I’m a big fan of Hugh Acheson. Actually, I think I have a small, school-girl kinda crush on him. Five & Ten and The National are both worth a visit if you’re fortunate enough to find yourself in Athens. Needless to say, I was super excited to dine at Empire State South for the first time this weekend.
The restaurant is located in Midtown at the corner of 10th and Peachtree streets. Outside, it has a huge seating area and bocce court, which looked perfect for a summertime Sunday funday. It’s too bad I didn’t discover that patio two months ago. Inside, the restaurant was dimly lit, slightly rustic, with a little bit of hipster flair here and there. We were lucky enough to snag a nice corner booth, with a good view for people-watching.
I started the evening with a dirty martini, which took about ten minutes longer to arrive than I would have liked. Our server made up for it with a clever martini joke and some jumbo-sized blue cheese stuffed olives. However, the serving of martinis in coupe glasses is a trend that must stop immediately. Martinis belong in martini glasses. The end.
Empire State South’s menu offers an eclectic range of modern Southern fare. Upscale comfort food, really. The ESS charcuterie and cheese boards seemed to be popular items around the restaurant, but we started with the burrata and the roasted roulette peppers, per our server’s recommendation.
The burrata dish was a delicious spin on a traditional tomato and mozzarella salad. The creamy burrata was topped with grape tomatoes, basil, squash, and roasted chanterelle mushrooms. The mushrooms absolutely made the dish. Their earthy flavor balanced really nicely with the rich and creamy mozzarella. We both wished there had been more of them.
The roasted roulette peppers dish looked and tasted like the essence of fall. The peppers were super flavorful, and tossed with tomatoes, arugula, squash, and a little bit of quinoa. A handful of green peanuts added a nice bit of crunch to the dish. They weren’t kidding, though, when they said roulette peppers. Chad ate one innocent-looking pepper that was so hot I thought he was going to start breathing fire at the table.
Portion-wise, both of the starters were pretty large and hearty. By the time our entrees arrived, I was already starting to get full (which turned out to be a good thing, as you’ll see).
I ordered the king salmon, which was served with roasted squash, mushrooms, bok choi, and a few tiny little shrimp. The salmon was, in one word, awful. I took only two bites: the first, and then the second to confirm how terrible the first bite was. The main problem was that the fish was completely overcooked. I always order my salmon rare, and this piece was pretty close to well-done.
I couldn’t even really tell whether the fish had a good flavor because I was unable to get past the dry and un-flaky texture. The rest of the dish wasn’t much better. The ‘Tybee Island shrimp’ might have come from Tybee Island, where they were caught and frozen several months ago. The squash, mushrooms, everything else was just blah.
Chad’s dish, on the other hand, was phenomenal. He went with the Gum Creek pork, which was prepared four ways. The pork belly and crispy pig’s ears were definitely my favorite components of the dish, but the roasted and fried tenderloin pieces were also quite tasty. Everything on the plate was tender, flavorful, and cooked perfectly. I wish I could have said the same thing about my salmon. So naturally, Chad did what any good boyfriend would do: he pretended that he wasn’t all that hungry and shared his dish with me. Even that delicious pork belly.
After the disappointment of the salmon, we opted not to test the waters on dessert. They also didn’t offer anything chocolate, so that made the decision easy. I enjoyed everything about the meal, other than the salmon, obviously. At the end of the day, I’d say that the tastiness of the other dishes outweighed the disaster that was the salmon. I’m still on the fence about whether or not I would be willing to give Empire State South another try. Maybe on a good day, but I certainly wouldn’t touch that salmon again with a 10-foot pole.