First Taste: The Spence
June 5, 2012 § 1 Comment
75 Fifth St. NW.
Atlanta, GA 30308
My first real interaction with Richard Blais’ newest restaurant, The Spence, was through a preview dinner of sorts at the end of August last year which I wrote about here. After watching the opening date of this restaurant get pushed back time after time, perhaps The Spence was merely striving to encourage an element of suspense or perhaps it just took longer than expected to get all of the elements coordinated the way they intended. Either way, it’s finally arrived to much hype and fanfare, and I was curious to see how the sophisticated yet whimsical comfort food theme stacks up to some of the other dining experiences in Atlanta.
I quite enjoyed the redesign of the space and the overall stylish, casual but chic visual theme from their key icon and graphic design to use of overhead elements as storage and lighting. The space felt urban and industrial, yet with enough touches of retro warmth that made it comfortable. I appreciated the moments of quirkiness including the “things that inspire us” section of the menu with a quite assorted list of current muses which I’m hoping changes occasionally to reflect new inspirations. The only moment of quirkiness I wasn’t overly fond of was the graphic design icons on the bathroom stalls. The men’s room showed a toilet with a seat up, and the women’s room showed a toilet that presumably has a seat down that doesn’t even look like it has a back so it doesn’t even quite necessarily read toilet either. Needless to say that this can and will likely be confusing to one who has had a drink or two. Be aware lest you are tipsily stumbling into the wrong area.
Once again, I found that the service was exceptional enough to warrant mentioning. Outside of the fact that we were checked up on a few times by various individuals in a way that was very likely happening much moreso because it was their second weekend, the service still felt very sincerely warm and super informative without feeling the slightest bit pretentious or fake. The people serving us seemed happy and excited about their offerings which is certainly contagious. Clearly, they both hired and trained well. I hope this trend continues.
The bread fits the nostalgic comfort food theme very well. One of the things I remember fondly from my childhood were the buttery freshly-baked rolls in the cafeteria at Catholic school that I ate for 9 years. It was always the one thing that was consistent and delicious. This was a direct reference to that for me, and amusing to see something like that so out of context. I appreciated the presentation of a generous butter with the flecks of crispy sea salt. The bread itself was light enough in texture that you didn’t feel guilty eating a bit before your dinner.
I also was too busy craving rosé to try a cocktail, but the offerings that evening certainly seemed worth a try later.
They also get major credit for offering Hitachino, a personal favorite of mine on their beer list. The wine list was organized in an interesting manner as it was additionally divided up by “tried and true” and “leap of faith” sections. I settled in on the leap of faith rosé and I was quite pleased.
Mostly intrigued by the small plates on the menu and wanting to sample as much as we could, we tended to stick with the small plates in a more tapas-style ordering.
Oysters & Pearls
As anticipated, oysters and liquid-nitrogen frozen “pearls” of horseradish crème fraîche were on the menu, and they were just as elegant as they were at the previous tasting. Blais’ love of acid shone through but not so much that it overwhelmed the sweet briny oyster. The pearls were already beginning to melt adding a greater variety of texture and the horsey kick was reminiscent of horseradish sauce. If you like oysters and wish to try what is considered a quintessential Richard Blais dish, I encourage you to give these a try.
Bone Marrow, Tuna Tartare, Fried Quail Egg
This was one of many dishes that I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect on the menu as the descriptions were short. It adds to the mystique, I suppose, and in this case, we were rewarded with something interesting. The marrow, deep on the bottom of the bone was more of a bread crumb soaking through with marrow grease with a thin layer of marrow beneath. This was topped with a layer of cool tuna tartare with capers and parsley and then two fried quail eggs. The concoction is served with two grilled slices of bread that remind me of the wonderful grilled bread served at Empire State South. When combined, the toast provides a firm crunch and grilled smokiness. The marrow gives an earthy greasiness and a dusting of smaller crunch, and the tuna adds the filler creamy texture and serves to soak up some of the grease. The eggs on top added another silky layer and the yolk dripped down and helped combine all the components. My only faults were that the tuna flavor was lost in the earthy richness of the other elements, and it was on the border of being too greasy, but it still worked together as a complete dish in is own interesting way. I enjoyed the punches of acidic caper and herbal parsley when I found them, but they were few. This was indeed an interesting play on texture, and I anticipate their playing with this concept with additional flavors seeping in.
