Chefs crack me up. Really, they do. Years ago, I learned, with a few exceptions, that it's completely futile to ask their opinions about another restaurant. I've learned that their positive and negative comments are both expressed with a shrug and a smile. But oh how the truth dances in their eyes like sunbeams or swords.
So, when I ran into two chefs I really like at the new Sprig (2860 Lavista Road, 404-248-9700) in Decatur's Oak Grove area, I braced for the shrugs since I'd recommended the place to them. They declared the food "mainly good." I looked deep in their eyes. Translation: "excellent." They did complain about the slow service.
Four of us were seated at the restaurant about an hour before closing on a Sunday, and we found the service fine. Sprig has become an overnight hit in Decatur and is regularly swamped, so the service can indeed be a bit slow. (Warning: It's closed Monday and Tuesday.)
The owner is Daniel Morrison, longtime bar manager at Watershed, and the executive chef is Robert Elliott. The interior of the restaurant, located in the Vista Grove shopping center, is a bit disconcerting. I'm not sure what the designer had in mind. There's one of those sliding glass garage doors. There's a lot of red, tables to seat 140 and a good bit of natural wood. The kitchen and its wood-burning grill are out of sight.
But the look isn't why the place has become so popular. Besides the longtime following that Morrison developed at Watershed, Elliott's mainly Southern cuisine — seasonal and locally sourced, of course — is turning out the broad cross section of diners. Prices are midrange with most small plates adequate for two and less than $10. Entrées are mainly less than $15.
Of starters, my favorite has been the super-crispy fried chicken livers with (too little) toast and apple compote, along with mixed greens. A salad featuring exquisite endive was tossed with arugula, grilled apples, pecans and buttermilk dressing. I have to say that all the greens had too much dressing for my taste.
Heavier starters include a luscious risotto with mushrooms, Parmesan and seasonal vegetables. Crispy, creamy discs of mozzarella and grits are served with sautéed spinach that tastes just-plucked from the earth. I did find the plate's "roasted tomato purée" confusing. It tasted like straight-up marinara to me and my friends.
Of entrées, my favorite dish has been the iron-skillet duck breast that I ordered during my initial meal there alone: crispy skin, juicy flesh, carrots and parsnips. It also featured pears poached in red wine. I loved this because so many restaurants ruin duck with sticky-sweet fruit glazes. The pears added an appropriately faint note of sweetness.
My friends Brad and Eric were excited to see grilled Bratwurst from Pine Street Market, one of their favorite local sources. Eric ordered it, served with caramelized cabbage and apples, plus home fries. The texture and flavor were flat-out amazing. Throw away your weenies, people. Wayne's pan-seared chicken breast with "ham bread pudding" and Brad's grouper with a crust made of sweet potatoes were both primo. The grouper was served with pecan-browned butter and nicely contrasting cubes of sweet beets and earthy Brussels sprouts. Obviously, Elliott has a deftly playful hand with flavors.
The only dish that disappointed me was my own entrée at my second meal there — the lamb stroganoff. The bowl included seriously undercooked penne and lamb cut into miniscule cubes. Very few mushroom slices were also in the bowl, which was quite dry by the standards of most stroganoff. I don't get it.
I've had the same dessert both visits — layers of dense shortcake with cooked apples and mounds of whipped cream drizzled with caramel. I should have tried the sweet potato pot de crème with a honey-whole-wheat Madeleine, but I'm too in love with the shortcake.
Sprig is everything restaurants are trying to be lately — chef-driven, locally sourced, reasonably priced, neighborhood-oriented, serving uncomplicated food. It's not perfect, but it's exactly what we need to see more of.
Two more newbies
I want to alert readers to a couple of other newbies. Both of them have been great on my initial visits. First is the new Sufi's (1814 Peachtree St., 404-888-9699), next to R. Thomas. It's a beautiful, intimate space that serves Persian cuisine. I breezed in and out for fresh hummus served with pita bread charred in the wood-burning oven. Then I had an entrée of fesenjoon — chunks of chicken breast slow-cooked in pomegranate juice and pomegranate molasses, served with basmati rice. (Halfway through the dish, it became a bit too sweet for me, so split it with someone.) Finally: homemade Turkish-style baklava. Go.
I've also dined well at the new H. Harper Station (904 Memorial Drive, 678-732-0415) in the old and picturesque train depot in Reynoldstown. The "modern watering stop" has a creative menu, mainly of small plates such as jerk meatballs, crawfish hushpuppies and little smoked sausages. Entrées I've sampled include bacon-and-eggs fettuccine and a burger stacked with shredded barbecued pork. The restaurant is connected to Rolling Bones, so the 'cue influence is easily explained.