No. 5: Empire State South
It’s been only a year since chef-owner Hugh Acheson, who runs two restaurants (including renowned Five and Ten) and a wine shop in Athens, unleashed his brand of individualism on Atlanta, but Empire State South already adds a vital perspective to the dining landscape. Acheson and his executive chef, Ryan Smith, constantly tinker with their expansive vision of Southern food. Sometimes they evoke a moment or mood in a dish: A soft-poached egg surrounded by crisped rice, sweetly spiced sausage, and fresh corn nibs suggests a Lowcountry breakfast on a slow summer morning. Themes run through the menu. A current favorite acknowledges the tradition of “putting up” fruits in the summertime: Acheson and Smith pair red snapper with tomato jam, smoked duck with blackberry conserve, wild plum jelly with striped bass, and, extending the concept, bacon marmalade with pimento cheese on a snack tray of jarred spreads.
Empire State South is a playground of ideas, and it amazes me how many of them fly. Beyond serving breakfast, brunch, and lunch, the restaurant offers a Southern variation on the tiffin, the tiered Indian lunch pail, that customers can call and order daily by 10:30 a.m. to pick up by noon. (Check the website for the weekly changing menu.) The coffee counter pulls some of the most balanced espresso shots in town. A table full of baked goods in the bar area will soon feature creations by recently hired pastry chef Cynthia Wong. For now Wong is focusing on the dessert menu, where she’s already wowing with her buttermilk tres leches gilded with blueberries and crowned with buttercrunch streusel.
The cocktails make fab conversation fodder if you're hanging at the handsome bar, but the true heart of the beverage program is found on the wine list. Steven Grubbs's wacky, wonderful footnotes will have you drinking Rieslings and rosés this summer.
Photograph by Alex Martinez