I wasn’t sure what to expect of the The Spence, the few month old partnership between Concentrics and sometimes-Atlanta-Chef Richard Blais, but I was cautiously optimistic they could deliver something fun, interesting, and hopefully noteworthy to Atlanta. I missed Blais’ heyday, but have read of his menu styles from Blais and Element and Home, and have sampled some of the more idiosyncratic offerings at Flip Burger. I really had no idea what direction they would go at The Spence.
My first visit did not win me over. I don’t know what you would call the style at the Spence, which offers a jumble of dishes with roots from around the globe – Italian, Spanish, French, Classic Americana, but often with a twist of technique, or the replacement of a conventional ingredient with something more hip or interesting. That approach can be a toss up. It’s thought-provoking, and can be intriguingly delicious, so long as the food is well executed. Which is was not when I first sampled a number of dishes. Pasta was overcooked and boring. Eggs were overcooked. Plating was sloppy. Temperatures were off. One item was burnt. A really stellar, smoky cocktail and the tuna tartare bone marrow dish were the only high notes.
Since that time, The Spence fell off my radar, save for a few reports from friends of both high and low experiences, which alluded to the most promising consistency when Chef Blais was around.
Not that I always believe that the head chef must be around in order for a restaurant effective. But in the infancy of tenure, I must think one needs leadership, consistency, and clear vision from the top down. Over time a culture forms, and when there is a quality staff, they will do their job well and within the vision and standards created with little oversight. That’s true with any business, but it takes time.
I mention this because on my return visit I had an entirely different experience, and the people were a great part of that. Blais was not there.
Staff – starting with hosting – were friendly, service was prompt, dishes were paced properly, and our bartender/server Trip exuded enthusiasm, his affection the tipping point for a memorable evening.
Food was on point too. The beef tartare, served on the heaviest damn plate I’ve ever seen in a restaurant, was the right temperature for such a fatty portion of raw beef, the crunchy tots and creamy eggs done just right, and a touch of orange zest really made the dish interesting without going overboard.
Kale “Caesar” was a boatload of baby kale, more tender than its big brother counterpart, and dressed wonderfully.
Katie’s vegetable plate was a surprising melange of texture and temperature and preparation – cooked, raw, crunchy, hearty, singed, and herbed – for under $18. It’s off menu, but they will put something together on any night for those with a vegetable affliction.
Desserts have earned accolades, and rightfully so. Andrea Litvin’s offerings excite visually, both on the menu and on the plate, with a fair price of $5-7 each. While the chocolate bomb below was too sweet for my savory-lusting palate , I have yet to wake Katie out of her day-dream.
And though it’s been mentioned by a few critics, one of the biggest surprises of The Spence has been the potables. The wine list (assembled by Justin Amick) and cocktail program are extremely interesting. The wines are split into sections of red and white and bubbles, then further divided into what they call “Tried and True” and “Leap of Faith”. Love it. The insinuation is exciting, while not giving the impression one is stodgy for picking from the Tried and True section – there are some damn fine wines there. Boxler Pinot Gris, Nikolaihof Gruner, Lopez de Heredia Rioja – these are not boring wines. But the Leap of Faith is a section worthy of vast exploration, and I’ve only scratched the surface. Moscatel Seco, Petit Manseng, Jacquere, Savagnin from the Jura of France – these are just a handful of the grapes to explore from the white grape section – it’s sick. Almost half of them can be ordered by the glass too.
Not to be outdone, Trip sampled me on a spirit he recently made, which I’m told is now on the regular menu – Milk Punch. Don’t let recipes for bastardized versions fool you (many searches will produce a simple cocktail of shaken milk and brandy) – The Spence’s punch comes from a recipe over one hundred years old, where the milk solids are separated using lemon, then it’s fortified with brandy, resulting in a shelf stable liquor with a sharp tang and creamy body. Not entirely dissimilar from limoncello, and equally satisfying as a digestive, at The Spence the punch is served with tiny cookies.
Obviously, my tune has changed, and I am eager to spend more time here, probably more for the beverages than food, though the small plates and desserts are a decently affordable way to keep the belly full while exploring one of the best drink lists in town.