Art Of The Meal: Miller Union: Collective
999 Brady Ave. NW, Atlanta
Parking: Complimentary valet.
Reservations: Accepted, and usually necessary.
Dress code: Artsy
I have a theory about Miller Union, one of Atlanta’s best (and most celebrated) newer restaurants: If you love it, you may be less than enthusiastic about another recent, critically praised entry, Empire State South. On the other hand, if you love famed Athens chef Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South, you may be more meh about Miller Union.
Both are big splashes in once-moribund Midtown, with Empire State South taking up a high-profile Peachtree Street address and Miller Union planting itself in the artsier district to the west. Their names announce their missions: Empire State South applies New York drive and style to Southern ingredients and cooking; Miller Union is about reclamation – of the old Miller Union stockyards on which it is built and of the overused “farm-to-table” premise to something fresh and exacting.
The biggest difference in the food boils down to a subtle nuance: Both restaurants turn out immaculately prepared dishes of sane proportions with all the skill of chefs at the top of their game. Miller Union Chef (and Georgia native) Steven Satterfield and business manager (and English gentleman) Neal McCarthy honed their chops at Watershed and Sotto Sotto and earned “best new restaurant” nods from Esquire and Bon Appetit last year. Like its owners, Miller Union’s approach is more cosmopolitan – Southern occasionally and nearly accidentally, when the local season’s bounty calls for familiar fare like quail and braised greens.
Empire State South is all about the quest to earn respect for Southern cooking, with Acheson earning a Best Chef/Southeast nomination from the James Beard Foundation in March.
The more distinct difference is environment: Miller Union is smaller, more intimate, and at peak times more difficult to get into. Once you get in, however, you’ll be attended closely by an expert waitstaff. Empire State South accommodates more diners in its cavernous space, carved into friendlier rooms, with occasionally slower service.
I put off writing about Miller Union for a while because my first two visits put me in the same exact chair – what has to be the only inconvenient spot in the restaurant, with my back to the room and vulnerable to frequent bumps and jostles from waitstaff and fellow diners. A third visit finally landed me elsewhere – but next to a loud and well-lubricated group of young women and across the room from a crying baby (who was fortunately ushered out before diners’ nerves became too frayed). Still, I can’t share the experience I’ve so often heard about how comfortable and calming Miller Union can be.
The food, however, is positively restorative: My favorite dish among several standouts isn’t particularly Southern, except in attitude. The farm egg baked in celery cream, served with rustic, buttered toast, could have come straight from Mrs. S.R. Dull’s “Invalid Dishes.”
What could be better than a fresh, gently baked egg in which to dip your toast – except one whose subtle flavors are heightened with the nuances of cream and celery? The porkier grits fritters are rich with country ham and Sweet Grass Dairy’s Thomasville Tomme – perfect with the house’s signature drink, Miller Thyme. Like a Lemon Drop for grownups, this lightly sweet sip of gin bears a floating sprig of fresh lemon thyme.
Entrees, especially fish, display the chef’s remarkably talented hand. Expertly browned flounder, with crisp-fresh English peas, had us marveling at how exciting simple ingredients can be. The single best dish of that last visit had to be, however, the dirty rice served with sautéed quail. We could have gobbled a heaping bowl of the stuff, flecked with tiny bits of offal, onion and herbs. The quail was also delicious, but some pieces were slightly undercooked. Tender baby arugula, dressed with only a bit of salt and lemon, balanced the dish like a Philip Treacy hat. For dessert, milk chocolate pot de crème and almond toffee lent a feeling of well-being and good fortune.
So whose side am I on? Miller Union is a terrific addition to Atlanta’s increasingly interesting dining scene, especially for newly resurgent West Midtown. But I’ll have to side with the Empire State South crowd.
Environment aside, I just find Acheson’s pioneering work more engaging, the flavors reflecting a more varied, yet familiar, palette – the trace of pickles and vinegar; the intense flavors from Southern storehouse practices like drying and salting – all finally given their due.
The more important question is which side you’ll choose – and to do that, you’ll need to try both.