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The Salisbury lamb chops presentation is reinvented. Photo by Heidi Geldhauser

The Spence Thriller

by Katie Kelly Bell | The Atlantan magazine | August 23, 2012

If you’re more of a steak-and-potatoes man (“medium rare and baked with sour cream, please”), than say, a crisp pork belly with octopus and barbecue chickpeas fellow, stay clear of The Spence. You’ll find nothing pedantic or status quo within these walls.

With Top Chef All-Stars winner Richard Blais back in the kitchen of his newest and swankiest restaurant yet, those who find mussels with Chinese sausage and ginger beer too adventurous should head to Hal’s or Chops Lobster Bar instead.

Blais has a long, colorful history with Atlanta—some feel he was just a chef before his time; some will never forget the foie gras milkshake incident (which seems rather de rigueur today, but was bizarre blasphemy when he first served it years ago). But Blais is not a chef to take his licks and leave. He took notes instead, sharpening his natural talents in different kitchens across the city (including the short-lived Home) and later opening the wildly popular boutique burger experience, FLIP. Not long after, HD1 came on the scene with clever spins on sausages and hot dogs. Playful burgers and hip haute dogs are nice, but what we’ve all been eager to taste is the same gorgeous cuisine we watched Blais serve to Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi on Top Chef.

That food is finally here, at The Spence. Anticipation has been intense, but no one has felt it more than Blais. “I’m paying attention to all the feedback. In fact there are some who feel the food isn’t crazy enough,” he says. “It’s not really important that I put on an astronaut helmet and bust out a tank of liquid nitrogen every time I do something in the kitchen. That’s not what The Spence is about. It’s an eatery.”

However “eatery” is probably too simplistic. The menu has shades of the exotic—dishes such as a slab of headcheese, General Tso’s sweetbreads and uni spaghettini, but nothing gets too far off the reservation. In fact, the biggest surprise for Blais has been the wildly popular response to “some of our more offbeat proteins.” Consider his bone marrow: A large bone arrives at your table topped with gorgeous tuna tartare and two delicately fried quail eggs. Eating directly from a bone might sound intimidating, but it’s a refreshingly honest dish where buttery, rich marrow mingles with the fresh, bright fish. Apologizing for sounding silly and poetic, Blais explains his inspiration for the combination, “The day before The Spence opened, I just woke up and it came to me.” It must be divine influence, because to date, it is the single most popular dish on the menu.

Working with contrast (color, flavor, temperature) is what Blais excels at. It’s all over the menu: broccoli soup with cheddar ice cream, lamb tartare with hash browns, or his signature raw oysters with frozen pearls of horseradish cream (first seen during an episode of Top Chef and later, at Home).

Entrées and sides tend toward more standard fare with beef short rib, a dry-aged strip with blue cheese and corn crème brûlée. The fluke is a seafood stand-out—and a play on a classic meunière preparation—with marcona almond butter, and a relish of pineapple green olives and capers.

Blais has assembled a stellar team to deliver on everything else—from great wines and creative drinks to playful desserts. Justin Amick, general manager and beverage director, is having fun with his Tried and True and Leap of Faith wine selections, as well as playful cocktails that sometimes come in tiny glass bottles or with enormous square ice blocks. Pastry chef Andrea Litvin fashions insanely delicious upside-down pineapple cake with a feather-light hint of foie caramel and sassafras ice cream for your finale.

Blais is honest about his admitted “attention-span problem and easily bored mentality,” warning diners not to “get too attached to the menu.” Offerings will change on a daily basis, depending on exaltation, ingredients and availability. “I get inspiration everywhere.” We don’t care where his brainchildren come from, as long as he continues to share them with us. Indeed, Blais and The Spence are a duo whose time has come. Finally.

The Spence
75 Fifth St. NW

Dinner: Sun.-Thu., 5:30-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11pm; Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-2pm;
Bar opens daily at 5pm

Park It
Complimentary valet right in front

Go for eclectic and casual chic—even more so if dining at the bar or on the patio.

Noise Level
Quiet types should venture elsewhere. The lively dining room is anything but hush-hush.

Feast on This
You can reserve the entire restaurant for special events or entertain a small group and just reserve one of the restaurant’s “feasting tables” for parties of eight or more, where you can order from their one-of-a-kind feasting menus.

What’s Next for Blais?
A reality show based on his life after Top Chef is already filming, and he’s teamed up with Tasty Cotton to launch a gourmet T-shirt line.