Restaurateur Robert Thompson's Punch Bowl Social brand is growing quickly, with multiple new outposts planned to open around the country. To help maintain quality and give guests a fun dining experience to match the games and activities available at the restaurants, Thompson brought on chef Hugh Acheson as culinary partner earlier this year — and today Acheson's new Southern-inspired menu roles out at the South Broadway mothership (as well as at the five other PBS locations in other cities).
In Georgia, Acheson is known for a handful of restaurants in Athens, Atlanta and Savannah and for a series of cookbooks that cover a range of traditional and modern Southern recipes. But here in Denver, he's more known as a judge on Bravo's Top Chef and as a former competitor on Top Chef: Masters. He'll be in Denver occasionally to work with the PBS team, but if you're looking for a celebrity sighting, your best bet is to tune into Top Chef reruns.
Acheson's prints, though, are all over the new menu, from a pimento cheese appetizer to hoecakes and chicken biscuits on the breakfast slate to cube steak and an "A La Bama" chicken sandwich on the dinner roster. Still, the menu's not just a rundown of Southern-fried cliches. Lighter fare like a superfood grain bowl served bibimbap style (with crunchy bits of farro and a soft egg meant to be mixed in); regular "green plate" specials that will feature the best of local, seasonal produce (and will vary from city to city based on what's available); and charred Japanese eggplant served on ciabatta with burrata and black-eyed pea hummus all add variety and healthy options.
"So how do you create honesty and authenticity in a chain this size?" Acheson asks — and then answers his own question: "You don't take any short cuts with great food."
The chef adds that simplicity is almost always the best approach, so he challenges his kitchen team to think of creating dishes with fewer ingredients instead of more. "We take something as simple as a bologna sandwich and make it as good as possible," he says by way of example. So that bologna sandwich is made with Fra'Mani mortadella (made in Berkeley, California, with nitrate-free, sustainably raised pork), gruyere and Castelvetrano olive tapenade, turning a basic sandwich into something closer to a muffaletta.
And a plate of poutine (a nod to Acheson's Canadian upbringing) is nothing more than fries, cheese curds and brown gravy, as it has been served in Quebec for decades. "I don't want cooks to chef up poutine if they haven't been to Quebec," Acheson notes.
Thompson spent his childhood in Mississippi and says that he has always included Southern dishes on his Punch Bowl menu, so when a search for a culinary partner began at the beginning of the year, he knew he wanted someone dedicated to the cuisine of the South. "We decided to upgrade our talent and bring in some bigger names," he explains, noting that Acheson was the right fit to join regional executive chef Matt Selby and national culinary director Christopher Cina, two Denver veterans who came aboard this summer.
Here's a look at a few of the dishes available starting at lunch today.
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