An unforgettable meal at Empire State South (Atlanta)

Above: The “jars” at Empire State South in Atlanta, pork rillette, “smoked trout mousse, pickles, pimento cheese & bacon marmalade, boiled peanut hummus.”

It wasn’t so much the food or the scene at Empire State South that blew me away on an early Saturday evening in the wake of the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival where I led a couple of seminars over the weekend.

However much the food has shifted from the restaurant’s original mission of forging a “New South” cuisine (according to my friends Eat It Atlanta and fra’ Aronne with whom I shared the repast), everything I had there was 100% delicious and elegantly and smartly presented (although I felt more like I was eating in a Lower East Side hipster joint than in the capital of the Deep New South; the utopian name of the restaurant imho opens the gastronomic discourse with an aporia).

And the scene? Empire State South was THE place to be during the festival. John Besh walked in right after me, nursing a pretty serious hangover from the looks of him.

Above: One of the things that impressed me the most about my trip to Atlanta was the mastery of charcuterie that the dudes down there have. In SF, LA, and NYC, you see folks doing super flashy, sexy things with their pork, often with good-to-great results. But down there in the Deep New South, the young salumieri get it right consistently. I LOVED the charcuterie plate at Empire State South and was moved by its focus and precision. No flash, just wonderful substance and perfectly balanced and distributed fat.

But, no, it wasn’t the celeb vibe or the excellent food. It was the incredible wine list — the last thing I expected to find here, in a state — like Texas — with backward regulation of the wine industry based on anachronistic post-Prohibition legislation scribed by stinking good ol’ boy retailers.

2006 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco for under $60?

Grower Champagne for under $40?

2008 Cos Cerasuolo di Vittoria for under $50?


Above: I had never tasted and entirely dug the Claude Genet Blanc de Blancs. It was the ideal wine for the shared plates meal we ordered for the three of us.

I didn’t get a chance to meet wine director Steven Grubbs but he’s one of those dudes who wins all sort of awards and stuff. And rightfully so: his list is tight and extremely focused but with a wide range of wines that will quench the thirst of nearly everyone, from someone like me (or you, if you’re reading my blog) to someone who likes the type of barriqued Cabernet Sauvignon from California that makes you have to go poop (the bad kind) before you even get up from the table.

Above: I was tempted to go Nebbiolo but Cerasuolo di Vittoria was just right for the pork belly and rice grits and sweetbreads on a sultry southern Saturday afternoon. And, man, the price! 100% awesome…

There are great restaurants and great wine lists and then there are destination restaurants and wine lists. I’d really like to get back to Atlanta just to walk through Grubbs’s hand-picked Riesling shortlist (German seems to be his fetish) and I’d love to spend some more time with the bigger entrées on the menu.

I really appreciated Grubbs’s palate as told by his list but I was blown away by his aggressive pricing. I always tell people that a wine is good if you enjoy it and I’m here to tell you that a wine can’t be good if you can’t afford to enjoy it. (How’s that for a syllogism?)

Chapeau bas, Steven!

There’s a reason why everyone I know through blogging in Atlanta told me that I had to check this place out. If Tracie P and I lived there, we’d be there at least once a week…

Dale DeGroff & scenes from the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival

When “Master Mixologist” and “King Cocktail” Dale DeGroff (right) leans into the bar to tell you something, you LISTEN… That’s Master Sommelier Virginia Philip (center), wine director at the historic landmark Breakers Hotel in Florida, and Heath Porter, wine director at the equally storied national landmark Greenbrier resort in West Virginia and one of the coolest people I hung and tasted with at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival over the weekend.

“We don’t need mixologists,” said Dale. “We need BARTENDERS!” Great Bartending is as much about personality and hospitality as it is about palate and creativity — as he told us and illustrated by example. He was mixing classic Margaritas at JCT Kitchen

Dale is simply one of the coolest dudes on the planet. What a treat to get to hear him chat about bartending today, his fav bar in Midtown NYC, and even tell an accordion joke! HA!

I thought the shrimp and grits from Dogwood (Atlanta) was elegant and delicious. It was interesting to get to taste so many different interpretations of grits over the span of a day and a half.

The charcuterie by Table (Asheville, NC) impressed me. From what I saw down here, these dudes in the Deep South may lack the panache of the salumieri in NYC, SF, and LA, but they got the substance… Maybe it’s in the meat and not the motion after all?

Was geeked to hear Anthony Giglio’s talk on Grenache. I’ve known him since my early NYC days thanks to the Scicolones. He and his wife are so sweet and he is a JEDI MASTER at this shit. He had his crowd in the palm of his hand…

Ummm… didn’t taste this… Predictably, lots of Bourbon presenters (a lot of them topflight but all commercial) and even crappy Texas Vodka. You know which one…

This lady was awesome. No marketing schtick whatsoever. Just her trailer and her teacakes. “My trailer’s gonna blush with you taking so many pictures of her,” she said. “No one’s ever taken so many!” She blushed.

My seminars were super fun and so many nice folks came out to taste and riff on wine with me. Food and wine buds Eat It Atlanta and fra’ Aronne came to my afternoon tasting and we ended up eating an early and amazing dinner at Empire State South before I hopped a train, plane, and automobile back to the River City.

But more on our remarkable dinner later…