Cuisine: Have you ever been on a Tour de Hugh?
By Anna Ferguson Hall
Cheri’s Note: This was written by Anna Ferguson Hall for guide2athens last spring when she was a graduate student at The University of Georgia. We treated her to dinners at all of Hugh’s restaurants as a wedding gift after she tied the knot with Michael Hall.
They call him Hughnibrow. And he’s OK with that. Because in recent weeks, the hard work and creative energy Hugh Acheson has mustarded for years is paying off, to national acclaim and new found fame.
On April 6, Acheson turned from beloved Athens restaurateur to a nationally recognized celebrity chef, entering our homes via the TV screen, to take his place as a contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters.” It was to the dismay of viewers when Acheson was the first one asked to pack his knives and leave. And it was to our greater joy when, just a week later, the Hughnibrow (so dubbed because of his signature furry unibrow) returned to TV after another contestant had to leave. Since then, Acheson has won over fans across the country with his crafty eye for flavor and his understated, sarcastic demeanor.
More than making Acheson a household name, the show, too, has boasted the business to his restaurants. Owner and executive chef of 5 & 10, as well as partner with The National, and Gosford Wine here in Athens, and Empire State South in Atlanta, Acheson has exposed what was the states best kept secret: his prowess with creating gourmet Southern fare, with a few twists.
At any Acheson establishment, guests are just as likely to be downing Budweisers as they are to be sipping fine French Champagne. They are likely to be munching on homemade pickle plates while waiting for delicate red snapper filets. They are just as likely to be wearing jeans and baseball caps as they are sport coats and diamonds.
With Acheson, both in person and through the personalities of his businesses, there exudes a very easy comfort, a softness that welcomes guests in a way hard to find in such upper crust locales.
That’s the thing, though. Acheson hasn’t set out to make anything upper crust. He simply makes good food that has come to be praised and appreciated by food purists and critics.
Admittedly, I am neither. I am, however, a food enthusiast with expensive taste on a writer’s budget. But seeing how special it is to have a Top Chef- a Top Chef Master, nonetheless- living in my own town and producing some of the best food in the country, I had to take a venture into his gourmet realm. I had to take the Tour de Hugh.
My tour started at Five Points, where my husband and I dine at Hugh’s first Athens restaurant, 5 & 10. Just walking by and taking in the exterior of the restaurant, you get an instant feel for what Acheson was going for with this place. A row of four huge steel-rusted utensils are tacked between the windows, creating that country home/ classic Americana/ couture vibe. Once inside, that same vibe is doubled, thanks to the plank wood floors, dim lights and casual chic waiters.
The menu never strays from this antique shop glamour, offering dishes that fuse inspired Southern flavors, layered with down home ingredients and seasonal, local fare. While the food line up is a mesh of tastes and ideals, it is not delivered in a messy, unorganized way; on the contrary, this script of goodies is intentionally creative and varied.
Take, for example, the “Snackies” starters offering. Here you will find a true gem: the pickle platter with delicately sweet mushroom, delightfully tart cucumbers and zesty onions. If you get nothing else from the restaurant, get the pickle plate. Far from the run-of-the-mill pickled standards, these items are made in house and change with the season. Combine this generous snackie with the olive plate, and you might run the rick of filling up before the main course. So don’t. Because the main course is something you’ll want to dig into.
The entrees at 5 & 10 change daily and seasonally, so offering a recommendation on what to order is tricky. And also unwarranted, seeing as you really can’t go wrong with any of it. From seafood cooked with delicate hands to mighty pork chops paired with mashed potatoes, everything here is a winner.
Exiting much more full and happy than I came in, I left 5 & 10 excited about the next two legs of my tour. Next stop was across town, to The National. Though the Pulaski Street restaurant offers the same shabby chic atmosphere, it somehow feels different here, with more of a town touch added.
Again, this menu- delivered by executive chef Peter Dale- brings new zest and life to classic dishes. Looking over the Mediterranean-inspired menu, I found myself overwhelmed by excellent options. I asked the waitress what to order, only to be met with a silence, as she too was unable to pinpoint the masters of the menu. There were just too many great options.
After much humming and haaing, I finally settled on the vegetable plate. I know, you don’t go to fancy eating spots to get a plate of vegetables. Unless said offering is too good to pass up. I found that here, with the carrots cooked to perfection, the sweet potato cakes formed with care and the drizzled sauces adding just the right hint of extra flavor to my beets.
Other possible plates rotate with availability and of course the season. But this spring, be on the lookout for amazing fish dishes, gorgeous quail (my husband’s pick, which I obviously helped him eat- wonderful!) and yummy pork creations.
Finally, the tour took a turn out of town, to Acheson’s latest venture, Empire State South in midtown Atlanta. A classy joint with paper menus and a whimsical flair, the city-struck venue offers the same excellent service and selection I have now come to expect from any Acheson establishment. Plus, there is a bocce ball court in the breezeway. Fun food and games. Delightful.
The well-rounded Snackie selection- which have quickly become my favorite creations in the Hughnibrow repertoire- brings flavorful options with a touch of country panache. Take, for example, the house charcuterie plate. Served in a farm house style, the little jars of chicken liver mousse, jellied fruits, crispy breads, pickle and mustard are the ideal way to kick off dinner.
Follow that up with a glass of wine or craft beer, to pair with dishes ranging from steelhead trout, accompanied by spring baby peas and roasted kale, to pheasant breast with cranberry, pecans and leeks. The seafood at ESS is quite outstanding, and while I didn’t try the pork chop or poultry, a quick jog around the dining room provided enough insight to say those, too, are stellar choices.
After my three-stop Tour de Hugh, I realized the larger, overarching theme Acheson is creating in the current culinary world: he’s making food people want to eat, in a setting where they feel welcome, and providing every diner with a lesson on freshness and quality. No dish is piled to the ceiling, but you certainly never leave hungry. No atmosphere is stuffy or pretentious, but the dining rooms are a far cry from cookie cutter.
Acheson has developed a very delicate but secure balance in all of his restaurants, where the food- not the chef, not the art on the wall, not the wine glasses- is the centerpiece. (But don’t get me wrong; the chefs, artwork and wine glasses are all dazzling.)
That whimsical structure he has created likely comes from his background: born in Canada and married to a Southerner, Acheson took on cooking in college to pay the bills, quickly realizing that making culinary masterpieces was his calling. He never went through any formal classroom cooking training. Instead, he developed his own natural talent, which has lent itself to creating natural, thoughtful and original dishes.
I believe Acheson sums up the Tour de Hugh best, when he answered a question about his new found status as a celebrity chef and the message he is delivering: “I am not trying to be a zealot or reinvent the wheel,” he said. “My goal is to bring good, fresh food to people, in a way they can appreciate. Food is about comfort and enjoyment, and that’s what I am trying to display.”
For more in Acheson’s restaurants, visit:
5 & 10:www.fiveandten.com
The National: www.thenationalrestaurant.com
Empire State South: www.empirestatesouth.com
PHOTO CREDIT: Rinne Allen