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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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: yes