With Empire State South, this laid-back Southern chef aims to create one of Atlanta's most ionic restaurants, appealing to destination diners and neighborhood regulars alike.
For Hugh Acheson’s induction to the local pantheon of cuisiniers, Atlantans have been waiting with bated breath. After all, countless among them regularly make the 70-mile trek to dine at his signature Athens Five & Ten, the eatery that put a remote college town on the culinary map. Since its debut in 2000, Acheson has risen to national acclaim, having racked up four James Beard Award nominations, a Food & Wine Best New Chef designation and opened two additional Athens establishments—Gosfard Wine in 2004 and The National in 2007. Later this month, he’ll open Empire State South, arguably the most anticipated Atlanta restaurant of the year.
A loose translation of the meat-and-three, Empire State South will serve simple, straightforward Southern cuisine with a dash of European elán (a credit to Acheson’s formal training with French-centric chefs across the continent). Ingeniously, Acheson cuts through the heaviness of traditionally rich Southern dishes with bright acids, piquant chilis and the “bouncy,” fresh ﬂavors he’s made all his own.
“We want to show people what great Southern food is. Atlanta has great old meat-and-threes like Busy Bee [Café] and Carver’s [Country Kitchen]…we wanted something with that same sensibility, but a little more gilded,” he notes. “Just great, simple, local food that’s done in a really healthy and modern way.” Acheson’s interpretation is outlined on a stylized menu that includes local Nature’s Harmony Farm pork chops smothered in chanterelle gravy, zipper cream pea succotash and roasted half-chicken with boiled peanuts and salsa verde. Meanwhile, at the granite-topped board-and-batten bar, patrons can choose from a beguiling selection of small-batch bourbons, seasonally changing cocktails and the most comprehensive selection of Burgundies in the city.
Acheson is maintaining his home base in Athens but keeping an apartment in Atlanta for now, appointing Chef de Cuisine Nick Melvin—recently plucked from Inman Park’s Parish Foods & Goods—to the helm in his absence. He’s also planning to host wine dinners, sponsor community events and support the pro-bono efforts of fellow 999 Peachtree tenants. But that’s not all that’s up this chef’s sleeve. In the fall of 2011, he’ll release a new cookbook, A New Turn in the South, featuring recipes from the Empire State South menu as well as his personal sentiments on new Southern cuisine. In the meantime, he’s just hoping to make really good Southern food—with minimal attitude.
The interiors are the brainchild of Athens-based designers Lisa Fiscus, of Hawthorne House Interiors & Antiques, and Susan Hable Smith, co-founder of Brooklyn-born textile company Hable Construction. Together, they’ve devised an eco-friendly scheme of pecky cypress and reclaimed heart pine awash in inky blues, grays and greens. Smith has even designed a handsome Hable Construction stripe to adorn the antique-inspired banquettes. Four dining zones suit every taste. For the formal set, the private dining room will be softly delineated by salvaged pocket doors and russet-colored walls while the coffee bar will serve a more casual crowd, offering a cozy “kissing nook,” in-house bakery items, additional treats from H&F Bread Co. and savory selections to-go. Seating for 85 inside and more than two-dozen in the outdoor spaces will accommodate a sizable ebb and flow of diners throughout the day.
My home reflects… My community in Athens and my family life with my wife, Mary, and our two daughters—Beatrice, who is 8, and Clementine, who is 6. I also have a nice Viking kitchen.
My signature colors are… Pale blue and green; I’m not sure why.
The one thing I can’t live without is… A cast-iron frying pan. Cast-iron pans age so well if you take care of them.
My favorite museum is… The Museum of Modern Art.
I get my best inspiration from… Old cookbooks, like the Junior League cookbooks, and books with historical signiﬁcance. I love looking for those that are out of print, or for European titles that are often very difficult to ﬁnd.
When I get an unexpected day to myself, I like to… Eat a nice lunch, go to the gym and get work done that I have been procrastinating doing.
