Friday, March 2, 2012

Empire State South (and Thoughts on Food)

Champagne taste on a beer budget. That’s the story of my life. Though, it’s funny, about the only thing I have “champagne taste” about is food. I don’t care about name-brand clothes, designer shoes, luxury cars and all that stuff. I just love good food. And I love to travel and eat good food. When I fantasize about winning the lottery, it’s about travelling, dining out, having free reign at food specialty stores and ditching my cat-scratched, kid-stained sunken sofa. (And, maybe getting a new house with a spacious kitchen and fancy stainless steel appliances. But, I digress …) However, what I consider "champagne food" isn't really champagne and caviar. Really, I hate caviar. I'm talking about good quality, delicious, artfully prepared food. I especially enjoying dining out because I don't have to do any cleaning! It's just about relaxing and trying new foods ....ahhhh.

The choices I’ve made in life haven’t brought me lots of money, and I’m okay with that. I have a wonderful family, great friends, and have been able to spend a lot of time with my kids and forge a career path based on what I love to do, not what I have to do. However, it’s nice to fantasize and it’s nice to treat yourself every once in a while. The other day I had a doctor’s appointment in the same building as Empire State South, the Atlanta restaurant in which Hugh Acheson is a partner. It’s frequently listed as one of the top restaurants in Atlanta and very much at the forefront of “New Southern” or “Farm to Table” cuisine. My husband and I ate there once before on our wedding anniversary. With dinner entrees in the $ 20-35 range, it’s definitely a special occasion place for us.

Empire State South (photo from website)

Since I happened to be there around lunch time, I thought I would treat myself with a to-go lunch that I could take home and share with my husband who was working from home that day. In Atlanta, for the most part, traditional fine dining is dead. Empire State South reflects what "new fine dining” looks like. The focus is not foie gras and fancy cuts of meats – it’s grits, collard greens, pork belly and sweetbreads – down-to-earth ingredients that are faithful to Southern culinary traditions. The d├ęcor is tasteful, simple and comfortable. There’s a coffee bar and self-serve pastry table for those who want to grab and go. 

The lunch menu featured items like a Veal Breast Sandwich ($13), North Carolina Catfish ($15) and a veggie plate ($15). Ever budget conscious, I went for the cauliflower soup ($7) and a jar of pimento cheese with candied bacon and toast. Then, I kind of lost my mind a little on the pastry table and could not resist a coconut cupcake, golden raisin fennel scone and a phatty cake, two ginger cookies sandwiched with vanilla mascarpone. Pastry chef Cynthia Wong is a wonder worker. The kindly bar keep rang me up and my total was $22.68. Then I forgot to get my parking validated which was another $7. Oops!

I got the “feast” home and was somewhat disappointed with the portion sizes. The $6 pimento cheese was in a to-go container the same size of one that normally holds salad dressing. The soup would not have filled one of my regular dinner bowls. The scone, while delicious, was $3.50. Had I gone to Taco Bell, I could have eaten a whole meal for that much! But, I don’t even like Taco Bell and I know that their food is terrible for me. In my opinion, a buttery scone is much better than cheap, greasy ground beef. So, herein lies the dilemma – why does food that is good (i.e. not processed, filled with preservatives, over-salted and MSG-ed) cost so much more? Further, are the prices charged by restaurants like Empire State South fair? Of course, it’s a free market economy and a restaurant can charge whatever they want. And I know it is expensive to own and operate a restaurant. This fascinating Creative Loafing article/timelapse video provides a great inside look at how the restaurant runs -- and all the people that it takes to pull off a successful operation.

My to-go lunch from Empire State South.

Basically, I’m conflicted – and that’s why I’m writing this. Maybe I'm like the old lady arguing with the cashier about the price of bananas: "What? 49 cents a pound is an outrage!" I'm sure that I don't get out enough. Maybe I’m the product of a generation of Americans who think big portions=value.  Finally, maybe I’m a teeny bit resentful that I can’t afford to eat more often at the restaurants of all these chefs I admire. (Yes, I'm whining.) But, if we expect attitudes about food and value to change, good food has to be accessible to those without a lot of money. Of course, the onus is on those without a lot of money to put a higher priority on food. There is a mental hurdle to get over -- the hurdle that puts low cost over high quality. There's a Boar's Head radio commercial that I keep hearing with a tagline that rings true: "Compromise elsewhere."

