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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP
City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP

Empire State South dining review, Midtown

$$$-$$$$

$$$-$$$$

I pretend to listen to my wife and friends, but the wine list is making me too happy to pay them any attention. All its funny asides, pithy tastings notes and categories I’ve never seen elsewhere hold me rapt. What is the wine-growing region called “Mysterious Land of Great Values,” and is that red burgundy really $22?

essjars

"In Jars" (all photos by Becky Stein)

Smart, smart restaurant, this Empire State South. Open since late August on the ground floor of the 999 Peachtree building in Midtown, it manages to dish up its thoughtfulness in every detail. Love that front table laden with pastries to go (everyone takes a cakewalk around it). Love the way the menu references an old-school meat-and-three. Love the varietal coffee drinks. Love the bocce court!

Of course, you can’t eat a bocce ball. None of these curated details would matter a lick if the kitchen didn’t deliver. But it does, and not with some contrived vision of upscale Southern fare but with lusty flavors and dishes that are a joy to eat. Think food you can lost in — pickles and pâtés, puffy dinner rolls with melting sorghum butter, platters heaped with okra and butterbeans, pork chops as thick as a Bible, cold-water oysters from British Columbia and sturgeon caviar cultivated right here in Georgia.

Review by John Kessler

Review by John Kessler

This restaurant is the third from owner-chef Hugh Acheson. As at his two Athens eateries, Five and Ten and the National, he shows off a rare perspective — cerebral enough to think outside the box but guided by palate in his cooking. Acheson has also found a canny muse in his chef de cuisine, Ryan Smith, formerly of Restaurant Eugene. Smith replaced the opening chef, and though he hasn’t yet spent a month in the kitchen, he’s rocking the freshest new menu in the city.

Empire State South is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner — it was part of the lease agreement — but dinner is where it’s at. Set as it is in an office building lobby, the rich woods and chunky furniture of its farmhouse decor come off a bit like a clothing boutique in the light of day. But at night it mellows into a kind of caramel softness as dim, yellowy light hits the walls, and everything turns easy on the eyes.

The dinner menu suggests a great range of things to eat on its slender list of sharable “snackies,” appetizers, entrees, “put-ups” (preserved foods) and side dishes. You order and order, and before long your table looks like Sunday supper.

Start with a smart update on the French 75 cocktail called the Southern 64 ($10): Hendricks gin, lemon, muscadine sour and sparkling wine do wonders for your appetite. If you’re smart, the snackie called “in jars” ($15) should follow close behind — and you’ll soon be crunching okra pickles, smearing musky lamb rillettes and bright chicken liver mousse on warm toast points, indulging in pickles eggs and trying to remember what that mysterious, delicious smooth spread is. Ah, yes, boiled peanut hummus.

Super-food lunch plate

Super-food lunch plate

Acheson and Smith steer clear from the classic Southern repertoire but have such a good sense of Southern interplay of flavors and textures — of the sweet and pickley, of the rich and smooshy, of the way vegetables assert themselves against a hunk of protein, and how everything tastes yummier for that.

Pan-crisped fillets of trout ($20) arrive with leek wisps, a hoppin’ John-like mixture of peas and rice, and sweet-sour slips of eggplant in a bacon vinaigrette. It’s a novel dish, but one that speaks of this region.

Pork chop

Pork chop

To wit: Is there better pork to be had than the Berkshire chop ($26), so thick and righteous, so ideally framed by a pillow of mashed sweet potatoes and fennel slaw, so supremely porky?

Yes, maybe. A tender braised pork shoulder special ($26) is like eating porcine clouds, and there’s something mesmerizing in its setting of cauliflower puree, mustard greens and poached pear.

I often find sweet accents in savory food overwhelming, but not here. An appetizer of smoked sturgeon ($11) with fingerling potatoes, pickled wax beans and mizuna arrives with dots of frankly sweet lemon confit. But then the sour, smoky and bitter flavors stand up to it; the dish turns dynamic.

I also appreciate the way this kitchen doesn’t overdo fat in pursuit of flavor. Those sweet potatoes and a great butternut squash bisque ($6) with raisins speak of fall vegetables, not hidden depths of cream and butter. One of this kitchen’s best dishes is a lunch plate called “Super-food” ($12) — a few slips of medium-rare hanger steak set amid rafts of great local veggies. There are even wheatberries on the plate — not like your grandma made, that’s for sure, but they taste right in context.

