Omnivore - Lunch at Empire State South (1)

Kimchi, grits, strawberries, peanuts, sorghum, and so it goes



It's been well over a year since I dined at Empire State South. Five of us headed there for lunch to try out executive chef Ryan Smith's menu. I ordered the sous-vide pork belly over kimchi-infused "rice grits" and oyster mushrooms (above). Baby collards, chopped peanuts and a bit of glossy sorghum dressed up the dish. Two others at the table ordered the same.

I've gotta say the dish's tweaked Southern ingredients are in danger of becoming a cliche, but as long as it's the brilliant Smith and owner-chef Hugh Acheson toying with Our Precious Heritage, I'm binging away. It was a race to see who could devour the most the fastest. The winner was our gluten-free pal.

Another of us ordered the oyster po' boy with a remoulade hit-up with capers and pickled jalapenos. And our fifth, visiting from D.C., inhaled a pretty amazing spring-onion soup with English peas, country ham and creme fraiche.

For dessert, I ordered a just ridiculously good "cake and ice cream terrine" of strawberry-buttermilk cake layered with creme-fraiche ice cream. Guess what? Chef Smith doesn't feel the need to over-sweeten the strawberries like nearly every other restaurant in town.

The server explained that the strawberries were the first of the season from a particular field in Florida. I laughed because I knew such a field years ago when I hung out with a freak show. Some of the carnies made extra money by picking strawberries between travel gigs, including a tattooed lady, Alice, who left a jar of preserves she made outside my hotel room, supposedly the first she had picked that year. (I knew you'd want to know that.)

If you're a coffee drinker, finish your meal with the restaurant's cortado, the Spanish coffee drink that practically nobody else in town seems to know how to make (right photo). However, you might be interested to know that Hugh Acheson's favorite drink is a tall latte, according to a friend who is a former Starbucks barista in Athens. Acheson's not the first super-talented chef I've heard is a Starbuck's fan. Richard Blais use to regularly order Frappuccinos at the Ansley Store.

(My friend, by the way, tells me his manager repeated the word "latte" to him repeatedly. Apparently, in Starbuck-ese it's an acronym for "Listen, Acknowledge, Take action, Thank the customer, Encourage them to return." I had no idea drinking a latte meant swallowing bullshit.)

Not many people were at the restaurant. Cost might have something to do with that. My lunch was $26 before tip. I'm fine with that, but do not charge me for refills of tonic water.