It is an act of supreme hubris to waltz into Atlanta and presume to have something to tell us about Southern food. Of course, it can be done. Hugh Acheson is Canadian. Many chefs who did not originate on this red soil have fallen in love with the heart and history of Southern cooking and made it their own. I'm a goddamn Australian, and I tend to have an opinion here and there. Our homegrown chefs are not all homegrown in the technical sense of the word.
Southern Art, the new restaurant in the InterContinental Buckhead, has a native Southerner at its helm. It should tell the story of a homecoming — Southern boy (chef Art Smith) leaves the South, taking his love of his region's cuisine with him. Southern boy brings the gospel of Southern food to his adopted hometown of Chicago, to Oprah, to the governor's mansion in Florida, to the televisions of Food Network and "Top Chef Masters" viewers. Southern boy returns to the South and opens a Southern restaurant in a Buckhead hotel, pleasing both the tourists and the locals with his upscale takes on classic comfort and innovative cooking. Unfortunately, this story is a tad more complex than that. Because Atlanta knows upscale Southern cooking, and Southern Art falls short of our expectations as a city.
The space is odd; a revamping of the baroque frippery of Au Pied De Cochon. The cavernous room has a color palette of gray paired with multicolored stripes, as well as chandeliers dripping with colored glass fruit, and large, bright, motley paintings hung from above like a drop ceiling mosaic. Despite all this, the space can feel a little ... grim. There's that hotel restaurant grandiosity that sways from charming to slightly sad. Right now, with the sparkle still on it, the experience tilts to the former, but with a year or two of wear I can easily see it falling to the latter.
The space feels more joyful during lunch, with natural light streaming in, brightening the gray walls. Lunch is also where I found my favorite dish, the $17 charcuterie plate (it's advertised as a ham board, but there's only one ham on it). The day I had it there was a beautiful house-made headcheese, all tang and mellow fat and bright spicing. A wickedly smoky ham, some salumi, and a thinly sliced galantine rounded out the offerings. Served alongside the (slightly oily) biscuits and pickled veggies that arrive instead of a breadbasket, this would make a great picnic-style lunch on its own.
I also liked the farro salad, a simple combination of the grain with some cucumbers and tomato and served with a tangy broad bean hummus. But the Brunswick stew, topped with crispy pig ears, was far too rich and meat-heavy, loaded with smoky bacon and tasted almost andouille-like. There's something inherently off about ramping up a dish that was born of the ingenuity of making do.
That point was driven home with a "meat and three" lunch special of chicken fried filet mignon. It's a silly thing to begin with — why fry a high-quality steak? The breading falls off the meat, which has no sear for obvious reasons. Potatoes that were clearly warmed in a box sit underneath. Here's the thing about Southern food: It gets better when the ingredients are better, fresher, more seasonal. It does not get better with fancy ingredients. Brunswick stew is a hunter's stew — it doesn't get better with extravagant bacon added. Chicken fried steak doesn't need filet any more than a filet needs to be fried to achieve its best presentation. The gimmick isn't worth pursuing if neither the dish nor the ingredient benefit.
Things get better when the presentations lean toward modern Southern rather than "upscale classics." Despite the fact that the pork belly appetizer could be crisper and more rendered, thereby avoiding the vast fleshscapes of white fat, the dish as a whole was well-conceived. It's a tasty riff on breakfast, served with corn bread, a poached egg, and braised peanuts. Shrimp and grits are rich, satisfying, and smoky from the Benton's bacon. Fried chicken, the dish that must take the brunt of scrutiny in any Southern restaurant in this town, is nicely set up on creamed potatoes with Brussels sprout leaves scattered around the plate. The crust comes off too easily and isn't compelling enough to cling to, but it's not a bad dish. It's just not, you know, FRIED CHICKEN. King of fried chicken. Fried chicken of the heavens.
But black rice risotto was just odd, tasting vaguely like cheese but not enough to make the dish anything other than bland black mush. And the desserts I had were downright sad: a buttermilk chocolate cake that towered in its case but was dry and boring on the plate, and an apple pie (sold to me as peach) that had a soggy crust and was cold in the middle.
As a place to meet a friend for a cocktail, you could do a lot worse than Bourbon Bar, the across-the-foyer bar that's part of the concept. As you might imagine, there are plenty of bourbons to choose from, as well as excellent cocktails such as the Easy Tiger, a mix of Scarlet Ibis rum, Italian vermouth and bitters. The cocktail list was built by opening bar manager Brian Stanger, formerly of Top Flr and Abattoir, but he's already left the building. Regardless, the bartenders are executing his drinks beautifully, and for a hotel lobby bar the place manages to be charming and fairly intimate.
And all in all, Southern Art is a decent hotel restaurant. I'd go back for that charcuterie plate, for cocktails and nibbles, or for a business lunch. But Atlanta knows Southern food, and we reward authenticity. We are the very center of the modern Southern movement. We welcome anyone who wants to come play that game with us — Canadian, Chicagoan, children of the South who have left and returned, an even (I hope) Australian. But I'm happy to say, chicken fried filet ain't gonna cut it.