Restaurant Review - Top chefs

A look at the Southeastern James Beard Award nominees

Obsessing over the personality of Atlanta's dining scene may be my job, but even I get sick of hearing myself say, "We need more personal-feeling, chef-driven restaurants." Sometimes, though, the state of our scene comes into national focus. With the upcoming James Beard Awards, America's most highly prized culinary awards, I got to thinking about Atlanta's dining scene and especially how it compares to another of the South's great restaurant towns, Charleston, S.C.

The Beard awards take place in New York City June 8, and will name, among other things, the best chef in the Southeast. Five chefs have been nominated: two from Atlanta, two from Charleston and one from Athens.

Atlanta and Charleston have two very different dining scenes, and each city's Beard-nominated chefs give some insight into the differences. In Atlanta, the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead's Arnaud Berthelier and Restaurant Eugene's Linton Hopkins represent the best of Atlanta's upscale dining options, while Fig's Mike Lata and Hominy Grill's Robert Stehling operate restaurants that epitomize Charleston's more casual Southern aesthetic. Athens' Hugh Acheson, chef at Five and Ten, fits more easily into the informal neighborhood bistro camp, although his cooking presents Southern food with a heightened level of precision and elegance.

I eat in Charleston frequently, and Fig is my favorite place to dine there. Chef Lata mixes Southern ingredients with classic French and Italian bistro preparations, moving easily from deviled eggs to country ham to fish stew en cocotte. Charleston's dining dollars come mainly from tourism, and Fig has become a destination for visitors. But it retains a neighborly atmosphere and is also a favorite among Charlestonians.

Hominy Grill has an unabashedly Southern point of view. It's housed in an old barber shop in an out-of-the-way neighborhood, and serves classic dishes such as country pork ribs with barbecue sauce, or sautéed shad roe with bacon. This isn't a scenester restaurant – it closes every night at 8. Stehling learned to cook at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C., under Bill Neal, one of the pioneers of upscale/down-home Southern food, and Stehling actually brands his style as "neighborhood cooking."

It's a far cry from the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton and Berthelier's expensive, highly conceptual, very European menu. At his best, Berthelier is one of the most talented chefs I've encountered. His dishes are meticulously composed studies in flavor, and are served in one of the most rarefied rooms in the country. Foie gras with tangerine poached aloe is hard to compare to barbecued ribs, but that's the dichotomy of Southern dining.

Perhaps Hopkins represents a bridge between these two worlds, bringing Southern flavors into the fine-dining realm. While this isn't neighborhood cooking, it employs many of the ingredients and techniques that make Southern food one of the world's great cuisines. Hopkins can certainly be given credit for heightening Southern food in the minds of Atlanta diners.

Where Atlanta needed an upscale, tony version of Southern food to make us pay attention, Charleston has always been a city of storefront restaurants and old-charm atmosphere. When I first moved to Atlanta from North Carolina just more than two years ago, it was neighborhood bistros similar to Fig and Hominy Grill that I missed. But in the past two years, the trend in Atlanta has shifted in that direction. We'll never lose our penchant for large, concept-driven restaurants (nor would I want us to), but there's a new generation of restaurants here that cater to everyday quality rather than special-occasion grandiosity. Decatur's recently opened Cakes and Ale is an example, as is Hopkins' own Holeman and Finch. Even Concentrics, the lord of huge, concept-driven restaurants, has a more neighborhood-oriented feel for its newest venture, Parish.

I still don't think anyone has pulled off the perfect balance of fully realized, creative food and casual neighborhood atmosphere in Atlanta the way Fig has in Charleston. But Athens' Acheson certainly has at Five and Ten, and now at his new restaurant, the National. Recently at Five and Ten, I ate crispy sweetbreads served with grits custard and garden-fresh baby okra succotash. The custard looked like a yellow panna cotta, but tasted like a kindly mix of grits and cooked milk. This is New Southern cooking at its best – refined, clever and upscale, yet comforting.

Whoever takes home the award this year, it's nice to see so many distinctly Southern chefs being nominated. And it's refreshing to see the formula that has worked so well for Charleston over the years finally take root here in Atlanta.