Brian So, the 28-year-old chef and owner of Spring in Marietta, does not like clutter. Good thing, too, because his restaurant—a converted train depot—doesn’t have room for much more than tables and chairs. So’s minimalism extends to his menu, which rarely boasts more than five entrees. Most importantly, it extends to his cooking, which is nuanced in its simplicity—the goal, seemingly, of every chef who has ever uttered the phrase, “Honor the ingredients.” But cooking simply should not mean being simple. Brian So gets that.
So grew up in Kennesaw and went to culinary school in Hyde Park, imagining he’d own a restaurant one day. He took jobs in West Palm Beach and San Francisco, but city life was never for him. In the fall of 2012, he moved back to Georgia, cooking first at One Eared Stag and then becoming manager at Sobban, where he met his wife, Kerry.
When So looked to open his own place after Sobban closed, Marietta made immediate sense. For one thing, Marietta’s dining scene has upped its game in recent years, taking a page from Canton Street in Roswell. For another, the city was just a few miles from his extended family in Kennesaw. The inspiration for the name was equally prosaic: Spring, he says, is his favorite season to cook from. The 100-year-old historic freight depot space has the original pine floors and brick walls, and it’s illuminated in the daytime by an abundance of natural light.
Like the restaurant, the menu at Spring is compact, which means a party of four can eat through most of it in one visit. Major menu changes happen seasonally, but dishes get tweaked depending on farm deliveries. The menu is a mix of four starters, five entrees, and four desserts. Offering so few options may seem like a gamble for a restaurateur, but keeping it good by keeping it small is part of a trend. It also cuts down on food waste.
So’s relationship with farmers, such as Brad Nersesian of Sacred Grounds Farm, guides much of his cooking. The chef covets Nersesian’s vegetables so much, in fact, that he often lingers at the restaurant long after close to await the dead-of-night Sacred Grounds delivery. With those ingredients, So conjures some surprising combinations. Take, for instance, an appetizer of plum wedges mixed with tomatoes, placed atop buttermilk ricotta, and showered with basil from the chef’s herb garden. Plums and tomatoes may sound like odd bedfellows, but the pairing worked, the acidity of each complementing the other. Finely chopped shallots, chives, olive oil, and a few drops of lemon juice amplified the freshness of the beef tartare, all of it topped with an oversized salty lavash cracker.
Bacon fat lent the creamy chicken pâté a distinctive smokiness, tempered by the pop of the pickled mustard seeds, the blueberry jam, and a rich layer of shaved raw pistachio. Pâté is usually served with crunchy toast points, but So paired his with a toasted brioche, which gave the whole dish an atypical cloud-like texture. His chilled late summer squash soup, intensely green from an infusion of spinach and basil and crowned with a grilled shishito pepper, was so nuanced, I felt guilty for almost passing it over as just another soup.
So’s lineage—he’s a second-generation Korean American—informs some of his cooking. The Carolina gold rice reminded me of bibimbap (a rice dish topped with vegetables, meat, and egg). The chewy rice, charred Southern vegetables such as okra and fat slices of red onion, a runny fried egg, and a “hot vinaigrette” practically demanded to be stirred together.
A grilled king mackerel was served with baby leeks, new potatoes, fresh dill, and lemon juice reminiscent of salt and vinegar potato chips. Mackerel is a very fishy fish, but this was milder. Unfortunately, the fish was grilled too long, and the char overpowered the delicate flesh. Later that week, the fish was switched out with amberjack—an example of how So’s menu can change from one visit to the next—and it was a success; the amberjack’s fat content insulated it from the heat of the grill. The same switch-up happened with quail and poussin. The former was served flattened, crisp, and juicy, making the extra work of extracting the meat from the delicate bones worthwhile. But the poussin was overcooked, rendering it tough.
So’s passion for baking was evident in the thick, crusty bread. A small dish of house-churned, cultured daffodil-yellow butter was happily served room temperature, which made spreading a breeze.
Servers are so laid-back and friendly, I imagined them leading a yoga class, which is fitting since many of them seem dressed for vinyasa. But the style meshes well with the meditative casualness of the restaurant. While So considers Spring a neighborhood restaurant, he told me he is “humbled” by the number of intown diners that have made the drive. He may have left the big city behind to simplify his life, but his cooking is bringing the city to him.
★ ★ ★ ★
Good to know
Seasonal is the name of the game, so expect Spring’s menu to change from visit to visit.
90 Marietta Station Walk, Marietta
This article originally appeared in our January 2017 issue.