Last Friday, a friend and I decided to try a little culinary experiment: lunch at last year’s Richard Blais concept HD1 followed by dinner at his brand-new flagship, The Spence.
Would it be a hallucinatory trek through reimagined American food? Could a hot dog joint hold its own with a glitzy new Midtown restaurant? Would one of us be dipped in liquid nitrogen for the final course? We had lots of questions.
Before HD1 opened last year, the concept seemed a little groan-worthy. Hot dogs reimagined as haute dogs, get it?! As it turned out, though, the flavors were bright and focused, the ideas were playful and fun. Most of the skeptics I’ve talked to were won over by the food.
Clearly, chef Jared Pyles has been the engine behind HD1 as Blais has been at work on the Spence, running marathons, filming television shows, and whatever else it is that he does. On Friday, the dogs we ordered were as fun and tasty as I remembered. We had a few: the Dublin is as greasy and heavy as Irish food should be, a fried-and-pickled flavor bomb called South of Chi-Town, and the Tatanka, which combines buffalo sausage, ranch sour cream, and corn salsa into Americanized southwestern food.
HD1 speaks clearly to the most obvious conceptual talent of "Blais the Consultant:" taking something we readily recognize from American culture and re-contextualizing or distilling it into something new. That can be as simple as an American hot dog in the context of Irish bangers and cabbage or something headier like the Tatanka, which tastes like a riff on the appropriation of Native American culture and Southwestern flavors in junk food re-appropriated into high concept junk food.
More simply, Blais and Pyles understand that eating hot dogs and drinking canned beer is fun. HD1 is their version of that. It’d be more fun if the rooftop was open for business, as was initially planned, but that has been apparently mired in delays since the place opened. They’re still hoping to open up the rooftop later this year.
The Spence is an entirely different experience. Glamorous-looking Midtown folks in their cocktail dresses and blazers are already spilling out of the place. Chatty conversations and rap music register just a notch below a cosmopolitan roar. The lighting is worthy of a theatrical production starring Richard Blais in apron and faux hawk. The night we were there, he worked the crowd, posing for photos with fans while keeping an eye on the food coming out of the kitchen.
If HD1’s fun is a little one note – a haute dog is still a hot dog – then the Spence is all over the scales. There are oysters and pearls, macaroni and head cheese, General Tso’s sweetbreads: the little puns and jokes that Blais often credits to his time at the French Laundry under Thomas Keller. There’s a large and interesting wine program. There are glass domes filled with aromatic smoke.
The bar is a little unusual, in that there isn’t one. There are, instead, a couple of tables that bartenders float around, making drinks at the end of them. Perhaps this is a revolutionary development a la the open kitchen, but it felt a little awkward. I tried the Methodist, a rye cocktail with a gelatinous absinthe cube. Our bartender (or should I say table-tender?) seasoned the drink with smoke using a hi-tech device that looked roughly like a Georgia Tech student’s idea of a bong. In any case, the drink tasted quite a bit like a smoky Sazerac, which seemed to be the intention.
The service is already up to highly-oiled-machine speed. The oysters dazzled, sprinkled as they were with liquid nitrogen frozen drops of horseradish and lemon juice. The bone marrow comes spread with tuna tartar and quail eggs. The pork belly arrived underneath one of those smoke-filled glass domes.
The waitress drew our attention to a dish they’re calling “canned soup.” It arrives as a bowl scattered with some pea-size objects over which the server pours soup from a can. The version they were serving that night was curry cauliflower with puffed rice balls and something involving raisins. Our waitress patiently repeated the ingredients a couple times, but I couldn’t quite keep up with the complicated explanation. Maybe I couldn't hear her because the finished product was so simple, so decadently creamy and undeniably American. It’s like tasting a Warhol print. At five bucks, it’s also the cheapest item on the menu.
I'll leave the full evaluation of the Spence to the critics. AJC critic John Kessler's name is on the menu, by the way, under a list of "Things that inspire us." The week before, our own Bill Addison's name was in that place. In any case, it doesn't seem that the throngs of Midtown diners will be disappearing anytime soon. If you do happen to drop in, don't miss the soup.
Photography courtesy of Concentrics Restaurants.