Art Of The Meal: Fine And Dine
Five & Ten
1653 South Lumpkin St., Athens
Athens is the SWEET LITTLE town where so many of us thought we were just hanging out, only to realize we’ve absorbed an education. Thus it’s the perfect spot for Hugh Acheson’s celebrated Five & Ten.
Celebrated is right: the chef and his restaurant have been nominated for James Beard’s Best Chef/Southeast award every year since 2007 and captured a Food & Wine “Best New Chef” nod in 2002. Somewhat bizarrely, the restaurant was named Atlanta’s “Restaurant of the Year” by the AJC in 2007. Still, Acheson’s work and attitude at all his restaurants, including Atlanta’s cavernous, cacophonous Empire State South and the more casual Athens spot, The National, is nothing like a stiff and formal instruction, but more like your favorite class – the one with the professor who comes bounding in, brimming with jokes and enthusiasm. Not to mention a unibrow and prominent radish tattoo on his forearm.
Acheson has fun with it all, even citing Gourmet magazine’s “Most Appropriate Chef’s Tattoo” among his awards; he shrugged off his exit from Top Chef Masters with typical low-key charm.
It’s worth tucking one of his paper menus into your purse or pocket just to read Sommelier Ben Giacchino’s lengthy, lively wine notes. The desserts list is titled “Whipped Cream & Other Delights” – with the same typeface as the old Herb Alpert album cover. The main bill of fare is divided into “snackies,” “apps” and “mains.” Simple, witty, clear. Something like the food that will follow.
If brevity is the soul of wit, clarity may be the heart of delish. For whatever entertaining embroideries in the menu and comfortable, stylish restaurant (albeit with exposed ductwork and humble mien), the food itself is unmistakeable for anything but some of the most straightforward Southern flavors you’ll savor anywhere. And like most masters, Acheson makes it seem easy.
The menu includes all the greatest hits: black-eyed peas; collards; pork chops; Carolina gold rice; butterscotch custard pie – fill in the proper foods for the season (our visit was in the spring).
What makes Acheson’s food distinctive (and instantly recognizable) is its balance with light, fresh flavors, his play off sweet and tart. You’ll find them first in the cocktails, and that’s definitely where you should begin: A carefully constructed Martinez (Hayman’s Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur shaken with angostura and orange bitters, served with a lemon twist) contains a panoply of flavors in a single sip, all perfectly perched between sugar and bite.
Another balancing act: Old and New World. Yes, you’ll find pimento cheese, but served with crostini – you get celery with the Medjool dates and parmesan. Icy-fresh Blue Point oysters on the half-shell accompany incredibly sophisticated mignonettes (the vinegary French counterpoint, one spiked with Korean kimchi). Along with a bacon-laced Caesar, you’ll find a classic salade Lyonnaise and crisp veal sweetbreads – served with grits and succotash. A light black-eyed pea and baby collards soup is as celebratory as Italian wedding soup, with brilliant greens and cornbread croutons floating in pot likker.
Hand-cut pasta ribbons with veggies (roasted tomatoes, jalapeno, basil, red onion, arugula, mozzarella and parmesan) have no right to be this good. You expect it of the pork-o-ganza that is the grilled chop with grits cake, collards and ham hock jus with little housemade bread & butter pickles – and it certainly delivers – but the roasted Darby Farms chicken breast and braised leg, with hoppin’ John, turnip greens, pickled ramps and pan jus is a revelation. Soppingly, fabulously flavorful, the whole plate is a blast – the breast’s crisp skin looks like shellacked mahogany. The monkfish with grapefruit is also good, but man, that foie-gras dirty rice! Could I have a bowl of that to go, please?
The desserts are just as strong: That butterscotch pie, with whipped cream, apple compote and candied pecans – you’d like to picture it served at Jefferson’s table, it’s so classically American and fine. Or how about strawberries with toasted almonds and marzipan cream?
I haven’t even mentioned how great the wine list is – starting with Heidsieck Monopole “blue top” champagne by the glass ($12). Nor the reasonable prices, mostly around the low $20s for entrees; the three-course prix fixe ($25; matching wines for an additional $15) is an astonishing value. If you love Acheson’s Empire State South in Atlanta, you owe it to yourself to make a pilgrimage to the lab where the mad scientist concocted his first potions and elixirs. And if you don’t like Five & Ten, you don’t like food.