First Look: Empire State South

Hugh Acheson comes to Midtown

Empire State South (999 Peachtree St., 404-541-1105, www.empirestatesouth.com) has only been open a couple of weeks, but I've had five meals there. It's not because I found the food inconsistent. It's partly because the restaurant's owner/chef is the brilliant and disarmingly unibrowed Hugh Acheson. His first Athens restaurant, Five & Ten, has earned him multiple James Beard nominations.

Acheson is Canadian with a background in Euro techniques. That's not what one expects in someone earning his rep as a Southern chef. But perhaps it's his outsider status that liberates him from convention so that he can play with our traditional cuisine in unexpected ways.

The most important reason I've had five meals at Empire State South boils down to simple craving. The food, by and large, has been superb. There's a kink, though, that you need to keep in mind. The chef de cuisine, in charge of day-to-day execution of the menu, has been Nick Melvin, formerly of Parish. He's already announced that he's leaving. His replacement will be Ryan Smith, formerly of Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch.

My meals at the restaurant have included three lunches, one dinner and breakfast. Yes, the restaurant is, incredibly, open for all three meals like a hotel café. I'm not sure who's going to eat breakfast here — maybe office peeps of the 999 Peachtree building. The restaurant is completely hidden from view on Peachtree Street, so it's Acheson's reputation that will bring people into the "beacon of business," as the building's doors are lettered.

My breakfast was composed of side dishes — a scrambled egg, hominy grits and a biscuit with housemade "peameal bacon." I've never heard of the latter, which is like slightly brined Canadian bacon. The fluffy, crispy biscuit was made at the restaurant, as are most pastries. Some are supplied by Holeman & Finch. A pastry case tempts passersby in the 999's lobby entrance to the restaurant.

My egg was perfect but my grits were beyond perfect. I'm not kidding. They were so creamy and dense with flavor, I could make a meal — or a dessert — of them.

There's plenty else on the breakfast menu, which is available Monday through Friday, 7-10 a.m. Do not miss an espresso drink here, whenever you go. I have honestly never had a macchiato as good as the one served here, made with a Counter Culture espresso blend.

Lunch and dinner menus change somewhat from day to day, but the idea at both meals is a meat and two with bread. There is one lunch dish you must not miss: "Super-food." It's a great example of Acheson's especially surprising treatment of vegetables. Farro, for example, floods the mouth with unexpected flavor. Green beans are lightly doused with avocado buttermilk. There are three more veggies on the plate, plus strips of grilled hanger steak, perfect for the neo-carnivorous vegetarian.

Pan-roasted Carolina trout was topped with a charred-corn vinaigrette, reminiscent of elote. I ordered sides of roasted okra and baby eggplant, which was faintly but pointedly sweet. (Acheson told me the sweetness was natural.) The okra is one of those dishes that set up my craving. I don't know how long it will be available, but please order it, even if you hate okra. Acheson roasts it, maintaining its crispness, and tosses it with buttered almond slices. The combination is genius.

Another lunch dish I liked was braised chicken legs over a light portion of Brunswick stew. (I mean really light.) This time I ordered the radishes with "boiled peanut salsa verde." Yay for tartness tempered by some avocado. On the other hand, I found the collards a bit too sweet.

I'm not sure why, but dinner did not go as well for three of us. I'm guessing the huge crowd — get a reservation! — had slammed the kitchen. Our standout app was the antipasto platter that will make any Southerner laugh. You get crustless, white-bread tea sandwiches of egg salad and pimento cheese, pickles and deviled eggs (which, of course, are not as good as your mother's, but quite acceptable).

For my entrée I chose grilled Georgia quail with (two) poached figs, Madeira and arugula. Nice, but not much beyond the usual at good restaurants here. Ditto for the short ribs with cipollini and the pork chops with gravy. The meats were all locally sourced and the idea, I'm sure, is to let their flavors stand on their own ... and they did.

Our food was not very well plated at dinner, either. We couldn't figure out why. For example, I received only a tablespoon of Pink Lady succotash while Wayne got a plate full of it. The short ribs were ungarnished and looked very unappetizing, frankly.

Of desserts, I've most liked the bourbon pecan pie with brown-sugar clabber cream. Chocolate pudding with praline whipped pudding will please chocolate lovers. I found the heap of candied popcorn on the side kind of pointless, but that's just me.

I haven't even described the restaurant's cool décor and the mainly great service. The restaurant is a must-try.

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