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A playful Art Smith atop the ham bar in the entranceway

Artful Endeavors

by Stephanie Davis Smith | Jezebel magazine | October 31, 2011

On the topic of Southern food, there is no doubt; Chicago’s beloved chef, Art Smith, knows what he’s doing.

At Southern Art, his newly minted, bright pop of a restaurant in the InterContinental Buckhead, Smith’s country roots come shining through. A creamed butterball potato cradles thick-battered fried chicken, crispy pork belly lofts atop Johnny cakes and his Grandma Addie Mae’s chicken-and-dumpling soup comes chockablock with thick ribbons of housemade noodles. It’s official: The former Au Pied de Cochon space no longer recalls a Parisian bistro, but now channels homespun, below-the-Mason-Dixon gastronomy with loads of quirky, eye-catching vignettes and décor that keep your mind reeling.

Before you cross the curtained threshold into the pink-, orange- and red-hued dining room, your senses (sight and smell particularly) are greeted by a one-of-a-kind, artisanal ham bar, crowned with sausages, meats and ham hocks hanging from the ceiling. Under the glass cases below is a smattering of charcuterie and jars of deviled ham, smoked catfish and pork rillettes, which can be delivered to your table with crusty bread, Parker House melba, honeycomb, grainy mustard and hot pepper relish to create DIY bites of perfection.

If you didn’t notice the ham immediately upon arrival, that means you were probably derailed by one of the other deliciously distracting bars in the entranceway (or possibly both of them): the Bourbon Bar and dessert bar. A rustic table in the center of the room is the bedrock on which a temple of old-fashioned sweets is built. Whole desserts like peanut butter-and-jelly pie with a cookie crust, 12-layer (yes, 12!) red velvet cake, Mockingbird cake and bourbon pecan pie sit all dolled up and pretty in rows, ready to be sliced and served.

The bar specializes in small-batch bourbons and features select producers only available here through “exclusive agreements,” according to Brian Stanger, the head mixologist and bar manager. Even without the food, this spot would make our hot list for best bar. It’s got the trifecta: a well-cultivated selection of bourbon distillers (more than 70), pre-Prohibition cocktails and a space filled with attractive, interesting characters.

Once comfy and settled into a banquette or a high-backed chair for dinner, menu decisions are tough to make. But rare is the table at Southern Art that doesn’t contain a trio of down-home darlings: mac ‘n’ cheese, sweet potato casserole and Pot Licker greens, which arrive burbling and popping in miniature red iron cauldrons. They come sidled up to flavorful, enormous entrées, such as the slow-and-low braised beef short ribs, grilled heritage pork chop and Sunburst farm rainbow trout low-country pirlau.

If you’re an early riser, breakfast here sounds like it’s taking place at Addie Mae’s kitchen table. Farm eggs, Bill Newsom’s preacher ham, red-eye gravy and sweet potato hash pepper the robust menu, but a slew of healthy options, such as egg-white omelets, steel-cut oatmeal and stewed fruit, can keep the calorie load in check. The dining room also has a breakfast buffet, where you can try biscuits and Surry sausage gravy, smoked salmon Benedict, pecan-crusted French toast, steak and eggs or Springer Mountain Farms fried chicken with Virginia maple syrup.

With this lineup, it’s apparent that the thing Smith understands (maybe better than anyone else in town right now) is that Southern food is all about the balance between the high and the low. Vienna sausages, pimento cheese and green tomato-apple relish exist effortlessly alongside honey-lacquered half duck and a smooth, refined heirloom squash soup. It’s why Lady Gaga and Oprah, who both have presumably eaten at the top restaurants in the world, sound like giddy schoolgirls when they gush over Smith’s down-home fried chicken and waffles.

Between bites, you’ll begin to envision Southern Art as a place where your taste buds can exist joyfully between the notions of high and low. A place where an unusual, yet scrumptious, Carolina black rice risotto with forest mushrooms and Asiago emerges as your signature dish—the kind that at some point can be ordered simply by nodding to the waiter and saying “the usual.” And isn’t that what we’re all really craving?

3315 Peachtree Road NE, 404.946.9070, southernart.com