Eating Hugh Acheson’s Monobrow To Gain His Powers–Empire State South

Sorry for the Cards Against Humanity reference, I couldn’t help myself.

Hugh Acheson has been a fixture on the fine dining scene in the South for some time, but I first found out who he was by watching Top Chef on Bravo. Hugh always came across as both funny and serious at the same time, and I had always hoped I would have the chance to try his food.

As fate would have it, I ended up in Atlanta on a consulting gig, so I managed to carve out an evening to run to downtown Atlanta and try Chef Acheson’s new restaurant, Empire State South. Since I had never tried the food here before, I, of course, went immediately for the tasting menu. First off, I will say that the service here is remarkable. My server, Colt, was remarkably friendly, generally well-informed, and immediately picked up that I was a bit of a foodie. (Note to Colt–it’s the Wil-AM-ette Valley).

Overall, I would consider the food here worthy of a special trip. I was particularly taken with the grilled octopus, as well as the andouille sausage stuffed quail. If there was any low note, it was probably the pork, but I’m guessing that’s only because it immediately followed truly sublime quail.

The wine pairings were, on the whole, quite good. Colt suggested I try a different pairing with the catfish, recommending an Austrian Gruner Veltliner instead of their normal pairing, and he was dead on right.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the remarkable cocktail menu. Their take on several classic American cocktails was truly worthy of note, particularly the Fire Down Under, an all-liquor rum version of an Old Fashioned.

All in all, I would consider my trip to Empire State South to be one of my true food highlights in the South outside of New Orleans.

UMAMI by Travail

Anyone that has ever talked food with me in the past couple of years knows of my obsession with Travail in Minneapolis. I have made several abortive attempts to dine there, and then they had the temerity to CLOSE their restaurant for remodeling in August of 2013.

As it turns out, the chefs at Travail got bored, and foodies everywhere got lucky. Due to their boredom, the chefs decided to put together a pop-up restaurant for a few months focusing on a dim sum style of food and service. Luckily I was able to score tickets for Umami for my birthday In early December, and I cannot begin to tell you how excited I was to go.

Umami is a family-style dim sum restaurant, with food circulating on carts as it is prepared in the kitchen. As per the tradition at Travail, the chefs also act as the servers, which adds an interesting flare to the service. The restaurant is loud, boisterous, and energetic. And the food…. Oh, the food. Course after course (10 in all), and each one was different and exciting. From a brilliant Korean barbecued beef steamed bun to a chicken wing that was insanely moist, everything on the menu was stunningly fresh and brilliant seasoned. I would find it nearly impossible to pick a favorite course, but the beef short rib and the avocado & egg dishes certainly jump out as among the best.

I can honestly say Umami ranks among the best places I have ever eaten, and it is easily at the top of the list when I think of the quality/cost ratio. For only $40 you can try everything on the menu, and have as much as you want. Beverages are separate, but there are a variety of reasonably priced beers and wines.

Umami will exist for only a few more weekends–I would encourage you to check it out before it closes. And when you go, make sure to buy a boot of beer for the staff! If you want to go, you need to buy tickets in advance–tickets are available at HERE.

Heidi’s Minneapolis

Heidi’s is a Minneapolis fine dining restaurant that all of my foodie friends have been surprised I’ve never tried. Perhaps it was simply bad timing, perhaps it was simply a matter of effort, but somehow I had never been there until yesterday. Heidi’s certainly has a reputation among the foodie cognoscenti in Minneapolis as being one of the finest places to eat, so I went into it with very high expectations.

Overall, I would describe my experience as uneven. The service was impeccable yet unobtrusive, and the wine list was certainly more than functional. Some of the courses on the seven-course tasting menu, such as the beet and goat cheese salad, were absolutely divine. I absolutely loved the salmon mousse cannoli, wrapped in a shell of an “everything” bagel slice.

That said, some of the courses were seasoned with an incredibly heavy hand. The opening course, an egg mousse, was quite salty, but that was nothing compared to the pasta course that came later. Ostensibly, the pasta included black truffles and fresh homemade pasta in a cream sauce, but the salting of the food was so heavy, that I tasted literally nothing but salt. I would not have even known there were truffles in the dish if the server had not told us. It really bordered on inedible. This either indicates the chefs were not actually tasting the food before it went out or someone in the kitchen had a major sodium deficiency in their diet and was craving salt that night.