Many chefs talk about letting ingredients speak for themselves, but this kitchen demonstrates what that means. An arugula salad ($9) with smoked onion vinaigrette and pickled fennel arrives in a ring of lightly cooked, unpeeled baby turnips. Unpeeled? Yes! Taste the skin, which is nothing like the flesh. It has an almost piney flavor, like matsutake mushrooms.

The kitchen reaches high and wide in its ambition and mostly hits the mark. Not always, alas. Stringy, limp-skinned duck confit at lunch ($16) tastes almost too healthy when it should be a crisp wonder that sings with the flavor of fat. A sweetbreads appetizer special at dinner ($15) looks smashing on its bed of farro, but is rare to raw in the center. Gooey sweetbreads don’t argue the case for offal.

And the pastries haven’t really spun my dials yet. I love those dinner rolls, but a dry hummingbird cake ($6) and plain-Jane wedge of flour-thickened chess pie ($6) seem too studied and “Southern.” I want either a brilliant light dessert made with fruit or a total gut bomb to take a forkful of.

Front table, laden with pastries

Front table, laden with pastries

Service feels very proper — everything happens at the right time, and you’re never left wanting. But this food is so warm in spirit that I found myself wanting a slightly chatty manager or wacky waiter to better communicate the personality.

Wine manager Steve Grubbs not only writes a very readable wine list, but he also assembles a food-friendly collection — mostly Old World, with special attention paid to pinot noir and Italian reds at every price point. I’m not complaining at all.

I can’t wait to explore this menu and this wine list better because I’m sure there are soon-to-be favorites I haven’t yet tried. This is the first restaurant yet to get beyond that whole “Southern farm-to-table” thing with something that is fresh and new without for an instant forgetting its sense of place. Chef Acheson, thanks for finally coming to Atlanta.

EMPIRE STATE SOUTH
999 Peachtree St., Midtown. 404-541-1105
4stars5
Food: Nontraditional Southern fare
Service: Correct and knowledgeable, if not quite yet as warm in tone as the food.
Best dishes: Berkshire pork chop with mushroom jus, Super-food lunch plate, butternut squash bisque, smoked sturgeon with lemon confit
Vegetarian selections: The five-side plate should make any vegetarian happy; sides and salads can round out the meal.
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Hours: Breakfast, 7-10 a.m. Mondays-Fridays; lunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner, 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays and 5:30-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; brunch, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays.
Children: older and well behaved kids only
Parking: validation in attached lot during the day; valet at night
Reservations: yes
Wheelchair access: yes
Smoking: no
Noise level: moderate to high, depending on where you sit
Patio: yes, with bocce court
Takeout: yesRatingsKey_3

29 comments Add your comment

Davey Boy Smith

November 5th, 2010
7:52 am

Excited to try this one. Five and Ten has always been a favorite.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andre Blanchard, John Kessler. John Kessler said: Empire State South dining review, Midtown http://bit.ly/b39k8A [...]

[...] original post here: The AJC's metro Atlanta dining critic John Kessler reviews Empire … Uncategorized cerebral-enough, few-slips, from-owner-chef, grandma, hanger-steak, kitchen, [...]

Baltisral

November 5th, 2010
8:46 am

The review makes me want to try!! Thanks, John!

[...] See the original post here: The AJC's metro Atlanta dining critic John Kessler reviews Empire … [...]

Steve

November 5th, 2010
10:11 am

Great review JK. Very much looking forward to trying it.

Kirk

November 5th, 2010
10:14 am

My mouth is watering already. 4 stars, oh my!

foodlover

November 5th, 2010
10:29 am

four stars for a meat and three? hmmmm…$26.00 pork chop…..

