New house, new chef, new vibe


FIVE AND TEN

1073 S. Milledge Ave., 706-546-7300, fiveandten.com, $$$-$$$$

In its old location, Five and Ten was the kind of place everyone loved to discover. I remember my first visit to the Athens restaurant in 2001, back when it was a scrappy neighborhood bistro in a college town. There was a daily blackboard menu hanging in a prominent spot by the entrance and animated conversation wafting throughout the open space.

It was a happy place. When the food came, we passed around plates and liked each dish better than the last. The kitchen took that extra step with everything, even the pitch-perfect lemonade — tart but not astringent — my 10-year-old ordered. Macerating sliced lemons rather than pressing them is the key, the then-unknown chef told me later.

Hugh Acheson didn’t stay out of the limelight for long. He would go on to open three more restaurants, including Empire State South in Atlanta, write a terrific cookbook (“A New Turn in the South”), become a familiar face on food television, win a pair of James Beard awards, and establish himself as one of the top voices in the revival of Southern cooking.

Acheson has become that rare celebrity chef with a welcome home in both high and (forgive me) low food culture. He uses his sharp mind as a writer and lecturer to share his expertise in sustainable food communities. Yet on Twitter, and in the universe of “Top Chef,” his acerbic tongue and much-admired synophrys take center stage.

Nearly a year ago, Acheson moved his flagship to a somewhat larger, considerably more solid-feeling home — an early 20th century Colonial Revival residence known as the Hawthorne House that stands tall and proud on Athens’ Fraternity Row. Since the remodeling, it has given off a comfortable “best restaurant in town” vibe.

Around the time of the move, Acheson also installed Kyle Jacovino as chef and gave him enough latitude to establish himself as a culinary voice in his own right. Jacovino has since left to run the kitchen at the Florence in Savannah, Acheson’s soon-to-be fifth restaurant, slated for a summer opening. Jason Zygmont, an Alpharetta native with a seriously kick-posterior resume, took over the kitchen in January and has made it more his own.

In other words, there’s a lot of context to Five and Ten — enough so that I’m unsure how to portray my reaction after just one meal. It would take four or five meals before I’d have a good sense of how to recommend this restaurant in this building with this chef. Was there any of the old love at first bite I experienced at the first Five and Ten? No, not by a long shot. But that one was a discovery; this one is a mature and still-evolving institution.

Acheson and company took care to preserve this historic house, choosing to build the kitchen in an addition rather than disturb the layout of rooms inside. The upgraded parking lot out back leaves a big, old shade tree undisturbed, and even the claw foot bathtub in the restroom has stayed put, finding new life as a planter.

No denying: This is the kind of creaky-gracious home that college towns like to turn either into frat houses or leftist coffee shop-bookstores. As soon as you climb its steps, cross its two-column-deep porch and push open its heavy door, you could envision either occupying its grand rooms: the floorboards cleared of all furniture save a grotty beer keg, or every nook and corner filled with old sofas, nicked coffee tables and splayed-out postdocs pretending to read “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”

Thankfully, the actual decor is far cooler. The walls sport a coat of soothing Gustavian gray paint, a fantastic zinc bar lies off to the side of the broad entrance hall, and beyond it an even more fantastic coffee bar has set up shop inside the former enclosed porch.

But like every restaurant in an old house, you eat in one room or another. Some are bright and lively, some aren’t. We end up in a poky corner room with one small window, far from the people-watching and buzz of strangers.

Zygmont, who moved back to Georgia after a stint at New York’s Per Se (and a stage at Copenhagen’s Noma before that), brings a lot of finesse to a menu that reads homey and friendly.

He whips up a creamy, buttermilk-tart butterbean soup to pour tableside over a country ham custard. It sounds rib-sticking but tastes playful and surprising, thanks to the shaved radish, peanuts and sorrel popping colorfully in the bowl.

The sense of fun on this menu serves as a through-line from the old days. The snacks (or “snackies” in Achesonese) include a bouquet of colorful pickles, pimento cheese with bacon marmalade and Buffalo sweetbreads that arrive with a little crock of blue cheese dip. The latter would have been a whole lot more fun if they had some of the crispness that make Buffalo wings so irresistible.

Thick slices of crusty, dry-aged rib-eye arrive with a painterly assortment of spring vegetables and a high, feathery twist of fried beef tendon that add lots of visual flair, if also a mouth-coating greasiness.

Crisp-skinned trout is also a looker under fried greenery, but a better dish thanks to its canny garnishes of beets, soy-pickled oyster mushrooms and sea beans. Zygmont has a real gift for constructing flavors that zig where you expect them to zag.

He also takes chances. I admire his guts in serving a special of two small confit chicken thighs simply plated with baby onions and grilled little gem lettuce hearts. But it didn’t quite work. The thighs came out full of flavor but stringy (as they often get), and their glaze was a bit sweet for my taste. They also came off as a course on a fine-dining tasting menu. As a $25 entree at the best restaurant in town, this dish felt slightly arch.

We tried just one of pastry chef Mike Sutton’s desserts, but it was a doozy: a warm rhubarb upside-down cake served with fresh strawberries and buttermilk ice cream.

Beverage director Steven Grubbs was on hand to decant our bottle of peppery 2011 Domaine Jamet Syrah into an Erlenmeyer flask. You can count on Grubbs to do the hard work and source the highly allocated, hard-to-find cheaper wines. He does good things for the world of wine in Georgia.

So, I’ll be back to Five and Ten. I’ll make sure to get a better seat and maybe even bring a designated driver, the better to explore the wine list. As for the food, I don’t quite get chef Jason Zygmont yet, but I’d like to. There’s time: This now-classic restaurant will be around for a while.