Art Of The Meal: Empire State South
Empire State South
999 Peachtree St., Atlanta
Parking: Complimentary valet.
Dress code: Comfortably stylish.
For months, foodies had been holding their collective breath (and expanded bellies), waiting for Hugh Acheson’s new spot to open in Atlanta. The Athens chef, of Five and Ten and The National, has garnered four James Beard Award nominations for his Southern-accented cuisine, served sweetly but knowledgeably by his college-age staff. How would he move his distinctively individual, intimate vision of a Southern small-town restaurant to recently resurgent midtown Atlanta?
Acheson arrives on the scene just as this city’s best chefs move in on his territory – serving up traditional, but refined Southern fare in a fine dining atmosphere, matched with a stellar wine list and mule-kick cocktails. It’s like a big-time Top Chef Quickfire Challenge, in which host Padma breathlessly informs a harried Linton Hopkins (Restaurant Eugene/Holeman & Finch), Richard Blais (Flip), Kevin Gillespie (Woodfire Grill), Ford Fry (JCT. Kitchen) and Steven Satterfield (Miller Union): “OK: It’s the worst recession in recent history, and restaurants are folding like paper fans. Your challenge is to open a stunning new dining room specializing in pig’s ear that tastes like silky foie gras. Oh, and one more thing: It has to taste Southern. Go!”
Acheson’s fans have nothing to worry about. Along with installing one of the city’s most hardworking, but easy-to-like hangouts (the restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with a take-away market of goodies, with some irresistible outdoor nooks around a bocce court), Acheson has matched a want to a need so successfully it has the click of a Rubik’s cube’s final, solving snap. More importantly, he gets subtle flavors exactly right, summoning memories and creating new ones, all within the Southern vernacular.
In fact, Empire State South’s glorified “meat-and-three” concept throws down the oven mitt, challenging the rest of the crowd – you think you know refined Southern, good local food sources, hospitality, a room with energy? Ha! Relax with an A Martinez, a perfectly balanced cocktail of Leopold’s gin, maraschino liqueur, dry vermouth and orange bitters. Survey the heart-pine floors and pecky cypress ceilings and peruse the vegetable list: Okra with buttered almonds. Hakurei turnips. Pickled sunchokes.
The wine list is formidable, quirky and smart. The by-the- glass selection is small, but unique. (The Leon Palais blanc de blanc is a nice starter, and the Chateau Pesquie rose always correct.) If there is a fault, it’s in the service – not in the staff’s helpful and patient disposition, but in a slightly clunky setup (the host stand is in a counterintuitive spot), and the service pace, which can sometimes feel as slow as the ceiling fans – unlike the vibrant energy of the place itself.
Like many of his colleagues, Acheson loves playing with offbeat offal – among the stellar starters are small jars of chicken liver pâté, served with pink-edged pickled eggs, boiled peanut hummus and lamb rillette.
Oysters on the half-shell arrive with a wake-up-call of “kimchi mignonette” – an ingenious French/ Korean collusion of hot, sweet and saline.
In fact, it is the low-key interplay of those flavors that makes Empire State South rival only Restaurant Eugene as the most convincingly Southern of a host of great local restaurants – citrus and vinegar are the lacy edges on a sunworn but flattering cotton print dress. Butter-browned skate wing seems to hover over a side of earthy lentils. Pan-roasted redfish’s meatiness is only enhanced by its sherry beurre blanc and humble risotto, and the Tybee shrimp and grits with house tasso and red peppers take you back to the shore – this time, in a luxury cottage.
You won’t go wrong with a vegetable plate – in fact, that’s my plan for my next few visits, to see what spring will bring to follow bacon-flecked Brussels sprouts, escarole spiked with Aleppo chiles, and fingerling potatoes with mustard and candied shallot, or the delicious butternut squash bisque.
Desserts are full-out, without descending into crazy-town: A thick slice of pecan pie bears a scoop of “brown sugar clabber” ice cream. Skip the soft-serve ice creams in favor of chocolate “pudding” with candied popcorn, or a perfectly lovely red-velvet cake. Coffee is especially good and made to order.
If you want a taste of the best of what’s happening in Southern cooking, go.