Michael

November 5th, 2010
11:02 am

Love Hugh’s other two places. Can’t wait to try Empire South…

Steve

November 5th, 2010
11:41 am

I’ll echo everyone else’s comments. I absolutely love Hugh’s other places, and I really can’t wait to get into Empire South. I’m very pleased that I won’t have to drive an hour just to have his food (although, Five and Ten is worth it).

foodandloathingintampa

November 5th, 2010
11:47 am

Had the pumpkin mascarpone mousse at Five and Ten a few weeks ago. I blogged about it if you want details. It’s my new favorite dessert. Maybe that amazing chef should put it on the fall menu at all his restaurants. As always, loved reading your review and now I really can’t wait to try this place.

Amanda

November 5th, 2010
12:02 pm

I had brunch there a few weeks ago with my 11 month old son (the grass next to the bocce ball court that my son could wander on while we were waiting for our food was awesome) and could not have been happier with the quality of the food. I feel like I could go there every day for months and ever get bored with the food. Broke maybe, but not bored. I’m thinking that maybe the staff kept it proper with you John because they knew who you are and were maybe nervous? The female manager actually sat down with us for a few minutes and made us feel super welcome. While I might not call our waiter full on wacky, he chatted us up about Halloween plans/costumes and really engaged with my son. Why, oh why, aren’t they in my office lobby? Maybe we can move.

[...] Acheson is the owner/chef and boldface name at Empire State South – the restaurant reviewed in today’s newspaper. Although he keeps an apartment in Atlanta, Acheson actually lives in Athens, where he tends to his [...]

Lucy

November 5th, 2010
12:55 pm

Had a very late lunch here yesterday. It was one of the best “upscale” lunches I’ve had in a while. One app, two mains, one dessert, one soda for $50 for lunch for two people is upscale, no? But everything was so delicious that it was well worth the price tag. Can’t wait to come back next week.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chicks in Atlanta, Ronnie, Shelbi Saine, accessAtlanta, Jenny Turknett and others. Jenny Turknett said: Can't wait to go! Empire State South dining review, Midtown http://t.co/zawkpgI [...]

Mel in Midtown

November 5th, 2010
6:24 pm

Have had lunch and dinner there and have reservations to go again soon. I think it is much, much better than Miller – Union. Your review pretty much nailed it, John.

bogiesmom

November 5th, 2010
8:52 pm

I love this place, too! Love the food, atmosphere, staff – everything. I try to hit all the new restaurants and this one is by far my favorite in a very long time. Congrats to Hugh Acheson!!

carol

November 5th, 2010
9:45 pm

Have been a long time fan of 5 & 10 in Athens … cannot wait to try Empire State South on our next visit to Atlanta. Great review, John. Heartiest congratulations to Hugh and Staff!

petitjean

November 7th, 2010
9:41 am

Yes at breakfast, lunch and dinner and the wine list makes us happy.

westgalady

November 7th, 2010
4:20 pm

I went in with high expectations after reading great reviews online. Alas, it was not to be so. We had reservations but table was not ready. Table offered ended up being in front of the door with gale winds blowing across our table every time someone new came inside. We ended up at a fairly nice table in a corner and thought the problem were over. Not so.

Waitperson assigned to our table really didn’t want to be there, couldn’t remember the night’s specials, and was AWOL for the better part of the evening. As a result, we got incomplete orders or dishes delivered to the wrong person on a regular basis. Bread was store bought and nothing to write home about. My fish was room temperature, as was my friend’s food. Dessert was missing components promised on the menu and when we asked for the rest of the dessert we were told “we’re out of it”. But – you guessed it – when we got the bill we were charged the full price for dessert.

Valet parking was for a maximum of 3 hours. Because the kitchen and waitstaff were so slow during the evening, we were watching our time carefully. I asked for the bill 30 minutes before our 3 hours were up so that we wouldn’t be hit with a $10 penalty at the valet parking. My waitperson told me “don’t worry, you can go over 3 hours and they won’t charge you.” That said, we relaxed and ordered dessert and were 15 minutes past out 3 hour allowance. You guessed it – the parking people threw a hissy fit and demanded $10 before they would let us have our car.

Bottom line is that the manager on duty at the restaurant comped some of the things for some of our table, and talked the valet guys down off the roof and got that fixed, but then she proceeded to run her mouth and tell me I had no right to complain.

This group may have a very successful restaurant in Athens, GA, but they have a long way to go to make it in Atlanta. I give them 2 years max. There are too many well run restaurants in Atlanta who truly want customers to return. That’s where you’ll find me – not at Empire State South.

