Eating in Atlanta + Quality Time With a Top Chef Master

| July 9, 2011 | 1 Comment
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Pulled Pork BBQ plate from Sweet Auburn BBQ truck
Pulled Pork BBQ plate from Sweet Auburn BBQ truck

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!).

Various doughnuts from Sublime Doughnuts in Atlanta
Various doughnuts from “Sublime Doughnuts” in Atlanta

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
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!

Cake from Empire State South. Photo courtesy of Beth Lee of OMGYummy.net
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.


Sweet Auburn BBQ truck

Facebook: Sweet Auburn BBQ
Twitter: @SweetAuburnBBQ
Various hours & locations

Sublime Doughnuts
Address: 535 Tenth Street Northwest, Atlanta, GA 30318
Phone: (404) 897-1801
Facebook:Sublime Doughnuts
Twitter: @SublimeDoughnut

Wisteria
Address: 471 North Highland Ave., Atlanta, GA. 30307
Phone: (404) 525-3363
Facebook: Wisteria Restaurant
Twitter: @wisteriaatlanta

Empire State South
Address: 999 Peachtree Street, Atlanta, GA 30309
Phone: (404) 541-1105
Facebook: Empire State South
Twitter: @ESSouth

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Category: chefs, restaurants, bars, cafes, travel

About the Author ()

Elaine spent over 11 years working in television and radio as a producer, writer and correspondent for MTV Asia, KPIX/CBS 5, and radio stations like KSAN and KTCT in San Francisco. After leaving broadcasting, she began working for financial software giant, Intuit, where she managed their customer word-of-mouth programs and then spearheaded their internal social media communication strategies. She’s also managed external communications for BlogHer, the largest community of women bloggers online, and is currently the director of corporate communications at Rocket Fuel, a digital advertising technology startup in Silicon Valley. Her personal blog, VirgoBlue , was started in 2007 as a way to express her love of food as she explores the culinary delights of the Bay Area and beyond.
  • http://www.tuesdayrecipe.com/images/stories/food/arrozsmall.jpg Tori

    How I wish I’d gone to Empire State South with you Elaine! I just have to weigh in on two places I loved while I was there: Abattoir, from the chefs behind Bacchanalia and Star Provisions. They are doing the salted, cured, whole hog, food in a jar thing there and it was all good, especially the potted chicken liver with rhubarb, but we went nuts over the spicy ceci aka deep-fried chick peas with cumin, of all things. And a shout out to Mark Zeigler of Z Sauce Works who was making deep-fried veggie rolls at Sweet Auburn Market.