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.”)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Food: 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