[...] okay to come in. I’ll leave the pedigree details to all the other reviewers here, here, and here. Great pictures from Jimmy are here. Let me just tell you about the [...]

Jenny

November 8th, 2010
12:35 pm

Tried this place last night and it was fantastic. Loved the warm and cozy atmosphere and could have sat there sipping wine all night. They brought me rolls and grilled bread, which came with a spread that reminded me of brown sugar butter pound cake. I had the veal cheek appetizer with lentils and a 5-vegetable plate with collards, turnips, squash farotto, fingerling potatoes and brussels sprouts. The turnips were almost raw and potatoes nothing to write home about but the collards, farotto and brussels sprouts with bacon were absolutely delicious!

bbb

November 8th, 2010
4:05 pm

So good. Hugh has done it again!

nique

November 8th, 2010
4:33 pm

Dinner sounds great, but the breakfast I had this weekend was overpriced and the menu had like 3 items with eggs. I’d stear clear of breakfast unless they lower prices and expand the menu, but I’m interested in trying it for dinner. They do seem to use really good ingredients and the coffee was really good.

FoodFan

November 8th, 2010
4:56 pm

Five & Ten is my favorite restaurant in the state, so I have been here multiple times since they opened. Have had the pork chop mentioned above, incredible fried chicken app (served over a raw corn salad that was amazing), buttermilk icecream was incredible – and the list goes on. Everything there has been great, the vegetables especially. Amazing what truly fresh veggies from a farm & not some mass-produced crap from the grocery store can taste like, especially in the hand of chefs that know how to treat the product. GO TO ESS IT IS GREAT

Jenny Turknett

November 9th, 2010
10:30 am

We enjoyed dinner here last weekend. We loved the “And Toasts” with the candied bacon marmalade and pimiento cheese — ooh, that bacon marmalade. But, alas, we didn’t receive the dinner rolls with sorghum butter. We’ll have to ask next time. We also enjoyed the pecan pie with clabber cream served warm (only slightly too sweet) and the pumpkin soft serve with pumpkin seed brittle. We did experience a few bumps in the road during the reservation making/confirming process and a 5 minute wait for spoons after our desserts were served. But, these things will get ironed out.

And did you see the lunch boxes on their website? That’s a must-do for our next picnic!

Huh?

November 10th, 2010
8:37 am

Guess I’ll have to try it again. I went there to great disappointment. My entire dish was cold, the meat was chewy and the mac ‘n cheese was almost nothing but mac. I went with a couple midtown restaurant managers and they were equally disappointed with their cold and underseasoned food. I’m hoping the place was just having a bad night, but more than a few of my foodie friends have had similar bad experiences. My only theory is that service people can only make it on an early weeknight and the ESS staff must not work as hard on slow nights.

cheshire

November 11th, 2010
3:29 pm

Ate there last night… absolutely phenomenal. Immediately one of the top restaurants in Atlanta, hands down.

Disappointed in ESS

November 12th, 2010
8:36 am

I went to dinner there this past week with a group of 6. We had very high expectations based on Acheson’s reputation and the buzz surrounding the restaurant. First impression was not a good one; several servers congregated in the area near our table, but no one seemed interested in helping. It was clear that some noticed we had been there a while with no water or other drinks. Finally, someone visited and took drink orders and passed them onto someone else who would become our server.

The appetizers were terrific (toasts with bacon marmalade and pimento cheese; and a terrine of foie gras).

Unfortunately, service went from absent to intrusive. Our server would walk up and *instantly* interrupt a conversation to take an order. No pause for us to finish our sentence, no excuse me, just an immediate “have you had a chance to look at the menu”.

I had the pork shoulder confit special served with greens and a rutabaga puree, my wife had the shrimp and grits. The pork was bland; it tasted more like a boiled piece of pork shoulder—tender, but flavorless. A confit should concentrate flavor, and this dish didn’t do it. The shrimp and grits were nothing to write home about.

Desserts were very good (red velvet cake and a pudding dish).

The unevenness of food and service may improve with time, but I’m not itching to go back soon. I think Mr. Kessler’s 4-star review overstates the case for now. If I want meat-centric dishes and food in jars, I’ll pick Abbatoir over ESS.