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Best restaurant: Empire State South

Staff Pick

Chef Ryan Smith, owner Hugh Acheson and wine director Steve Grubbs at Empire State South. - JAMES CAMP
  • James Camp
  • Chef Ryan Smith, owner Hugh Acheson and wine director Steve Grubbs at Empire State South.

Does the best restaurant have to be the fanciest, most refined, most rarified eatery in town? Not necessarily. Instead, we think of the best restaurant as the place that calls to our heart more than any other. Empire State South is where we'd most like to eat right now, and here are the reasons: Chef Ryan Smith is cooking with bravado and finesse. Rather than sticking with expected flavors, he toys with our expectations. A tame-sounding bean salad becomes endlessly intriguing when you discover the layer of whipped lardo beneath. A delicate crab salad a few months back evoked classic seafood medleys with citrus and fennel, but was taken two steps further with soothing peanut milk and a slight pepper burn. Desserts have new focus since pastry maven Cynthia Wong took over, bringing her famous phatty cakes with her as well as a slew of other beauteous sweet treats. The wine list is the best in town thanks to partner and wine director Steve Grubbs' passion for Riesling, Burgundy and affordable luxury — grower Champagne for less than $50, anyone? The bartender makes the best Sazerac around. If there's a better brunch around than ESS' steak and eggs, we've yet to find it. The list goes on. If there are reasons to be proud about Atlanta restaurants right this moment, Empire State South embodies them all. 999 Peachtree St. 404-541-1105. empirestatesouth.com.

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