Even when salt was not the issue, there were other plates that also suffered from seasoning overkill. The lamb shank, one of Heidi’s signature plates, was so overwrought, so heavily braised in a very strong sauce, and so heavily seasoned, that I didn’t actually know I was eating lamb. For all I could tell, it was beef pot roast in a sauce. The delicate flavor of the lamb was completely overwhelmed by everything else on the plate. My better half, a great lover of all things lamb, left most of her plate untouched she was so underwhelmed.

Perhaps I caught Heidi’s on a bad night. Perhaps my taste buds were somehow overly sensitive that night. But all things considered, I would not consider Heidi’s to be among the better meals I’ve ever had, nor would I even consider it to be one of the best in the Twin Cities. While Tim McKee’s La Belle Vie may be significantly stuffier and a bit formal for Minneapolis, at least their tasting menu is consistently prepared and carefully seasoned. Doug Flicker’s Piccolo also shows a level of care, creativity, and consistency with their food that clearly overshadows Heidi’s in my mind.

I really wanted to like Heidi’s, but I find myself walking away wondering if I will give them a second chance–my guess is that we will, but we will do so with a very critical eye.

A Quick Appleton Note

If you ever get to Appleton Wisconsin, you really need to try Appolon. While the exterior is very unassuming, and the interior is a bit kitschy, the food is absolutely first rate. When I first walked up to it, I thought I might be going into stereotypical Greek Gyro restaurant. I could not have been more wrong. The food is absolutely amazing, prepared with an immense amount of care, and nearly all of it (including salad dressings) made in-house. I can honestly say I have never had a better prepared lamb dish that I had there, and the service was even more remarkable than the food. If you have not yet found this gem in the middle of Appleton. You absolutely must try it.

Some New Orleans Thoughts

Having recently returned from a trip to the Crescent City, some brief notes on some New Orleans cuisine you might want to consider…

The best deal you will find on lunch anywhere in New Orleans is without question at John Besh’s Restaurant August. August has, of course, the reputation as one of the best fine dining establishments in all of the city. What most people don’t know, is that August also has selections from their fine dining menu available at lunch, and at ridiculously low prices. They offer a three course tasting menu for lunch for only the price of the year, so this year it is $20.13. That obviously compares very favorably to the five course tasting menu at dinner, that will run you north of $100. This is obviously an incredible bargain, and a wonderful chance to get a sense of food at August without having to pay the steep price for dinner.

Another restaurant I can recommend without hesitation is the original Emeriil’s restaurant. While you will probably have to deal with some pretentious neighbors at other tables who don’t understand that Emeril no longer cooks there, the food is still remarkably good, and represents great nouveau Cajun cuisine.

My third recommendation would not come as a shock to any one that knows me, and that is Donald Link’s temple to all things pork, Cochon. While my better half and I disagree as to whether Cochon is #1 or #2 on our list of favorite NOLA eateries, there is no question Cochon is an amazing place to eat. Like August, Cochon has some great and inexpensive lunch specials that let you enjoy the great food without remortgaging your house.

My last two recommendations were new to us on this trip–Stanley, Scott Boswell’s new lunch spot, and Felix’s, a hidden gem of an oyster bar. Stanley is a great place on Jackson Square. The menu consists of a wide variety of sandwiches, breakfast available all day, and other interesting tidbits. After eating there, I can unquestionably recommend it, and I would certainly go back. Felix’s is across the street from the always packed Acme Oyster Company at the edge of the French Quarter. We were all more than pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food, the friendliness of the service, and not having to wait in line for an hour to eat.

Obviously there are hundreds of restaurants in New Orleans from which you can choose, and there is no question there are many more I still need to try. That said, the ones I’ve listed here today are really can’t miss locations, and I would strongly recommend any of them.

The Foodie Drummer Does Milwaukee

Ally and I decided to make a quick weekend escape Milwaukee recently and we had the chance to dine at several interesting places. While I don’t normally say much about hotels, I have to give a major shout out to The Iron Horse Hotel. This was an absolutely amazing boutique hotel and one I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone visiting Milwaukee.

