Last week I attended a conference in Atlanta with thousands of association executives from across the country. One of my favorite things about association conferences is learning where people work. There is an association to represent every profession, special interest, hobby, and industry imaginable. I will never forget meeting the executive director of the American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR) a number of years ago. It was hard to focus on our conversation about membership recruitment. I kept wondering about their association’s meetings. And what kind of experience and qualifications were required for this man to lead an association of nudists? Food for thought.
This year, no association amuses me nearly as much as AANR. But, my trip does include many productive insights into my profession, and a wonderful dinner at Empire State South. According to its website: “Empire State South takes a modern approach to creating authentic Southern dishes, relying on the beautiful foods of this region.” What really attracts me here is that it is owned by Chef Hugh Acheson. I first became aware of the chef when he appeared on “Top Chef Masters” in Season 3. Acheson is currently appearing in “Top Chef Masters” Season 5 as a judge, and host of an online sous chef competition. I find him snarkily adorable.
I am in Atlanta with two co-workers, who are growing accustomed to indulging my food fantasies when we travel. In the name of adventure, we begin with an item from a section of the menu labelled “Snackies for the Table.” Titled “In Jars” it’s an assortment of mason jars filled with various spreads and dips. Pork rillette, trout mousse, pimento cheese and bacon marmalade, and boiled peanut hummus delight us from the moment we are served. This is food as entertainment, as we get to play with various combinations. Our favorite is pimento cheese with bacon marmalade, but then it’s always hard to beat bacon. Boiled peanuts make an interesting base for hummus, although if there’s one spread I had to live without, it would be this. Pickled vegetables make for a pleasing interlude between the salty spreads.
The “beginnings” section of the menu is filled with enticing options, and I happily choose two in place of an entree. Executive Chef Ryan Smith, although I don’t even see him, makes me forget all about Hugh Acheson once I taste his food. Chilled corn soup with shoyu gel, onion, jam, sourdough, mint, and nasturium is everything I could hope for in a soup, and then some. It is rich, creamy, sweet, and salty. Every bite brings forth new flavors and textures. Tiny squares of gelee explode in a salty burst. I could easily eat another serving of the soup for dessert, as a bookend to my next dish.
I am not sure what is southern about shrimp with harissa mayo, chorizo, spinach, carrot blossoms, and puri bread. The shrimp are from Georgia, but otherwise this is a mix of spicy flavors from around the world. I am not complaining. It’s a lovely dish. Chef Smith clearly does not believe in shedding his dishes of unnecessary parts, as the shrimp heads are intact. A chicken dish at the next table is sporting its feet. We can’t seem to look away, although the sight gives us the creeps. On the other hand, it does make us laugh.
My dining companions both enjoy Painted Hills prime ribeye with bone marrow, abalone mushrooms, baby onions, malted barley, and potato macaire. One finds the potato dry, while the other plays with the elements on the plate until she finds the perfect balance. It certainly is stunning.
After three days in Atlanta, I haven’t discovered an association as intriguing as the one for nude recreation. On the other hand, my association with the city now includes memories of some wonderfully playful dishes at Empire State South.
Empire State South, 999 Peachtree St, NE, Atlanta, Georgia