Upon walking into Empire State South, its buzz and chicness grabs hold and one would think they were ready to dine somewhere in Manhattan’s Gramercy District. Empire State South is named after Georgia’s early twentieth century marketing campaign to attract emerging industries to the star of the South – Atlanta. Keeping that effort alive, amongst the Midtown skyscrapers, Hugh Acheson (Five & Ten/ The National) opened his version of a destination eatery serving distinctive southern inspired dishes. The mission at ESS is to support local farmers first and foremost, and whenever possible cook with sustainably sourced and organic produce. This philosophy provides the freshest ingredients and enables the kitchen to create imaginative recipes using traditional southern techniques with a contemporary flair.
Another characteristic of ESS that is so New York-like is the how the wine and food become one. The wine guru is none other than Steven Grubbs. Steven searches for wines with distinctive flavor profiles and has put together an offering that takes into consideration quality and price. If you want the Rolls Royce tour, let Steven take you there, as his wine knowledge is impeccable. Making no bones about his passion for old world wines especially Pinot Noir and Riesling, he can suggest some great juice with amazing aromas and tastes that match oh so well with the foods- bravo!!! Besides the fruit of the vine, bar-mistress, Kellie Thorn, has concocted some delightful cocktails to satisfy ones desire. The Dolores is a sassy beverage that’s a refreshing thirst quencher–love the apricot citrusy fruit with the snap of pepper in the background.
The saying “too many cooks in the kitchen” doesn’t hold true at ESS. Instead, chefs Hugh Acheson and Ryan Smith whose differing cooking styles add a unique symmetry and intrigue to the menu keeping it fresh and lively. Highly recommend the “In Jar” starter for the table as it touches on every sensation of taste. Served in classic pickling jars are an assortment of delectable treats – pasty pork rillette, a savory cucumber smoked trout mousse, marmalade made with bacon and pimento cheese, tangy pickled veggies, and southern caviar- a boiled peanut hummus.
Whatever you decide, don’t overlook the soups they are simply stellar. To create such pleasing pure flavors like these it takes an understanding of food’s fundamental purpose – to satisfy. The luscious chilled cantaloupe soup with fresh baby basil has a touch of cayenne pepper that adds a sneaky subtle zip in the aftertaste; it sets the stage for what’s to come. A lovely palate enhancer is the salad made with delicate lump Peekytoe crab, peanut milk, thinly shaved fennel, crunchy radishes, scarlet queen turnips with a zesty lime vinaigrette. The appetizer that will drop the jaw in amazement is the poached Brunswick shrimp in a savory Benton country ham broth with sweet charentais melon – these bold contrasting yet complimentary flavors are astonishing – ask for some bread to slop the broth with, it’s that good.
Chicken will never be the same after tasting the Poulet Rouge Chicken Roulade from Plow Point Farms - this rolled moist bird is served in its natural juices with nutty-tasting beech mushrooms and earthy red Russian kale – its mouth-watering flavors are unforgettable. The grain fed Prime New York Strip pays homage to Empire State South’s northern namesake. This fork tender meat is cooked to perfection and its juicy savory grilled flavors are heightened when paired with a zesty red onion jam and robust farrotto with roasted chanterelle mushroom – mesmerize your taste buds with each bite as this is beef at its best.
The thrill with dining at ESS carries through onto the sweets. Never imagined the unique flavors and textures of corn as a dessert- if it’s offered, don’t think twice your friends will thank you; the kettle popcorn-like tasting salted caramel corn cobbler with a scoop of soft caramel ice cream is just downright yummy. It is apparent why Hugh Acheson has been nominated by his peers so many times for a James Beard Award; the dining experience at Empire State South is about the passion of treating food with respect bringing out its finest attributes. So why wait to enjoy this artisan take on southern cuisine; it’s skillful cooking with lots of love.