As a longtime fan of Top Chef and Top Chef Masters, I knew I had to check out Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South in Atlanta, Georgia’s midtown district. If you aren’t familiar with Top Chef, Hugh Acheson is often a guest judge on the show. Even more exciting was that Anthony Bourdain stopped by here on his short-lived television show “The Layover.”
When my Uber driver dropped me off at the address, I was a little confused at first as I was standing in front of a large commercial office building. Empire State South was nowhere to be found.
Since it was a weekend, the entrance to the lobby of the building was closed, forcing me to do some searching around to find the restaurant. I turned down Peachtree Place NE on the southern end of the building where I found a courtyard that led me to the entrance of the restaurant.
The courtyard of the building was quiet and relaxing. Along the courtyard was an outdoor seating area which was part of the restaurant along with a place to play some bocce ball. This seemed like a great place to play a game of bocce while enjoying a drink or two with friends.
Upon walking into to the restaurant, I was seated immediately at a small table in an open area near the bar. Though the patio was busy, the inside of the restaurant wasn’t as busy as I would have thought for a Sunday afternoon.
The first thing that I noticed were the almost eggshell blue walls. Not my favorite color for walls, but it seemed to fit in perfectly with the rustic farmhouse meets modern and urban city decor. The decor was pretty cool with dark brown wooden floors and tables along with dim lighting, lots of metal, exposed pipes, and high ceilings. Empire State South would be a great place for drinks with a large group of friends or on a special date.
I didn’t sit at the bar, but it seemed like a cool spot for a beer or cocktail. I really enjoyed the rustic bar stools along with the large windows behind the bar that let lots of natural light shine through the liquor bottles and into the restaurant. Only downside: no beers on tap.
First up was an appetizer, the Pimento Cheese ($6). Served in a small mason jar, the appetizer featured a layer of bacon marmalade and pimento cheese. On the side were small and thin slices of Pullman toast.
To be honest, I had to Google what “Pullman toast” was. Turns out that Pullman bread is simply made using white flour and baked in a long and narrow pan. The bread is then usually cut into squares or strips, just as the bread was at Empire State South.
The Pullman bread was sliced thin and featured almost no crust. It was uniquely stacked on the plate-like Lincoln Logs or Jenga if you remember those. The bread was extremely crispy, maybe a little too crispy for my liking, but it was soft on the inside and held up well to the slathering and spreading of the pimento cheese.
The bacon marmalade was simply awesome. It was a glorious mixture of smoky diced bacon and sweet, dark marmalade. I could eat just this all day.
Below the bacon marmalade was a thick layer of pimento cheese. The pimento cheese was wonderfully dark orange in color. What I loved about the cheese was that it was rich and sweet, but not too rich and sweet where I didn’t want to eat anymore. It was creamy, gooey, smoky, and left me wanting more.
The pimento cheese appetizer was a perfect mix of bold flavors. Spreading the combination of rich cheese, salty and smoky bacon, and sweet marmalade on the crispy and crunchy Pullman bread was just plain perfection.
I tried my best to scrape out every last morsel out of the jar. If for some reason you can’t finish all the cheese, just ask your server about taking home the mason jar.
The Farm Egg ($13), served in a small cast-iron skillet, was the signature dish of Empire State South. The skillet was a unique dish of fried rice, sausage, okra, leek, and a squash puree topped with a poached egg.
The star of the dish was definitely the fried rice. The texture was so unique, unlike anything I have ever had before. I can only describe the texture as that of Rice Krispies or popcorn. I also enjoyed how the rice was cooked perfectly to keep it from being oily.
Mixed into the rice was an assortment of grilled vegetables and sausage. The large chunks of sausage were extremely tender and added a great smokey and salty flavor to the dish.
At the bottom was a simple squash puree. I probably wouldn’t have noticed the puree if I didn’t read it on the menu. What I did like about the puree was that it added an earthy flavor to the dish and mixed well with the single egg to prevent the dish from being dry.
The idea of the dish is that you break the poached egg on top and mix it well with all the other ingredients like some dishes you would find in Asia such as bibimbap in Korea. This is what made the dish so amazing and popular with foodies like me. I loved how the luscious egg yolk mixed in perfectly with the crispy texture of the fried rice, the smokey and salty sausage, the grilled vegetables, and the squash puree. It was truly delicious.
The Farm Egg was the star of Empire State South. It was awesomely delicious and savory, had a unique crispy texture, was seasoned well, and was not heavy at all. My only complaint was that the dish was quite small for the price and left me wanting more.
Fig & Walnut Ham and Cheese
Next up was the Fig & Walnut Ham and Cheese ($12) with city ham, Harbison cheese and drizzled with honey.
The fig & walnut ham and cheese may just be a ham and cheese, but it was by far one of the most unique and tasty sandwiches I have ever had.
The fig & walnut ham and cheese was covered in honey. The honey made the sandwich a little sticky and difficult to eat as I constantly had to use my napkin to clean honey from my hands. The bread, which was toasted to perfection, reminded me of raisin bread or a crostini. It was crunchy thanks to the walnuts while sweet from the figs and honey.
Inside the grilled bread was a simple concoction of city ham, bacon, and Harbison cheese. The bacon was crispy, smokey, salty, and had just the perfect amount of fat. The simple cheese, which was new to me, was robust and slightly pungent in flavor and melted perfectly to blend in with the ham and bacon.
Hugh Acheson sure knows how to elevate a simple dish such as a ham and cheese. All the flavors came together to elevate the dish. The crunchy bread, the sweetness from the honey, the smokey and salty ham, and the robust melted cheese came together beautifully.
On the side was a small square cast iron skillet with simple yet delicious grits. The grits were creamy, buttery, and thick down to the last bite. Empire State South knows how to cook their grits, unlike other restaurants that often turn their grits into a watery mush by the last bite.
Service was spot on and friendly from the moment I walked in until I left the restaurant.
My server constantly filled up my glass of water before it was empty which made me laugh since I was able to pour my own glass, but this showed me that the level of service was high.
What I also enjoyed was the recommendations by the server. I ended up trying all three of his selections, which were spot on and delicious.
Empire State South is one of the best restaurants in Atlanta, not because it is operated by a famous chef, but because they offer unique and tasty food items at reasonable prices. Hugh Acheson is a master of elevating the flavors of otherwise ordinary dishes.
With great food, cool decor, an outdoor courtyard, and friendly service, be sure to stop by Empire State South on your next visit to Atlanta.
- Unique dishes and flavors
- Friendly service
- Great outdoor courtyard
- Great decor and ambiance
- Coffee was a little bit of a disappointment
- Entrance was a little tricky to find
- Smaller portions than usual
- No beers on tap