Tuesday, March 5th, 2013
Years ago, Sunday brunch was a weekly tradition I shared with a variety of friends, almost always ordering the hangover cure of eggs benedict with extra hollandaise. These days, I rarely leave my house early enough for brunch on Sundays. However, my birthday fell on a Sunday this year so I thought I would enjoy a special brunch, making a reservation at Empire State South for 12:15pm, giving us just enough time to get settled before alcohol service begins and I order my first mimosa.
My birthday spanking, administered by LC, took a bit longer than expected, so we arrived a few moments late and were escorted to an undesirable table in the center of the dining room. I preferred something more cozy, and closer to the alcohol, so we headed to the bar.
My past experiences at ESS, owned by unibrowed celebrity chef Hugh Acheson, include an amazing lunch and memorable dinner so I was anticipating (there’s that word again) a fantastic brunch. When reading the menu, it can be puzzling to figure out what Acheson or his chef Ryan Smith will do with an ingredient that seems out of place, like kimchi with oysters for example, but it is these unexpected combinations and somewhat experimental cooking that lead to the sensational flavors and textures I’ve come to expect from these guys.
The only starter I want at brunch is coffee, but LC saw the pimento cheese with bacon marmalade and decided to try it. Having already had my caffeine at home, I ordered my first birthday mimosa at precisely 12:30pm.
There were three brunch dishes that piqued my interest, so I ordered two of them with the intention of sharing. The most intriguing was the lamb belly with Anson Mill grits, sorghum, coddled egg, mache, and its duo of mystery ingredients, pickled ginger, and peanuts. I was excited to see how these flavors would come together. I was also fascinated by the dish simply called “farm egg”, interestingly paired with crisp Carolina gold rice, onion puree, salami cotto, and Brussels. LC agreed to give it a try and I couldn’t resist a side of bacon to go along with everything.
The pimento cheese starter arrived in a mini Mason jar with big slices of dry Texas toast. Chopped cheddar and a few pimentos were topped with a chewy, greasy, salty bacon jam. If I was a pimento cheese lover, I probably would have enjoyed this upscale version and its pseudo-Southern presentation.
I polished off my first mimosa and ordered a second as a runner delivered our brunch dishes, both in cast iron skillets. We were taken aback when we noticed that both of our eggs were barely cooked. Sure, the eggs were coddled, which is similar to poached, however runny egg white is never, NEVER acceptable. The bartender/server explained that the egg is to be mixed into the dish to create a sauce. Excuse me? I probably had the same quizzicle expression on my face that Acheson is famous for. If eggs are used to make the sauce, like hollandaise for instance, please make it in the kitchen.
We mixed the ingredients in our dishes, mainly to avoid being disgusted by the runny whites. My lamb belly was a nicely seared chunk with an appropriate ratio of fat to meat and paired well with the creamy grits, enhanced by a drizzle of sorghum. A handful of fresh mache lightened up the rich dish, however, the peanuts and pickled ginger were like turds in the proverbial punchbowl.
The main component in the “farm egg” dish was rice, cooked then flash fried for a toothsome yet crispy texture. I couldn’t detect the onion puree but observed a couple of thin salami slices and a few uncooked Brussels sprout leaves scattered on top. And then there was the runny egg. On the bright side, the bacon was thick and chewy, just the way I like it. But it wasn’t thick and chewy enough to negate the fact that my birthday brunch was well over $60 and consisted of two partially cooked eggs, grits, and some fried rice. For $14 per dish, perhaps two eggs may be more appropriate. (but then we would have had four runny f*ckin eggs!)
Considering this was our first brunch, it was certainly disappointing. And as far as those experimental flavor combinations go, these were experiments gone wrong….so much so that Empire State South is now off my Top Ten List.
999 Peachtree Street 404-541-1105