At the end of the day, I’m just thankful that I can cook and that I can make my own cauliflower soup if I want to. I think the ability to cook and love of good food is one of the best gifts my mama gave me. I’m also thankful that home cooks are more empowered than ever with television cooking shows, millions of blogs and cooking Web sites and cookbooks by people like Hugh Acheson who have a passion for sharing their knowledge and philosophy with others. I wish the world could be more equitable and that our food economy would make sense, but at present it doesn’t. Maybe it will be so one day. Until then, I'll keep cooking, counting my pennies and being thankful for those times when I do get to sit down and enjoy a nice meal prepared by someone else.

What do you think? Can you relate? I’d love to hear from you!


  1. Yes, I can relate. I went into Empire once and I just couldn't see paying the price. As far as what you reality combined, it made for a hefty lunch. $22 + 7 for parking is too much for lunch even in New York.
    I do understand the pricing. Real Estate is astronomical in Midtown. It's the happening place to be where people will run up credit cards without thinking twice just to say they ate there.
    The price doesn't change however, no matter where you go because restaurateurs keep a close eye on competition.
    That aside, being ala carte is never good. Pricing adds up rapidly.
    In truth, my husband and I can afford meals like this because our kids are gone but we ask ourselves, is this worth once a week? Isn't it better on an occasion?

    I remember taking my husband out for his birthday to his favorite Chinese Restaurant in Decatur, Pyng Ho. I used to take Steve's cooking classes. We use to attend his once a month dinner club. We always had the special because I don't particularly care for the traditional rice and stuff. This particular day, my husband said..."you know, you could cook a meal like this just as well". I was elated he thought my cooking to be so good. That was all I needed to hear. We quit going out to eat.

    About a year ago, for the heck of it, I wanted to go to this restaurant in Blue Ridge, Harvest on Main. The food was excellent. The service was super. The price was $150. Was it worth it? No. Could we afford it? Yes. Will we return? Maybe, in a year or so. I have to admit though, the meal was probably not something I would have considered making. So, I go by what is served at a restaurant such as another restaurant in Blue Ridge I considered but looked at the menu first.They were serving on special, Three Pork Medallions in a lemon/caper sauce for $22. Hello! Pork tenderloin cost $7.99 and that's the whole tenderloin. Lemon, capers and little corn starch. It was a no brainer.

    The fact is we've started living closer to a budget now that we are in our 60's because we don't know how long we will live and so there is no sense in spending frivolously, unnecessarily.
    There is no way in hell I'd move in with my kids if I ran out of money. So that right there is an incentive to eat at home.

    The fact that we both enjoy cooking and now I photograph and blog about it helps immensely. So...better than going out, we don't chimp on food. I am always looking for sales and do really well with that but I eat filet mignon whenever we decide to have steak.

    BTW, it's great that you are a full time mother. Hardest job in the world, I know I was one.

    1. Thanks, Pam. I've eaten at Harvest for lunch. I really enjoyed it, but it too falls within the "special occasion" category for dinner. While I enjoy cooking, my favorite part about eating out is not having to prep, clean or get up and run back and forth to the kitchen 40 times to get something for the kids! I'm familiar with Pyng Ho, too. It's still there!

  2. Wow - I'm all for paying a little more for good quality, but those prices do seem a little over the top for lunch. I haven't been to Empire, but it doesn't sound like the choices are overly creative to justify the price tag from your review. It is Atlanta, so there will always be people who won't mind the price though.

    1. Thanks for reading, Heather! I will say that the food is really good, but the prices do seem crazy high for what you get. Granted, it is located in midtown and I'm sure the rent is through the roof, but I'm just too poor to make eating there a habit! Definitely worth checking out for a special occasion ...

  3. I absolutely can relate! And I feel like I a constantly running into the same thing, especially grocery shopping. I want to buy the better quality meat and all the organic stuff, but it is so much more expensive that I can't bring myself to do it all. And I want those kinds of things to be readily available to the rest of society, but so many people eat unhealthily because they can't afford the better-for-you foods. :/

    1. I hate going grocery shopping for that reason! It takes me forever to read all the labels and I have to make many tough choices - i.e. pay $2 extra for the organic cheese or stick with the store brand conventional cheese. And then I see other people's carts loaded down with complete and utter crap and it's so depressing! Oh well, hopefully one day soon we'll have more affordable healthy options. Thanks for reading!