Cream of the Crop: Empire State South
Blending a little old with a lot of bold, Empire State South conquers new Southern territory
“This is so pretty I'd wear like a brooch.” That’s what my wife, Blair, said when her entrée of bay scallops arrived on an alabaster wave of pureed cauliflower. “Cynthia Wong is a badass.” That’s what I said, later that same night, when I bit into a button of maple flan, shawled in a Tokay-spiked caramel.
A dozen years have passed since Hugh Acheson opened Five & Ten, a white-tablecloth
restaurant in Athens, Georgia, with a bare-knuckle approach to flavors. He built his reputation paying homage to the South without bowing to provincial ways. That thinking led to dishes like cornmeal-dusted sweetbreads with tarragon jus and grits custard. And bourbon lobster bisque. And a palate cleanser of cubed watermelon sprinkled with cayenne, inspired by Mexican street food vendors.
At Empire State South, Acheson’s newest restaurant, set, incongruously, on the ground floor of a bank building in Midtown Atlanta, Ryan Smith is the insurgent with his grip on the skillet. You already know Wong, the pastry chef. And you should get to know the sommelier, Steven Grubbs. A madman with a yen for Rieslings and Barolos, he has a talent for touting bottles that manage to be both cheaper and better than you expected.
Acheson originally billed the restaurant as a newfangled meat-and-three, the sort of place where diners could relish a smothered pork chop or a fiddler catfish fillet, paired with sides like braised collards, stone-ground grits, and fried okra. Sure, he sourced better ingredients than the average joint. But the formula was much the same.
Under the leadership of Smith and Wong, Empire State South has gone well beyond the meat-and-three conceit. Other restaurants, inspired by recipes and techniques lifted from antebellum receipt books and plantation ledgers, are making their reps by interpreting various Southern pasts. Instead, Empire State stages expositions of contemporary regional foodways.