Every home needs… A really good coffee maker and a back porch.
The ingredient that can make all the difference in a dish is… Vinegar.
My favorite way to entertain at home is… To make tacos and invite friends over. I like to make things that are not currently on the menu at my restaurants.
The one place in Atlanta I always take guests is… The Dekalb Farmers’ Market.
The car I drive is… A 2010 Volkswagen Jetta Turbo Diesel. It gets good gas mileage and is safe for my kids.
The place I love to travel is… Close to home, I love the North Georgia Mountains; far away, I enjoy Spain, Greece and Portugal.
My fashion sense of style is best described as… Classic geeky; black Vans slip-ons with Levi’s and a T-shirt.
My proudest professional moment came when… Athens Five & Ten received its ﬁrst great review, from John Kessler in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
My favorite dish to prepare at home is… A big steak on the barbecue. Beatrice and Clementine love steak.
The person I look up to most is… My father.
My Sunday routine is… No work (if possible), read the paper, make coffee and play with my kids.
My favorite prepared foods shop is… Star Provisions.
The first thing I see when I wake up is… My two wonderful kids eating breakfast.
What most people don’t know about me is… Sometimes, I just like to go to Chick-ﬁl-A.
My favorite place for quiet contemplation is… My car.
The item I won’t leave home without is… Unfortunately, my BlackBerry.
The one piece of advice I’d give to any rising chef is… Save the cooking school money and go see the world.
FAVORITES AT HOME
Favorite furniture style: Eames
Favorite dinnerware: Old Noritake
Favorite flower: Dogwood
Favorite music: Anything good; I have varied tastes
Favorite wine: Red Burgundy
Favorite artisanal food: Sweet Grass Dairy Asher Blue cheese
Favorite artist: Robert Rauschenberg
Favorite spice: Right now, Spanish smoked paprika
Favorite produce item: Local baby carrots
Favorite destination restaurant: Zuni Café in San Francisco
Empire State South
999 Peachtree St., Suite 140, Atlanta 30309
INTERIOR DESIGN Lisa Fiscus and Katie Pryor of Hawthorne House Inc., 1073 S. Milledge Ave, Athens 30605. (706) 227-3560; hawthornehouseinc.com. Susan Hable Smith of Hable Construction Inc., 232 3rd. St., Brooklyn, New York 11215. (718) 834-1752; hableconstruction.com ARCHITECTURE RJT+R Architects, 300 Galleria Pkwy., Suite 740, Atlanta 30339. (770) 661-1492; rjtplusr.com DEVELOPER Michael Phillips, Jamestown Properties, One Overton Park, 12th Floor, 3625 Cumberland Blvd., Atlanta 30339. (770) 805-1000; jamestownproperties.com ALL FLOORING, TABLES, WALL FINISHES AND SALVAGED WOOD The Cornerstone Floor Group, 159 Oneta St., Unit 5, Suite 50, Athens 30601. (205) 281-0890; cornerstonefloorgroup.com BANQUETTES Deans Upholstery, 1509 Old Covington Rd. NE, Conyers 30013. (770) 363-3250 LIGHTING Robert Ogden, Peddlers Home Design, 699 Todd Rd., Honey Brook, Pennsylvania 19344. (800) 391-4927; peddlersdesign.com PAINT CertaPro Painters, 259 Wynburn Ave., Suite E, Athens 30601. (706) 353-3555; certapro.com CUSTOM METAL FABRICATION Stalror Metal Works Inc. STONE FABRICATION AND GRANITE Bradford Granite, 1357 Lexington Hwy., Elberton 30635. (706) 283-7824; bradfordgranite.com FINISHES AND SALVAGED MATERIAL APPLICATION Northside Restoration Inc., 500 Bishop St. NW, Suite D2, Atlanta 30318. (404) 355-5793 CUSTOM METAL FABRICATION Stalror Metal Works. (706) 207-5086