Review: Empire State South

Drinking up Hugh Acheson’s Atlanta outpost

There are food awards, there are writing awards, and there are food-writing awards. As of now, there are no awards for menu writing. But if menu writing were considered a literary pursuit with its own set of accolades, Empire State South’s wine director (and part owner) Steve Grubbs would be deserving of the highest honors.

Case in point: “... there’s something about the vibrancy of the act — something in her demeanor, her appealing-but-not-quite-perfect-thigh, Gable’s goonish eyes — that makes you feel as though you’re seeing the prototype, the birth of a trope.” Yes, Grubbs is alluding to the infamous Claudette Colbert scene in It Happened One Night in which she flags down a car with her bare leg. He’s also describing the way he feels about a Barolo.

Grubbs’ wine list might be the best thing about Empire State South, but it also serves as a particularly successful example of what the restaurant is aiming to achieve. The list, like the restaurant, is beautiful, the fonts a satisfying mix of classic and modern, the wide sheet of paper pleasing to spread out over your table and peruse. It has personality that avoids pretension, in its descriptions, in its footnotes, in its selections. The choices are neither too obvious nor too oddly esoteric. The passions of Grubbs and his business partner, chef Hugh Acheson, are proudly on display. Reds are dominated by Burgundy, Italy and the Rhone. Whites also lean to Burgundy, skirt the Loire, Italy and Spain, and then come to rest firmly on Rieslings. Rieslings? Yep. There’s even a lengthy footnote about why you should love Riesling. And believe me, you should love Riesling.

If my adoration of this wine list is slightly outsized, it’s because wine is one place where Atlanta falls short compared to other cities. Restaurateurs underestimate our taste and curiosity. But not Empire State South. Of course, the restaurant’s achievements don’t stop with the Rieslings. The thoughtfulness, playfulness and all-around quality of the list is indicative of the entire enterprise.

When Acheson announced last year that he was planning to open a restaurant in Atlanta, the news was met with a mixture of excitement and confusion. Acheson has been nominated by the James Beard committee four times for his work in Athens as the chef/owner of the National and Five and Ten (he also owns a wine shop, surprise surprise), and the scale and tone of his restaurants there seem so tied to the town’s intimate, laid-back vibe that it was hard to see how his success would translate to Atlanta; particularly to Midtown, and especially on the ground floor of an office tower. His Athens restaurants work so well because they’re small and personal, and because they feel organic to their surroundings. What the hell could be organic on the corner of Peachtree and 10th streets?

There were other head-scratching details. The restaurant would be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And then there was Acheson’s choice for executive chef, Nick Melvin. Melvin had been working at Parish and doing good work there, but still. It seemed like an odd fit — Melvin’s bold cooking and high-volume restaurant history seeming out of step with Acheson’s nuanced style and hyper-local aesthetic.

Now, three months after opening, many of these issues have been sorted out. If the location seemed peculiar, Acheson and his team have done a helluva job at imbuing it with an aesthetic that’s about as far from dull office building as you can get. As soon as you step through the doors, the rustic dark wood and deep blue walls transport you to the country home of a vintage/modern design junkie. The space feels relaxed and classy. For such a large restaurant, it feels personal.

The chef situation has worked itself out as well. For whatever reasons, Melvin and Acheson decided to part ways six weeks into the venture (Melvin has landed at Rosebud). Replacing him is Ryan Smith, who had been integral to the kitchens of both Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch — restaurants more closely aligned with Acheson’s sensibilities.

If the change was apparent anywhere, it was in the demeanor of Acheson himself. The right working relationship can mean everything to a kitchen, and before Smith came on board Acheson seemed anxious and exhausted every time I saw him, which was every time I was in the restaurant except once (I should mention that I was completely, totally busted as a critic at Empire State, although I did manage to get in and out once without being spotted and had one of the best meals of all my visits). Now, with Smith at the helm, Acheson has calmed considerably. And the food, while not screamingly different, seems to have fallen into place as well.

The menu isn’t particularly expansive, but it manages to be versatile all the same. The snacks section of the menu (OK, they call it “snackies,” but that doesn’t mean I have to) provides the most fun. The plate called “in jars” comprises a collection of hors d’oeuvres including pickled eggs, a rich chicken liver pâté, and outrageously delicious lamb rillettes. Lamb fat is an acquired taste, but if you’re lucky enough to have acquired it, this is perhaps its best expression: creamy, funky, silken and addictive. Pimento cheese on the “and toasts” plate is some of the zingiest around, ramped up with crunchy parsley leaves as garnish. The accompanying “bacon marmalade” is kind of weird — as if you took the bacon used to flavor molasses-heavy baked beans and then drained all the beans out — but on top of the pimento cheese it provides an alluring sweetness and smoke. Oysters on the half shell (there’s a fun selection to chose from) are served with a puckery, spicy kimchee mignonette. Why hasn’t someone thought of this before?

Five and Ten’s classic frogmore stew shows up as an appetizer here, all super-fresh shrimp, vibrant broth and crunchy vegetables. Smoked sturgeon is light on the smoke, allowing the unctuous texture and subtle flavor of the fish to shine, punctuated by mizuna, lemon and herbed yogurt.

For the most part, fish and meat are beautifully handled, from the crispy skinned redfish served over a lovely risotto whispering lemon and herbs to an achingly tender duck confit. But the epiphanies almost all come in vegetable form. The menu’s original construct, in which you chose your own sides, has been abandoned, but the sides, now paired for you by the kitchen, remain as captivating as ever. That duck came with stunning hakurei turnips, tasting of bittersweet earth shot though with freshness. The menu has turned to fall these days, but I’ll be eager for next year when the okra with almonds return, or the sticky, caramelized fairy-tale eggplants. For lunch, the kitchen’s ability with veggies is showcased with the already-legendary super-food plate, a compilation of grains, vegetables and garnishes, paired with sliced steak. Modeled partly on the National’s Mediterranean-inspired vegetable plate, I could eat this collection of carefully composed goodies every day.

There are still occasional signs of growing pains on the plate. A recent special of braised short ribs, described to us by our server as having a consistency that would allow it to be eaten “with a spoon,” was actually verging on tough. Sweetbreads one evening came underdone — and undercooked sweetbreads are particularly unsettling. I tend to think these things will work themselves out. Acheson is nothing if not a perfectionist, and Smith has proven himself a formidable cook, here and elsewhere.

In the end, small gaffs are far outweighed by the passion and attention given to every aspect of the experience. The coffee program is by far the most ambitious in town, with single-origin cups made to order and unparalleled espresso drinks including the cortado, something between a macchiato and a cappuccino (where have you been all my life, cortado?). The breakfast crowd has been sparse, but what’s served is as thoughtfully constructed as anything found throughout the rest of the day (try the porridge). Desserts manage to be comforting, nostalgic and refined — the buttermilk chess tart rocks. Cocktails are top notch, too; the Elijay is like fall in a glass. And, oh, did I mention the wine?

In the words of Grubbs, in praise of a 2009 Meulenhof Reisling, “Get in there, y’all.”