HUGH ACHESON AND NICK MELVIN
Hugh Acheson comes to Atlanta with a certain amount of bravado. The celebrated Athens chef (with four James Beard nominations under his belt) is entering the market with Empire State South (www.empirestatesouth.com) in the 999 Peachtree high-rise in Midtown. It seems like an odd location for a guy whose restaurants (Five and Ten and the National) embody the laid-back neighborhood vibe of Georgia's most famous college town. But Acheson doesn't sound worried. I overheard him this past February, hanging out at the bar of the National, proclaiming that Midtown needed the kind of restaurant he aimed to provide, and that the office workers nearby would appreciate the restaurant's easy, healthy breakfast and lunch options.
And presumably, the rest of us will make Empire State South a destination for dinner, where Acheson promises uncomplicated, farm-fresh Southern cuisine. If this sounds familiar, it's because many restaurants in recent years have opened with the same selling points. But many of the chefs at those places took their cues from Acheson. It'll be fascinating to see what he delivers, along with chef Nick Melvin (formerly of Parish), who Acheson has hired to run the kitchen.
Chris Hall has worked all over the city, including in the kitchens of 4th & Swift, Canoe, and Muss & Turner's. Now he's primed to take the reigns of a new venture in the recently closed Joel location. Along with Muss & Turner's Todd Mussman and Ryan Turner, Hall hopes to have Local Three open by early October. The project, its ambitions, and its whereabouts are indicative of the current state of Atlanta dining. Joel was one of the city's last locally owned, non-hotel fine dining restaurants. Now in its place comes three guys who hope to open a "really killer neighborhood restaurant." Casual dining coming from this Cadillac of a kitchen is a change for sure, and Hall's task is to make the project appetizing enough to create a destination.
Robert Phalen should be on your radar not because he's slated to open any new venture or because he's destined to be the city's next celebrity chef, but because what he's quietly putting out at his East Atlanta taqueria is some of the coolest, most interesting food around. I use the term "taqueria" loosely. Yes, Holy Taco (1314 Glenwood Ave., 404-230-6177, www.holy-taco.com) serves tacos, and some damn fine tacos at that (chicken hearts, anyone?). But Phalen comes into his own with the more original dishes peppered throughout the menu, many of them Spanish influenced.
Confit mushrooms with lardo and garlic on toast remains one of the city's most patently delicious dishes, the slivers of silky fat melting into the caramelized garlic and the juicy burst of the mushrooms, all of it soaked up by crusty bread below. A niçoise-inspired tuna salad pairs a generous mound of high-quality conserved tuna with fingerling potatoes, pole beans, caperberries and a boiled egg. It's beautifully simple; the very essence of a classic dish at its most humble. A recent special of potatoes with trout roe was shocking in its inventiveness, but also its salty starchy harmony. Phalen is a cook who successfully reaches far beyond what his audience expects of him, and that makes him worthy of our attention.
Sometimes, the most exciting discovery on the plate might not be the most delicious. Sometimes, it's the one with the most promise. Such is the case with Sean Telo, the sous chef at Noon Midtown (1050 Crescent Ave., 404-496-4891, www.noonmidtown.com) under chef and owner Katie Birmingham. And while Birmingham is ultimately responsible for Noon's menu, Telo brings an ultra-modern style and aesthetic to much of the restaurant's dinner offerings. At 22 years old, Telo still has a lot of growing to do. But the raw talent is obviously present, as is a wealth of ambition that presents itself in dishes so artfully arranged they make you want to weep. Check him out now, so you can claim to have followed his work for years by the time he fulfills the potential of all that ability and ambition.
You can expect to hear a lot more about this young chef in the coming year. Formerly chef de cuisine at the Heritage Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., Stephen Hartman now heads the kitchen at Le Vigne (501 Hightower Church Road, Dahlonega, 706-867-4060, www.montaluce.com), the restaurant at Montaluce Winery and Estates in Dahlonega. His seasonal menu is made up of produce grown on the property, as well as house-made charcuterie and pastas. Food of this quality is a coup for emerging North Georgia wine country. For a taste of Hartman's personality, check out his blog, called Hogballs and Mountain Dew, with the tag line "drinking moonshine and pickling beets in North Georgia."
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