There may be no restaurant that reflects the cultural cadence of this city right now more than the Spence. Chef/TV star Richard Blais' latest Atlanta project harnesses the excitement surrounding both the local dining scene and the city's role as the Hollywood of the South. At the top of the menu, a list of the kitchen's current influences and inspirations nods to the creative process behind the dishes of the day — root vegetables, the Falcons, candied quince. The staff barely seems able to contain its enthusiasm, eager to funnel the same in-the-moment excitement into the food you're about to order.
Blais' name may not be emblazoned above the restaurant's door, but the Spence still owns the fact that it's a celebrity chef restaurant. In a town teeming with reality show crews and zombies and A-list actors on shoot, it seems fitting to have a representative on Bravo's "Life After Top Chef," the network's latest addition to the franchise that shows Blais building out this very restaurant, hiring cooks, airing doubts, sharing dreams. And if you're not one of the hundreds of thousands of people who tune in on Wednesdays, maybe you're one of the 200,000 who follow Blais on Twitter, where he keeps everyone updated on his dizzying daily duties. If you want to know if Blais will be in the house when you visit the Spence, look no further than his Twitter feed.
Unlike Flip and HD1, where Blais is a partner, the Spence is the Blais show. He runs the open kitchen like a frenzied orchestra conductor, pausing for photos and to chat up diners. Small nods to Blais trademarks like liquid nitrogen and smoke under glass domes make their way into a few of the dishes, but his playfulness is mainly revealed in nuances instead of over-the-top flourishes. The kitchen feels more focused on delivering flavors that will satisfy a broad swath of people rather than catering to a more experimental crowd, as Blais did in his early years at Element and his short-lived eponymous restaurant.
The Spence's seasonal menu changes almost daily. Two standout appetizers, menu regulars since day one five months ago, surprise and delight in subtle ways: In the oysters & pearls, liquid nitrogen transforms horseradish into Dippin' Dots-like beads for bright bursts of flavor. A plate of bone marrow, tuna tartare, and fried quail eggs proposes an unlikely ménage à trois of indulgent partners that turn out to be shockingly complementary.
The majority of the menu, mostly small plates with a few entrées, hops from one ethnic inspiration to another — beef tongue tacos, sweetbread schnitzel, shaved kampachi, clam cavatappi, chicken Basquaise. An entrée of roasted porchetta starts off in Italy but then quickly moves on to France and beyond, with earthy green lentils, tart quince, and a mix of spices, including star anise and coriander, that is anything but Italian. Pickled pearl onions cut through the fat of the pork belly and help balance the disparate and delicate flavors. That's not to say the dish was flawless. New to the menu the night I had it, the porchetta was too fatty, and its skin so tough, I literally couldn't cut it with my knife.
In another entrée, perfectly cooked ribbons of pappardelle are tinged pink with beet juice and paired with duck and a cocoa gremolata. A kiss of lightly creamy sauce and chunks of duck confit impart richness, while the cocoa gremolata, made with orange zest, parsley, and cacao nibs, hits notes that are deeply earthy yet bright enough to dispel any heaviness. When Blais says on "Life After Top Chef" that he's doing fine dining at the Spence, this is the type of dish that springs to mind.
Ultimately, though, fine dining doesn't seem to be the point, and the Spence embraces plenty of simpler constructs. The buzzed-about Juicy Lucy burger delivers a dramatic lava flow of white American cheese tucked inside the patty, the bun struggling to contain it all. The tangy crunch of pickles and the sweetness of caramelized onions round out a burger that ranks among Atlanta's best.
Still, some of the more basic dishes fall short. A fritto misto promises the briny funk of uni tartar sauce on the side, but tastes like, well, fritto misto with tartar sauce. Likewise, an English muffin pizza with chorizo and romesco sauce reimagines a childhood classic with fancy ingredients. It scores points for nostalgia, but, frankly, doesn't taste much better than the original.
Advanced Sommelier Justin Amick (son of Bob Amick of Concentrics Restaurants, a partner in the Spence) has curated an adventurous list of more than 70 wines that plays like acid jazz, with unexpected turns like a Jacques Puffeney Arbois from France's Jura region among other more established options. A short but equally eclectic list of cocktails and beers is also available. Pastry chef Andrea Litvin's desserts are showstoppers that often toy with familiar flavor profiles. A composition of milk chocolate, salty peanuts, and burnt banana ice cream emphasizes contrasting textures of crunchy and creamy.
Even with a few false notes in execution, there's more than enough happening at the Spence to warrant celebration. And while the sheen of celebrity is good for Blais, the Spence, and Atlanta, they're all far more impressive in real life than through the prism of reality TV.