I'd never been to Atlanta, but I've always heard great things: the Southern hospitality, the quaint neighborhoods, and the fabulous food. After experiencing it for myself, I'm happy to say that all three points hold very true.
After traveling there for the BlogHer Food Conference in May, I got the opportunity during my brief downtime to hunt down a few raved about eateries. I got my barbecue fix from the Sweet Auburn BBQ food truck. After tasting their Asian Pear Coleslaw and Pulled Pork, I realized that, unfortunately, nothing in the Bay Area could possibly compare.
I visited a restaurant called, Wisteria, in the picturesque Inman Park area of town. They served classic yet modernized Southern dishes like Fried Catfish with Succotash, Crab Cakes, and some of the best Macaroni and Cheese I've ever had (with braised greens!).
I also had my morning sugar rush thanks to the folks at Sublime Doughnuts. Their sugary varieties included red velvet, chocolate coconut, white chocolate peach, s'mores and mocha cream. Dunkin' Donuts had nothin' on these guys.
But my favorite eatery had to be Empire State South. With its bocce ball court outside, casual settings and service, and playful yet sophisticated take on Southern classics, it was the best meal I’d had in Atlanta.
They start your meal with some good old housemade yeast rolls and grilled sourdough (perhaps a nod to Top Chef Master and Owner, Hugh Acheson's time as a sous chef at Gary Danko in the late 90s?). The yeast rolls were so sweet, soft, and classically Southern. They were so good it took everything in me not to ask for more. I knew we had a lot of good eats to come so I was pacing myself.
Soft Poached Egg from "Empire State South" (Photo courtesy of Beth Lee of OMGYummy.net)
We ordered a variety of appetizers and entrees for the table, including the Soft Poached Egg with wild nettles and grits; Crisp Pork Belly with kimchi grits; Wild Ramps with corned beef tongue and field peas served in a mini cast iron skillet; and the Ramp Orecchiette with carrots, peas and some beautiful fiddlehead ferns.
Everything we had was exceptional. The whole "farm to table" movement is really gaining steam there, and the freshness and imaginative use of all that wonderful produce was proof of that. The eggs and grits were rich and creamy, and the pasta was fresh, light and bright. All the combinations on each plate were inventive, classically southern (plenty of butter and bold flavors), but sophisticated. There was even a touch of Asian fusion in some of the dishes (the pork belly definitely had some soy sauce flavors going on).
But boy were we glad we ordered an extra helping of those amazing Kimchi Rice Grits. It was simply one of the most memorable dishes I've ever tasted...anywhere. The texture was like a thicker rice porridge or congee, but with more flavor and less soupy. And the kimchi gave the dish so much punch and flavor but never overpowered. I wish someone would replicate it in the Bay Area!
Peanuts and Coke Soft Serve w/Funnel Cake from "Empire State South" (Photo courtesy of Beth Lee of OMGYummy.net)
Before we ordered our Peanuts and Coke Soft Serve with Funnel Cake for dessert, Owner and Top Chef Master contestant, Chef Hugh Acheson came over to pay our table a visit and even sat down for a nice long chat with us. After he realized I was from the Bay Area, he talked about his time working for the now shuttered Mecca restaurant, and as opening sous-chef for Gary Danko back in the 90s. "I learned a lot while I was there, but he was a tyrant. He'd be the first to admit it, though," he said of Danko.
I also got to experience Chef Acheson's wickedly dry sense of humor, which unfortunately didn’t get enough airtime on Top Chef Master. He'll be the first to mention what he calls his "monobrow," which he's been getting known for since the show started. "Somebody on Twitter told me I should shave my monobrow. They don't even know me! Maybe they should focus on my food." But he'll be the first to laugh at himself, even mentioning what he calls "The Monobrow Preservation Society" frequently on his Twitter account.
My experience meeting Chef Acheson was indicative of my time in Atlanta. People there are ready to sit down and chat, have a good time, and take pride in all their city has to offer. I love San Francisco and it's always been home, but I miss my taste of Southern hospitality.