish with toasted seaweed and thinly sliced green onion.
1 quart cold water
1 ounce kombu (dried kelp, cleaned with a damp paper towel)
1 ounce bonito flakes
Directions: Combine water and kombu. Bring to just below a boil and turn off heat. Add bonito flakes and steep for at least 10 minutes. Strain and the remaining liquid is dashi. You can also buy instant dashi mix (dashi no moto), which is prepared by adding boiling water to the contents of the packet. Ingredients are available at most Asian markets and most Whole Foods grocery stores.
Chicken thighs: $1.51
Cilantro: 50 cents
Dandelion greens: $1.49
Ginger: 4 cents
Green onion: 49 cents
Maitake mushrooms: $1.95
Onion: 55 cents
Satsuma orange: 70 cents
Sour orange: 33 cents
Avocado: 69 cents
Shallot: 12 cents
Radish: 10 cents
Bonito flakes: $2.49
Cheats: eggs, white rice, salt, pepper, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil