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Southern Art and Bourbon Bar restaurant review, Buckhead

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Before Southern Art and Bourbon Bar opened in October, chef Art Smith gave me a phone interview. He seemed a super-nice, down-to-earth guy who just happened to be on a first-name basis with Oprah Winfrey’s famous friends. (Example: “Tyler.”)

Review by John Kessler

Review by John Kessler

It was, after all, a job as the talk diva’s personal chef that first earned him his own renown. Smith has since written two cookbooks, appeared on television cooking shows and followed his small, well-liked Chicago restaurant with two glossier spin-offs — first at a hotel in Washington, D.C., and then here.

A Southerner by birth and an exercise fanatic by way of middle-aged enlightenment, Smith talked at length about his family farm near the Georgia-Florida border and the subtle ways he kept excess fat and calories out of his dishes without sacrificing flavor. When we spoke, he was busily acquainting himself with local suppliers and exploring Atlanta’s restaurant culture. He knew that opening a contemporary Southern restaurant in this town meant he’d better bring his “A” game. He gave me the itinerant chef’s pledge that he planned to return frequently.

Addie Mae's soup (all photos by Becky Stein)

Addie Mae's soup (all photos by Becky Stein)

Here’s what we didn’t really talk about: the curse of hotel dining.

Smith’s restaurant replaced Au Pied de Cochon, the French bistro the InterContinental Buckhead hotel opened with in 2005. It served a signature pig trotter and limped quickly into oblivion. Hotel restaurants can and do open with high ambitions to delight local diners, but they must also serve as an all-hours commissary for overnight guests who need hamburgers, granola and endless pots of coffee. Few toggle easily between these two functions.

Southern Art tries. Smith has designed a clever menu, and his executive chef, Anthony Gray, imbues it with flashes of heartfelt regional character. But the cavernous space echoes with lobby noise, the service feels geared to tourists, and the food can seem overly designed, without the real farm freshness and soul you want from it. It’s a “Southern restaurant” the way Au Pied de Cochon was a “French restaurant,” with air quotes looming large.

The Artisan Ham Bar: elegant oink

The Artisan Ham Bar: elegant oink

Much of that noise comes from the Bourbon Bar, which spills from its small space into the lobby’s central corridor. Guests shout and laugh over the strains of music from a singer-pianist and drink well-executed house cocktails, such as the Blackberry Gin Shrub ($8).

The restaurant proper greets you with a table laden with enormous, showy cakes and pies, including a 12-layer red velvet cake that looks in cross-section like pinstripe broadcloth. Gawk, then gawk again at the “artisan ham bar” — the retrofitted raw bar from the former occupant that now showcases country hams, salamis and cheeses.

The dining room, with its high ceilings and colorful beaded chandeliers, looks and feels much like the previous incarnation. But Smith, an avowed art lover, has bought a number of large oil canvases from local artists and displays them hanging on pulleys from the ceiling. They do take some of the chill off this soaring marble space.

That funny juxtaposition of grandiosity and just-folks hominess pretty well defines Southern Art. The signature buttermilk fried chicken ($24) arrives like a Japanese flower arrangement in a gleaming white porcelain bowl on top of its garnish of creamed potato, plucked Brussels sprout leaves and red-eye gravy. The French manager in his natty suit leans over to intone discreetly, “We serve the chicken like this to encourage you to eat with your fingers, but of course we can bring a plate.” Fingers or plate, the crust (fried in duck fat and canola oil) coats your mouth with a slick greasiness. It’s not great fried chicken.

I really enjoy the ham platter ($18), for which you select three of the five American cured hams on display. I know and love the smoky Benton’s, but am thrilled to discover the Surryano from Surry, Va., (the name plays on “Serrano,” the Spanish cured ham) and the wonderfully unctuous Col. Bill Newsom’s from Princeton, Ky. That said, you do pay nearly 20 bucks for three bitty piles of sliced ham that come with a decorative jar of soupy refrigerator pickles, some slices of greasy grilled bread and — ahem — one spongy roll on a fancy wooden board. This ham-o-rama either needs great biscuits and butter, or a taste of all five to justify the price.

This restaurant works best if you’re in a small plates and cocktails mood. The meal segues nicely from the gratis cheddar-rosemary biscuits (not unlike those at Red Lobster, which I mean as sincere praise), to a pot of creamy pimento cheese ($4) served with fun homemade saltines, to a half-dozen warm, briny oysters baked with lemon, bits of crisp Benton’s bacon and a dollop of creamed spinach — enlightened oysters Rockefeller.

Pork chop with fried pig ears on top

Pork chop with fried pig ears on top

When you and your tablemates are helping yourselves to these pretty-looking shared dishes, that whole glam South thing comes into better focus. When you order, say, a salad and an entree, the meal feels more like an anonymous business dinner in an upscale hotel.

Many of the entrees evince the stiff, piled-up artistry of professional food service rather than any seasonality or nuance. A tender swordfish steak ($26) arrives sandwiched between a bed of creamless (and fairly flavorless) creamed corn and a cap of flabby roasted mushrooms. A sweet, gritty pecan pesto dribbled around the edges gives this dish its Southern geography, but fights the flavors. Seared fillets of North Carolina catfish ($23) get little love from its contrived garnishes of stiff cheddar grits, green tomato-apple relish and crumbled bacon.

The kitchen’s approach works better with meat. The honey-lacquered duck ($28) features a juicy rare breast and confit leg in a clean assemblage of roasted root vegetables, emerald-green spinach and a sweet-tart muscadine jus. A light hand with salt and fat keeps this ample serving from weighing too heavily. A grilled heritage pork chop ($26), moist from a brine, really brightens to its tangy and finely pitched bourbon-mustard glaze. Pork and beans along with crunchy fried buffalo pig ears outfit the plate with equal measures of downhome spirit and high-concept wit.

The front-of-the-house staff — earnest and attentive — has the difficult task of communicating the restaurant’s dual message of local roots and urban glamour. They tend to go on and on about the Southern culinary repertoire (for the benefit of hotel guests), chef Art (for celebrity seekers) and every item on the menu (for the hyper-foodies). It’s sweet but exhausting.

Southern Art presents itself less aggressively at lunch, which I find to be the far more enjoyable meal. It’s a good time to sample Addie Mae’s soup ($8) — a platonic ideal of the kind of dense, creamy chicken noodle soup you know from the can. I enjoy its thick pasta (called “dumplings” on the menu), the ample bits of white-meat chicken and the floating top note of tarragon that elevates the flavor.

Now, too, the kitchen serves Columbia emmer ($10) — a fresh salad made from the wheatberries called emmer (better known by their Italian name, farro) and grown by Anson Mills in South Carolina. It comes tossed with crunchy raw vegetables and sided by a pot of tasty broad bean hummus. I suspect this is the dish chef Art eats when he’s in town.

Red velvet cake in many layers

Red velvet cake in many layers

The real find here is the Brunswick stew ($12), a depth-charged concoction of chicken, pork, lima beans and okra that’s topped off with more of those crunchy pig ears. Gray, making the rounds, says it’s an old family recipe from central Georgia. It shows, chef!

Lunch or dinner, there is no resisting those pies and cakes (all $9) that greeted you at the entrance to Southern Art. Many are massive, showy Cheesecake Factory-style portions to share. An incredibly dense buttermilk chocolate number caked in ganache frosting and an ultra-nutty bourbon pecan pie have their sugar-fiend thrills if not much soul. But that 12-layer red velvet cake — startling and satisfying — gets right to the heart of this restaurant’s nascent identity: gorgeous, clever, “Southern.”

SOUTHERN ART AND BOURBON BAR
3315 Peachtree Road (inside InterContinental Buckhead hotel), Atlanta. 404-946-9070
1stars5Food: upscale take on Southern flavors
Service: sweet and caring but verges on overbearing
Best dishes: heritage pork chop, baked oysters, Brunswick stew, red velvet cake
Vegetarian selections: yes
Credit cards: all major
Hours: Breakfast: 6:30-10:30 a.m. Mondays-Fridays, 7:30-11 a.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. Brunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.
Children: best for older kids
Parking: free parking from hotel valet with validation
Reservations: yes
Wheelchair access: full
Smoking: not in the restaurant
Noise level: Moderate inside the restaurant, but there is often ambient lounge lizardry coming from the bar.
Patio: yes
Takeout: will accommodate requests

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29 comments Add your comment

Baltisraul

December 1st, 2011
6:40 am

WOW…….with those prices, bet the place was packed?

BrianFellows

December 1st, 2011
10:01 am

You complain about noise in over half your reviews. Maybe it’s time to hang it up and stay home. Leave dining out to people who still have a pulse.

Not Alton Brown

December 1st, 2011
11:18 am

$24 for fried chicken and $9 for dessert..place will not last 6 months

Got Pulse?

December 1st, 2011
11:41 am

Double Wow…Got to agree, must be a heckuva overhead to charge $24 for fried chicken. Guess it’s like the $600 toaster at the yard sale. You only gotta sell one.

Really

December 1st, 2011
1:19 pm

The Fired Chcken the night we went was fantastic, as was the duck. The “brasied” peanuts on the pork belly were also amazing. They are still finding their way, but I believe are deserving of more than 1 star.

Mark

December 1st, 2011
2:02 pm

@Brian: ah, the arrogance of youth! One of the tests of the journey through life is how we cope with the inevitable losses. Our crowd jokes, and winces a bit, at the need for reading glasses and extra lighting to read the menus. We lean closer and speak louder. Some of us have even hit the hearing aid stage. None of us are wiling to make fools of ourselves by bellowing loud enough to inflict tedious repartee on the half dozen tables nearby, as the younger crowd is want to do.

So yeah, we do complain about noise. But we also have eaten more great food at more eclectic restaurants across the world than the vast majority of the non-hearing impaired.The four of us at our last dinner out (Woodfire) can count four wine cellars with a total of about 4000 bottles between us. We’re dead serious about what we eat and drink. So no, we’re not really interested in “leaving dining out to you.”

AJ

December 1st, 2011
2:15 pm

I agree with “Really”. As for “Got Pulse?” and “Not Alton Brown”, different places cater to different people. Nothing wrong with that. There are places to get fried chicken for $4.00, $14.00 and now $24.00. Will I go here every week at those prices? No. But I had an enjoyable meal at a definite higher end price and it’s a place I will go for a special occasion or if I have friends in town.

If it fits...

December 1st, 2011
2:20 pm

Can you clarify your thoughts about the soup? If it’s something known “from a can,” why would anyone be moved to try it?

IDo like me...

December 1st, 2011
2:24 pm

And keep ear plugs on hand… With the cresting of the Wireless Age, people are more and more prone to yap loudly in confined places.

RK

December 1st, 2011
2:55 pm

I’m surprised to see hams hanging from the rafters, like in Spain; I have never seen it in the US. I thought it would be illegal (knowing how long it took just to allow Spanish hams to be imported).

Jack Jackson

December 1st, 2011
3:17 pm

$23 CATFISH hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah

Cale

December 1st, 2011
3:47 pm

John- I know food is your focus but it seems from some of your older posts that you also enjoy bourbon. How was the cocktail program at Southern Art & Bourbon Bar, specifically the bourbon offerings? That is the main reason I was considering visiting the restaurant but I’ve heard very little about their bourbon offerings from anyone.

RK

December 1st, 2011
3:57 pm

“Cocktail program” sounds like night course at school.

John Kessler

December 1st, 2011
4:01 pm

If it fits: I was referring to the style. The soup is thick, mild, creamy and a bit salty like canned chicken noodle soup, but much better.

Cale: There’s quite the selection of bourbons and ryes (though no Pappy, as I recall). I hope to write more about this aspect of the whole program later on. But the restaurant/dining side of things needed a lot of explanation, as did my reaction to it. It’s an ambitious place that still seems to be figuring itself out.

Art

December 1st, 2011
5:58 pm

The Brunswick Stew piques my interest. I’m still searching for a recipe/interpretation that comes close to the one that my grandmother made. The ham trio sounds good as well but I agree, for that price, it should be a sampling of all five. Let’s face it, the man can cook some food… Oprah isn’t exactly petite. Let’s hope he hits his stride soon and reconsiders come of his prices.

Baltisraul

December 2nd, 2011
7:54 am

Really….they may be just trying to find themself, as you suggest. In finding their way, they may want to read the business news about the economy. Their menu prices alone will keep folks from trying the resturant. The food may be very good but it is doomed!

Brogens Hero

December 2nd, 2011
9:35 am

The rent on a space of this nature will necessitate higher prices on menu items.

drummerpop

December 2nd, 2011
12:34 pm

Cale – The lobby “Bourbon Bar” is a joke. I went with a friend expecting some top quality/rare bourbons. I was handed a list that looked promising. When I asked for a glass of Pappy’s, the response was, “Oh, I’m sorry, we’re out of that.” That’s fine, it’s rare. But as I continued down the list, the bartender’s answer was always the same. “Oh, I’m sorry, we’re out of that.” Exasperated after the sixth inquiry, I asked, “You have Jack Daniels, don’t you!” Don’t call yourself a “Bourbon Bar” unless you can deliver. JOKE!

Kim A.

December 2nd, 2011
3:17 pm

John’s job is to review the higher-end restaurants. There are always people who complain about the prices and how “this place won’t last long in this economy!” These are not places to go every night (unless you can afford it, of course). These types of restaurants are always going to be pricey. Don’t comment on the reviews, or just don’t go, if you don’t want to pay that much. I can’t afford to do it often but when I can, I’m like the poster Mark and am deadly serious about what I eat and drink and will happily pay those prices.
I also agree with John’s and Mark’s assessment re: noise. It is beyond irritating to have to yell in an upscale restaurant. The acoustics have been chucked by the wayside in some of the restaurants in favor of them looking “cool”. Ecco springs to mind; I love that place but you cannot hear yourself think. Have not been to Southern Art but it was awfully loud as Au Pied de Cochon. High ceilings may look good but do nothing for ambience.
It does seem to be younger people (and no, I am not that old nor to the hearing aid stage yet but I am old enough to feel your pain, Mark) who have no problem having everyone hear the minute details of their conversation and make no effort to tone down their voices. It’s almost as annoying as being in an establishment where they bring your entree immediately after your appetizer…my major pet peeve.

Bubba

December 2nd, 2011
6:53 pm

Art:

If your grandmother was from just east of Athens I have a recipe for you.

Stabby

December 2nd, 2011
9:14 pm

Perhaps a little pricey but the fried chicken was far from greasy. I don’t know exactly what a “soupy pickle” is but having been there twice as many times as Mr. Kessler, I think it is a good restaurant for anyone who isn’t an old queen

Hey Now

December 2nd, 2011
11:49 pm

Don’t be insulting us old queens. We keep half the restaurants in Atlanta in business!

Relative experience..required

December 3rd, 2011
6:41 am

It seems the expectations are set on different levels for different restaurants based on the reviewer’s personal feelings. It is obvious that as you read this and all of John’s reviews there is a personal issue with the celebrity chef (in this case Art Smith) and any restaurant inside of a hotel. With that aside, I have dined here 4 times since October. I have only had perfect service and perfect food. Not to forget the well positioned and skilled bar chefs at bourbon bar. What should be reviewed before the restaurants is the restaurant and culinary experience of the person who writes the review. In my opinion the decor, feel, experience, food and service are a breath of fresh air that is needed in Buckhead. I give Art Smith and Southern Art 3 stars and well on their way to achieve more. I can’t wait to go back!

Toolio

December 3rd, 2011
3:43 pm

@Relative “Bar Chefs”??????????????? Are you trying to be funny????

Oh My

December 5th, 2011
9:22 am

Can certainly understand what the “A” stand for in Kim A

Nellynn

December 5th, 2011
7:55 pm

We just ate there last night and it was marvelous! The peanuts in the pork belly was the standout fav, but all four dishes (duck, catfish, NY strip, fried chicken) were great. We frequent JCT, Empire State South and Local Three so we were anxious to try this new-comer as well and were not disappointed. In fact, we were pretty shocked at this review. John, I hope you give it a follow-up review in the future!

John Kessler

December 6th, 2011
9:01 am

Nellynn – Thanks for sharing your experience, and you can be sure I’ll consider a follow-up review.

Hallie

December 6th, 2011
12:15 pm

I give Southern Art 5 stars for sure. I was a huge fan of Au Pied de Cochon and was sad to see it go however Southern Art dried my tears with its amazing food. The atmosphere is fun! If you don’t like the noise stay at home with your frozen dinner heaven sakes! The interior decor & art is breath taking. When my family and I, who are mostly all over 6′ tall, ate there we enjoyed those high ceilings. I started with the baked clams and the biscuits with pickled veggies; they were amazing! Then i had the three cheese macaroni & the corn bread. I was left wanting more for sure. My husband is a fried chicken snob and he was speechless. The presentation was fun and worth every penny. The red velvet cake was sinfully good and so was the peanut butter pie. My taste buds couldn’t have been more satisfied when leaving. I love southern art and will be returning every visit to Atlanta for sure. You obviously don’t know good southern food. Bless your heart….

Kellen

December 6th, 2011
1:01 pm

$24 for fried chicken is not a misprint and to my surprise its is oh so worth it. I’ll be be back.