Known for his unconventional and innovative gastronomy, Top Chef All-Star victor Richard Blais has partnered with Concentrics Group to create The Spence, a new restaurant featuring cuisine as quirky and creative as the chef himself. Located in Tech Square, The Spence occupies the space that was formerly the Globe. Having worked with Concentrics before back in 2005 at their flagship One Midtown Kitchen (where Blais’s innovated cuisine helped to earn them a four star rating from the AJC), Blais left the company to open a handful of projects of his own before taking time off to appear on Top Chef Chicago where he was runner up. He then returned to Bravo and won Season Eight of Top Chef All-Stars. With his newfound national recognition and a reinvented, less scientific approach to gastronomy, Blais returned to Atlanta and has created his namesake consulting company, Trail Blais, which has spurred the creation of HD-1 and Flip Burger. Now, Blais has reunited with Bob Amick and Todd Rushing (the owners of The Concentrics Group) to bring us The Spence.
The Spence is the first time, in many years, that Blais is back in the kitchen as Executive Chef (albeit sporadically, according to sources), and the menu is teaming with the progressive style we have come to expect from Blais. According to Blais, he has found a new appreciation for simple cooking, but the traces of his mad scientist approach can still be found (i.e. liquid nitrogen canisters and smoke guns filling helmet-sized glass cloches with hickory scented vapors).
The menu is a product of a list of daily inspirations that the team is so good as to share with you right at the top of the page. The night we dined, their inspirations included, but were in no way limited to, “red pens, sustainable seafood, family meal, melons, Twitter, Irish butter, Sublime, and orange wine.” The food reflects the fact that it’s all about “what we are into at the moment.” Creative and sometimes unconventional pairings of the freshest seasonal, local, and exotic ingredients give an edge to the menu you don’t often find in this city.
The majority of the menu is a selection of small plates that seem to be best for sharing and tasting. A deceptively simple salad of beets with soft-boiled eggs and bleu cheese was refreshing, while a wasabi dressing brought a dramatic pitch to the plate. Rolled slices of Hamachi Sashimi were contrasted against crispy fried clams and served with a Yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit) glaze and dots of a smoky aioli for dipping. We also sampled a boorishly oversized “Slab of Foie Gras” with green peaches and toast points; tasty, but far too much and too rich for two people to share.
For a little more drama, try the bone marrow. This traditional steakhouse delicacy was elevated to new heights with smeared fiery tuna tartar and topped with fried quail eggs. The fatty marrow cuts the heat of the tartar and the addition of the quail egg adds a third dimension of silky texture to the dish. This dish is defiantly a “don’t miss” item. For his next trick, Blais offers a large glass dome filled with grey smoke. As it arrived to the table, the dense smoke obscured any sight of what was marinating underneath. With a flourish reminiscent of servers from days past the glass was removed to reveal grilled octopus with baker’s potatoes and black garlic. While the dish was enjoyable, the presentation was far more memorable.
The menu also includes a handful of more conventional entrée preparations, if by any chance you are still hungry after your small plates. At our server’s enthusiastic recommendation, we felt obligated to try the pork belly with a subtly spicy shrimp relleno and velvet puree of sweet corn. The succulent slow roasted pork belly was fork tender, and the heat, from what I believe were roasted poblano peppers, paired well with the cheesy stuffed shrimp.
While Blais may be a stand out star nationally, here at The Spence, he is sharing the spotlight with two new stars in their own rights. First, the sweeter side of the culinary team is Pastry Chef Andrea Litvin, formerly of the Livingston, is bringing her creations to The Spence. We enjoyed her simply refreshing Yuzu semifreddo and peach sorbet with fragrant chili oil.
Also coming into his own is The Spence’s beverage director Justin Amick (the son of the aforementioned Bob Amick). He brings a masterfully curated wine list featuring a staple selection of “Tried and True” and an exciting trove of esoteric “Take a Risk” options from across the globe. We took the risk and let our server pick a wine to pair with our meal. He chose for us a Zweigelt from Zantho (an Austrian varietal featuring deep purple extraction and flavors of dark cherry, earth and cassis) that was a surprisingly affordable bottle for its complexity and quality. The Spence also features a “cocktail kitchen” that cooks up some adventurous libations.
A nod must also be given to Atlanta’s “go to” restaurant design team Johnson Studios for creating a room reticent with the quirkiness that defines The Spence. Navy colored reclaimed wood accents and zinc and pine tabletops juxtapose against cleaner elements such as shiny lacquered white brickwork. A lighted, square shelve looms high above the kitchen displaying a collection of cookbooks, grand earthen serving vessels, and miscellaneous dry goods.
In my opinion, Blais‘s return to the executive chef role, as well as to the Concentrics family, is not only wise but also well timed. He seems to have found a new sense of himself and his craft. Perhaps the structure that a powerhouse restaurant group like Concentrics provides might have at one time seemed restrictive to Blais, but now the teaming has seemingly created what I believe will prove to be a great success for both Blais and the group.