For nearly as long as I’ve lived in Atlanta, I’ve been driving my daughter to her best friend’s house in Oak Grove — an East side neighborhood with a Decatur mailing address and a whole lot of big, new homes.
At first there weren’t many restaurants of note in the strip shopping centers by the main intersection. I recall a nice-enough meat and three. But soon came a local market with good sandwiches, and then a sweet Middle Eastern spot that kept getting better and better, and then one fun pub, and then another. But with the opening of Sprig, the neighborhood finally has the restaurant it has long wanted — a Southern bistro to call its own.
Owner Daniel Morrison — the longtime manager and friendly face behind the bar at Decatur’s Watershed — unveiled Sprig in October, and it has been slammed with business from Day One. I know this because Oak Grovers of every persuasion immediately started peppering me with notes and comments about Sprig. Some loved it, some complained of long waits for tables and slow service — problems that any overwhelmed new restaurant faces. I decided to give it some time.
Over two recent visits, I found Sprig to be a happy place with that kind of great, crackling energy you can feel. Busy but not straining, loud but not braying. Customers of every age looked as if they were settling into a favorite hangout — having a thoughtful cocktail at the bar or enjoying a plate of clean, proudly Southern food. Chef Robert Elliott, a former Watershed cook, keeps things simple and ingredient-driven. He cooks with comfort in mind and an occasional sparkle of distinction. This will be a restaurant to watch.
If you can secure a table toward the back, wood-paneled area of the long room then all the better. You are closer to the kitchen with the appetizing smell of its wood-fired grill — one that hits you first as you enter the area and then again as your food arrives.
That smoke hovers like a friendly spirit over the Sprig burger ($11) — a fat and juicy thing that comes with a cap of melted cheddar, lettuce, tomato, raw onion and mayo on a great potato bun from Midtown’s Bakeshop.
But star-sandwich status really belongs to the bratwurst ($13) — a fantastic link from Pine Street Market in Avondale Estates that arrives under a purple heap of sweet-and-sour cabbage and apple. Yes, there’s a bun, but, no, you will never be able to pick this behemoth up, so start slicing away with fork and knife. While I hesitate to recommend a $13 brat, I think the pleasure makes up for the price.
Elliott, I think, finds his sweet spot with dishes that goose comfort classics, just a little. A cream of parsnip soup ($5) is nearly as thick as frosting and just as irresistible, while lamb stroganoff ($14) brings its beef progenitor to mind, but is a lot more fun. Tender cubes of meat arrive in a lively sauce of crème fraîche and ancho chile powder over a huge serving of penne pasta.
Best are the huge chicken livers ($6) from Springer Mountain Farms — sheathed in a peppery, crispy batter and ringing a mound of arugula and endive in a buttermilk/blue cheese dressing. It’s kind of a glop salad, but perfect as a smooshy counterpart to those creamy, mild livers. This dish was responsible for turning two teenage girls on to the pleasures of offal.
And a special shout-out goes to the mozzarella grit cakes ($9) — fat, fried patties with a sweet roma tomato sauce and sauteed spinach. This dish is a calling card for the kitchen’s potential.
Desserts also follow the updated comfort-food model to fine effect. Elliott, working with pastry chef Renita Moore, offer a small nightly selection of winners. Fried pies ($4) currently come with a tart quince filling and a side dish of quince syrup to sweeten things up. A classic shortcake ($5) arrives split, filled with soft apple slices and lavished with whipped cream and caramel. The signature dessert, however, is something called the chocolate gooey butter cake ($6) — a double-layer deal with firm chocolate ganache on the bottom and a puffy, cream-cheese-enhanced goo on top.
This restaurant loves its vegetables, and lists the farmers on a blackboard behind the bar in a heart-on-its-sleeve gesture. But the kitchen sometimes treats them with more respect than insight. I would order the aggressively plain vegetable plate ($11) again, for I’m happy enough to sate my appetite with its piles of carrots, collards, grits, pinto beans and — hello — crunchy beet cubes. It does the job but is no love song to Dixie.
Crunch also insinuates its way into a “winter gratin” of turnips, parsnips butternut squash and rutabaga that accompanies gorgeously slices of crisp-skinned duck breast ($19). Arctic char ($21), one night’s fish special, arrives over minicubes of roasted turnip and a perfectly fine pile of braised greens. I hope I don’t sound like a complete hypocrite when I comment that it would be a perfect neighborhood dinner — healthy and clean — if it cost, say, $14. But for $21 I want a bit of seasoning to tie the flavors together. I want a little aha on my palate.
I find it on a plate of pan-seared chicken breast ($14), sliced to reveal beading-with-juices meat under crackling skin. It straddles a pile of soft polenta shot through with cubes of tasso ham and comes with a pan sauce to tie everything together.
There’s more wit on the drinks list. After much deliberation, I tried the King’s Evil ($9) — a concoction that features Scotch whisky and Fernet Branca, an Italian liqueur that’s as bitter as a scorned blog troll. My wife said it tasted like medicine. I thought it grew progressively more awesome with each sip.
For now, Sprig is a great addition to its neighborhood. But I hope to stop by from time to time, try a cocktail and order a plate or two. I suspect as Robert Elliott, a promising chef, grows into the top, this restaurant will extend its reach far beyond Oak Grove.SPRIG 28060 Lavista Road, Decatur, 404-248-9700 Food: Southern farm-to-table, with shout-outs to local growers and producers Service: Low-key and friendly style, though timing seems to go off a bit when the place is busy Best dishes: Chicken liver salad, mozzarella grit cakes, grilled bratwurst, sprig burger, pan-seared chicken breast, fried pies Vegetarian selections: Several appetizers as well as a nice vegetable plate Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday; Dinner 5-10 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday Children: Fine for older and well-behaved kids, but there are likely people here who got their own babysitter Parking: Street parking Reservations: Only for parties of 10 or more Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Moderate to high Patio: Yes Takeout: Yes