Our first dinner stop was Bacchus, located in the stunning Cudahy tower. Bacchus is part of the Bartolotta empire in the Milwaukee area. Bacchus is a classic fine dining establishment and all that that entails. The food is both sophisticated and clearly prepared with a significant degree of skill. I highly recommend the salad with the poached egg as a starter. My main was a pan-fried chicken–normally I avoid chicken in finer restaurants, but our server assured me it was excellent and he was certainly right! We ended with a remarkable cheese plate. This is the second time I have been to Bacchus, and both times I have been really quite overwhelmed by the quality and selection they have in their cheeses.

For brunch the next day, we decided to try a place that several people had recommended to us, Cafe Benelux . First off, let me just note HOLY CRAP WHAT A BEER MENU!! Honestly, I’m not sure I have ever seen so many beers available in a single location. It was, quite frankly, phenomenal. Truth be told, it was a little early in the day for both of us to drink too much beer, but that didn’t keep Ally from trying one of their killer bloody Mary’s, and I did sample a couple of lagers on my way through brunch. The food at Benelux is both creative and relatively inexpensive. I was stunned by how good the food was–My past experience has been that restaurants with enormous beer selections often tend to skimp on the food. We were both quite impressed with both the creativity and quality of the food, and I have to recommend the biscuits and gravy if you ever go there. It is both unique and wildly tasty.

Our final dining adventure in Milwaukee was at Sanford. Sanford has a Zagat rating that would rival the best restaurant in United States, and it certainly has the reputation as the standard by which all fine dining in Milwaukee should be evaluated. Overall, I found Sanford to be a pleasant experience. Sanford is clearly built in an old house and the dining room seats maybe 45 or 50 people at best. The food was unquestionably good, and the service was also excellent. Was it one of the best restaurant I’ve eaten? Probably not, but it certainly rates among the better third of places I’ve eaten. One minor complaint I have is that Sanford only offers a tasting menu on Monday through Friday. This is not clearly indicated on their website, so when we arrived on a Saturday night, we were unable to try the tasting menu. This was truly unfortunate, as I firmly believe the tasting menu is the standard by which one would evaluate any true fine dining restaurant.

Taken as a whole, our experience in Milwaukee was unquestionably better than we expected. Given the city’s reputation for beer and bratwurst, it was a pleasant surprise to find such excellent food prepared so well. I have no doubt there are many hidden gems in the Milwaukee food scene that we were not able to try, but we will certainly do our best to return at another time and look forward to such adventures!

Harvest–Madison, WI

Madison is a confusing city to me. The residents seem quite convinced that they have some of the best foodie spots west of New York, yet my experiences have been, to be frank, very uneven. I’ve had some great food at restaurants that Madisonians don’t seem to value, and my experiences at the restaurants they rave about leave me wondering if Madison foodies have a serious inferiority complex.

Harvest was one of these places. They have great reviews and great word of mouth recommendations. Harvest wants to be the premiere locavore destination in Madison, but, IMHO, there’s a lot of hype here for decidedly mediocre food. For starters, we were seated in what I can only assume is their banquet room rather than the main dining room. The room has all the warmth of a Holiday Inn reception room–we even got the “privilege” of sitting next to the curtained off area where they stash their electronic gear

That said, decor is certainly not a deciding factor for me–one of the best lunches I’ve ever had was at The Weinery , a restaurant that looks like its been recently assaulted by a pack of Hells Angels on a three day bender. In the end, it’s the food that makes or breaks a restaurant for me.

So, the food. The word that keeps coming to me as I write this is “insipid”. The rabbit tagliatelle I had was so under seasoned and so flavorless that I found myself eating the bread rather than my entree. I left about two-thirds of it on the plate and my sever never bothered to ask if I liked it. You know you’ve overpaid for bad food when you leave a restaurant and need to stop for a burger so that you can say you’ve had dinner.

Perhaps Harvest was a good dining experience at some point in the past, but I can honestly say there’s only one restaurant I’ve ever been to that promised more and delivered less.. And that place was also in Madison.