Our waiter brings a plate under a foot-high glass bell filled with an opaque cloud of smoke. What is this? I don’t remember ordering a bong.
As we gape, the waiter smiles and removes this fanciful cloche with a flourish worthy of a French maitre d’ in a cartoon. The sweet smoke clears to reveal…chicken. Pretty good chicken at that — roasted and served with some loose grits, a bit of tomato and that quick hit of smoke.
What I’ll most remember about this dish, though, is not the flavor but the surprise parlor trick. And that’s OK. People expect a good parlor trick or two from the man, the brand, Richard Blais.
The local chef, television personality and burger baron is back with his first full-service restaurant in years. Those of us who’ve been around the Atlanta dining block have followed him for the better part of a decade and through more than a handful of area restaurants. But for the past few years all we’ve had to chew on were his wacky takes on hamburgers and hot dogs at Flip Burger Boutique and HD1.
This drought now ends with The Spence, Blais’ partnership with Concentrics Hospitality — an area restaurant group that had previously hired him to run the kitchens at One Midtown Kitchen and the now-defunct Piebar. For this new venture, Blais vows he’s “over the whole ‘creativity for creativity’s sake’ thing,” and focused instead on “good, simple cooking.” The name itself is an archaic term for larder.
I’m not sure I’d call the food at The Spence simple (this larder holds smoke powder and sea-urchin-flavored noodles) but it is often quite good and just as much fun as his earlier efforts without seeming like such a science project. Blais still hugs his canister of liquid nitrogen tight, but he has established himself as a gifted chef with a signature touch. Some of his creations here are small marvels that strike your fancy and linger in your memory. However, The Spence isn’t quite yet a fully satisfying restaurant. As fun as it can be to explore, it’s a roller coaster, where across-the-board fine meals can be elusive.
My advice is to focus on the lengthy list of appetizers and small plates, where the kitchen zips and zings. A crisp, diaphanous flatbread called a carta da musica ($11) dares you with its weirdly felicitous toppings of lardo (cured pork fat), pickled anchovies and arugula. It’s a frisky thing that caresses and then slaps until the last shard disappears.
I also love the so-wrong-it’s-right pairing of roasted bone marrow ($13) heaped with tuna tartare and fried quail eggs. Bits of preserved lemon in the mix manage to speak to the marrow’s fat and the tuna’s lushness. Ditto kale Caesar salad ($7) made with only the leaf ruffles and an amped-up dressing that stays bright as you chew and chew these firm greens.
Add Blais’ showmanship to these gutsy flavors, and the meal can really delight you. Witness the daily-changing “canned soup” ($8) — for us, a creamy vichyssoise that the waiter pours from a can billowing cold smoke. Hello, liquid nitrogen!
Raw hamachi ($14) arrives rolled up like ribbons on slate-colored earthenware, with bits of fried clam, yuzu and mayonnaise enhanced with smoke powder. It is lovely (if also essentially a retweet of Noma chef Rene Redzepi’s signature style) though I find the ingredients don’t communicate.
That happens here. This kitchen can pile on flavors and ideas like so many gadgets shoved into a kitchen utility drawer. The two cannoli-sized lobster “knuckle sandwiches” ($17) are like cute baby lobster rolls, made with all knuckle meat. And they sport so many pickled mustard seeds that all you taste is spicy, vinegary grit. The overwrought punster strikes again with “oysters and pearls” ($12) — some lovely Shigoku oysters weighted down by a watermelon vinaigrette and frozen dots of horseradish-mustard sauce. A murky, overly rich bowl of that sea-urchin spaghettini ($14) drips with spice, butter and a few poor nubbins of lobster.
This all comes out in the wash if you’re passing and sharing plates. Thumbs are sometimes up, sometimes down, but the meal stays fun from start to finish. When you order entrees and try to build a more traditional meal, you get the feeling this kitchen lacks focus. A springy steak cut from a leg of lamb ($27) comes with soft gnocchi and eggplant that tastes like a Chinese restaurant. Fine. A slab of pork belly topped with a (too gummy) shrimp ravioli ($23). Fine. That flashy bong chicken ($24). Just fine. But the meal turns dribsy-drabsy.
Then again, some of the simplest and least showy items on the menu are the best. The “Juicy Lucy” ($14) — a fat burger stuffed with white American cheese — is both a marvel of engineering and an incredible burger. Also, the “family meal” has been fantastic both times I tried it. The kitchen sells a few orders of the staff meal at cost each evening. Once it was a lamb shepherd pie ($3.67), another time a French bread pizza topped with marinated squash ($2.98). This kitchen has fine technique, and when it prepares simpler dishes it shines.
The front of the house shines from start to finish under the direction of general manager and sommelier Justin Amick, son of Concentrics owner Bob Amick. Service always strikes the right tone in a setting where the high-energy kitchen literally spills out into the dining room like some kind of experimental theater.
Big kudos also go to Amick’s wine list, each category cleverly divided between “tried and true” and “leap of faith” wines. Many unusual varietals and under-recognized viticultural areas are represented.
I also am developing a serious crush on the handiwork of pastry chef Andrea Litvin, whose abstract heaps of crunch and cream come together in such complex layers in the mouth.
Her pineapple upside-down cake with foie caramel ($7) gets all the attention, but her malted barley panna cotta with popped sorghum ($6) and thrilling yuzu semifreddo with peach sorbet and chili ($7) are what linger in my mind.
As do many dishes at The Spence. I say go for the thrills and chills, the smoke and mirrors. But buckle up: It’s a bumpy ride.THE SPENCE 75 Fifth St. N.W., Atlanta. 404-892-9111 Food: Creative American bistro fare Service: Excellent, though the kitchen lags when busy