Fried Cod, Lady Peas, Tartar, Malt Vinegar
Triple Fried Fries
Braised Leaves and Tops
In lieu of an entree, we continued with another smaller plate and some sides. Richard has mentioned wanting to play on pub food, so we added fries to our fried cod for a more proper fish and chips and ordered greens to see how the more simple side of the menu fared.
The battered and perfectly fried cod was layered on a silky bright green puree of peas, with an al dente sprinkle of lady peas for chewy texture with a layer of lightly acidic tartar sauce and much more acidic drizzles of reduced malt vinegar. Two “chips” or should I say “crisps” were perched in between as sort of a smirking reference to fish and chips. This was a clear example of his elevated comfort food ideal and was overall my favorite thing we tried that night.
The french fries were very straightforward in seasoning. Their thickness held some softness in under their crisp, non-greasy exterior. The ketchup that came with it was the real star and was quite great for the most part. It was very likely made in house and had a much more deeply developed spice profile than most ketchup, but I still think there was the tiniest bit missing to fully round out the flavor. It might have been as simple as a pinch of salt or a dash of acid. I also had just had Miller Union’s ketchup the day prior and these two are are different, but I found the MU version more successful. On the other hand, I found the Spence’s fries to be more perfectly textured. If you are a fry lover, these are for you.
The braised leaves and tops were surprisingly quite simple and straightforward in the midst of much more complex dishes. While they were cooked to a nice tenderness, I did find them to be incredibly salty which made it was difficult to perceive much else.
Malted Barley Panna Cotta, Popped Sorghum
The half-fluffy, half-softly chewy texture of the popped sorghum and the fluffy bits of cake layered on top of the silky panna cotta was a nice contrast of textures. Flavorwise, they both melted into that lightly smokey malted, molasses-y tone that I associate with sorghum syrup. Typical of panna cotta, this had a light silkiness to its texture with an evident fatty cream richness that you feel on your lips with every bite. The textures on top helped break up the fattiness below. While this was nice and while each component was done quite well, I almost think I might prefer these flavors with a frozen yogurt like HD1. In fact, I almost think they’ve done something similar before.
Pineapple Upside Down Cake & Foie Caramel
The cake itself was dense but moist and creamy hitting all the right notes of a classic pineapple upside down cake. Pleasantly, the foie gras was apparent in the caramel, and it added a richness to the texture and a muskiness to the flavor that layered nicely with the deep buttery tones of the cake. What I believe was a frozen yogurt added a less fatty cold element to melt on top and cut through the richness once again. This dessert was quite good, but really heavy at this point so I was only able to indulge in a few bites.
I couldn’t help but enjoy the soft and sweet petit fours at the end and the charming presentation of the bill underneath a heavy old key. I was additionally amused by the presentation of an old four-color click pen when it was time to sign the check. They did a great job thinking through lots of little details such as these that really elevated the experience. Also worth noting, even though this was more tapas-style dining, the bill for the two of us for everything you see here including a bottle of the rosé was just under $100 before tip which is quite reasonable.
Final Verdict: The Spence holds well in its capricious departure from the farm to table trend while still working with their fresh ingredient ideals and manages to combine quirky presentation with a variety of comfort food concepts that are likely to both please and charm most palettes. I am happy to report that The Spence may have carved out its own little niche in the food scene in Atlanta. While there were entrees on the menu that I did not sample, I like the flexibility with the variety of small plates that allow you to carve out a less formal tapas style dining here easily as well as a more formal coursing, and it’s clear that the menu has the flexibility to evolve and grow by way of different muses in the future. While there were more lighter items on the menu, it did feel as if the offerings in their more comfort-style gravitated a little bit to the more heavy concepts, but it seemed possible to piece together a lighter meal if you were determined to do so.
My only concern with this restaurant which I have been feeling since they announced their location is the fact that they are practically on Georgia Tech’s campus in the midst of a sea of restaurants such as Waffle House, Subway, and Moe’s that cater to the cheap on the go college meals. It’s still walkable to patrons who live in Midtown as well as in close proximity to many business offices which I hope will be enough. I would rather see this place somewhere more prominent on Peachtree, but I suppose they picked where they are for a reason. I just know that’s been a failed location for many other restaurants in the past. Perhaps Blais’ star quality and The Spence can ride on reputation and excellence and stay for a long time to come.
I know I’ll be back without a doubt to experience some of their other dishes like pork belly and octopus with bbq chickpeas served under a smoke-filled glass cloche or to try the duck confit that Richard promised he’d have at some point on the menu or to try some of their cocktails especially when they open their patio area. It’s a great addition to the midtown area even if slightly off the main path, and I’m glad to see it’s meeting expectations.