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With the Spence, Atlanta’s prodigal Top Chef returns to the kitchen. But will he stay put?
A strange, witty, occasionally confounding, and often wonderful mix of eccentricities defines the Spence, the year’s most anticipated opening. Its name carries an unofficial subtitle: “The restaurant where Richard Blais finally returns to the kitchen.”
The first bit of idiosyncrasy is evident before you even enter the place. On the corner of Fifth and Spring streets, in front of the congested valet stand, sits a small wooden planter holding an overflow of herbs and flowers, with a chalkboard at the top that has “The SPENCE” written in neat, steady penmanship. It recalls a sign beckoning guests to a country bed-and-breakfast. But if it puts you in the mind-set of cottages and farmlands for a moment, the techno thumpity-thump vibrating in the restaurant’s door handle brings you right back to Atlanta.
The air in this dim room—with its floor-to-ceiling windows; dark walls; and collisions of wood, metal, cement, and painted brick—ripples from currents of raised voices, moving bodies, and wafts of cooking meat. Feel familiar? It’s the frenzied atmosphere of two other restaurants you might know: One Midtown Kitchen and Two Urban Licks, which led the thronged, style-over-substance blockbusters that ruled the city’s dining scene during the first half of the 2000s. (They still draw crowds, though I’m not sure why.)
Concentrics Restaurants—One and Two’s owner and a partner in this new venture—has focused on consulting the last several years, and it hasn’t launched a restaurant with this much momentum since defunct Trois opened in Midtown in 2006.
Every time I walk into the Spence, so transformed from when the effervescent Globe inaugurated this space in 2005, the vibe slightly unnerves me. I’m not eager for garish behemoths to return to culinary fashion, and the awkward, jutting bar near the entrance provides little welcome.
Then I look up at the odd shelf suspended over the center of the dining room, secured to the ceiling by thick steel support brackets. This floating ledge is as much an altar as it is actual storage (spence, by the way, is a British term for larder): Its contents include a pageant of red Le Creuset pots, spice tins, a can of Italian tomatoes, a squat jar of fiery sambal chile sauce, and the five hefty volumes of "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking."
The guy who perched that strangely reassuring mishmash up there also hovers over the stoves underneath. He’s the one whom all the guests strain their neck muscles to glimpse.
Richard Blais still displays the spiky coif and diagonal smirk that made him a fan favorite on season six of "Top Chef" and last year’s winning performance on "Top Chef: All Stars." This restaurant—and the partnership with Concentrics, for which he worked in 2005 as executive chef at One Midtown Kitchen—is a homecoming. Yes, Blais still lives in Atlanta, but we haven’t tasted his most ambitious cooking since the sous vide pork belly and panna cotta served with Coca-Cola frozen in liquid nitrogen at Midtown’s short-lived Element, which closed unceremoniously in 2007.
No matter how wacky, offbeat, and occasionally stunning the mind-benders that he helped create at the Flip Burger Boutiques and their hot dog sibling, HD1, he basically was (and remains) a consultant. Now here he is, back in the trenches, darting by the wood-burning rotisserie, bending over plates with a creased brow, and then stopping to pose for pics. Amazing how the tables closest to the kitchen counter suddenly resemble front-row seats at a cooking demo.
But enough Blais-gazing: How’s the food?
The Spence’s menu evolves daily, with the three dozen or so dishes changing according to the melting-pot inspirations of Blais and his staff. Shareable small plates take up the largest chunk of real estate—smart, because that’s where you’ll find the most consistent payoffs. Start with the latest incarnation of a Blais signature, oysters and pearls: saline Washington State shigoku oysters, with their deeply cupped shells, scattered with dots of horseradish ice cream (using liquid nitrogen, natch).
Comb the list for creations that highlight stark protein contrasts, an early specialty. Perhaps pork belly fried to the consistency of crisp carnitas, then cloaked in velvety smoked sturgeon, all brightened by a ruddy soy-based sauce that combines the sweetness of Japanese eel sauce for sushi and the dried-seafood funk of Chinese XO sauce. Or maybe bone marrow, spread with tuna tartare and topped with two fried quail eggs—a surf-and-turf wedlock that doesn’t seem like it could possibly work, but ends in bliss, the raw and unctuous flavors complementing each other rather than feuding.
I love the uni (sea urchin) spaghetti, a retooling of an idea popularized by Mario Batali: Familiar lobster and comforting pasta assuage the uni’s mineral pong and the otherworldly hint of mint from Japanese shiso leaf. And the front-runner among pastry chef Andrea Litvin’s desserts is the pineapple upside-down cake, glossed with foie gras caramel (a wink to Blais’s infamous specialty, the foie gras milkshake) and sassafras ice cream that I can appreciate but that also reminds me of my grandmother’s Pepsodent toothpaste.
These kinds of ballsy and well-executed novelties will please food lovers bored with the never-ending parade of shrimp and grits, charcuterie, and pan-seared trout on so many Atlanta restaurant menus. More accessible dishes appear as well, though. In the mood for a burger? The Juicy Lucy, admired by Blais but dreamed up in Minneapolis restaurants, comes with white American cheese stuffed inside the patty, so every bite gushes molten goodness.
The chef calls a revolving dish smoked under glass (using hickory wood chips loaded into a handy-dandy smoking gun, a favored gadget among the molecular gastronomy set) his restaurant’s answer to the billowing fajita. One night it was duck—beautifully scented with licorice and cherry, but cooked a little too rare for my taste. When our server lifted the dome, a perfumed cloud ringed our heads with haunting Eau de Campfire.
Creating a wine program against this whirligig of tastes could be daunting, but Justin Amick is equal to the task. The son of Concentrics founder Bob Amick (who frequently works the floor of the Spence, sporting his trademark untucked shirt and shock of white hair), he was one of eleven in the entire country who passed the arduous advanced sommelier exam in California last October.
His list already ranks among the most engaging in the city, a concise and ever-changing assembly of tried-and-trues (affordably priced Cabs and Chards from both sides of the pond, wisely chosen Pinots and Sauvignon Blancs) with oddities from Spain, Uruguay, Switzerland, and Lebanon that make wine geeks giddy. With his exuberant tableside charisma, rattling off suggestions rapid-fire and removing any pretensions from the wine experience, Amick emerges as the Spence’s breakout star.
Now if only we saw a little more of the headliner. Richard Blais could not possibly juggle any faster: He’s filming a new show in the "Top Chef" franchise, he’ll release a cookbook next year, and he continues with his consulting gigs. (Read his Twitter feed; it’ll make your life feel calmer.) Blais told me that he’s trying to curtail his travel schedule. From my observations, you’re most likely to catch him on the weekends and least likely to see him on a Monday or Tuesday.
And the Spence does require his presence. My best meal out of three, without question, was the one when Blais was in the kitchen. Nuggets of General Tso’s sweetbreads and the triple-cooked fries alongside the burger, as two examples, were previously soggy and tepid but showed up crisp and hot under his watch.
His partnership with Concentrics, at first blush, feels like a success: The space’s bustling flashiness gels with the brainy-meets-zany complexities of Blais’s cooking. But I can’t imagine the restaurant sustaining its raging popularity and uninhibited creativity without him actually being there regularly—or daily, even. You have a lot of local fans, Richard Blais, and this could become one of Atlanta’s defining new restaurants, but you’ve got to stick around: Commit to the Spence and we’ll commit right back. —Bill Addison
RATING ** (very good)
75 Fifth Street
HOURS Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-11 p.m.
Photograph by Alex Martinez. This review originally appeared in our August 2012 issue.