First Look: The Spence (1)

Richard Blais is back

It's not a boast or an exaggeration, but I'm not a television watcher. I've never seen an entire episode of "Top Chef" or any of the other nail-biting soap operas that toy with chefs' egos and turn a risky condiment into a death sentence.

So, I've never been starstruck by Richard Blais. But I have been eating and mainly loving his food since he turned up at Fishbone on Peachtree Street in 2001. A couple of years later he opened the short-lived Blais, revolutionary in its introduction of molecular cuisine to Atlanta. I found the restaurant to be a mixed success, but greatly admired his willingness to experiment wildly, under the inspiration of renowned Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, where he worked a stint.

Like most geniuses, his work was not understood and he "Blais'd" out at one restaurant after another. A partying lifestyle didn't help, but he got his act together. Also like most geniuses, his radical experimentation slowly came down to earth and now informs rather than dominates his cooking.

Locally, Blais has mainly consulted on trippy venues like the respective burger and hot dog joints, Flip and HD1. But, in May, Blais partnered with Concentrics Hospitality to open The Spence. The décor is by the Johnson Studio. It's at once glittery and woody. The kitchen and bar almost feel like parts of the dining room. In the right seats, you feel like you're onstage.

Now for my big disappointment: When I arrived at the restaurant, I asked if Blais was cooking. "Oh, yes," the host told me.

"I don't see him in the kitchen," I replied.

"He's in the back doing something. He'll be out later," she said.

I never saw him. As we were ordering our meal, I asked our seriously fabulous server Sabrina where Blais was. "He's not here tonight," she said.

Groan. I did later learn that Blais had been on hand earlier but left soon after we arrived. I'm hurt.

Nevertheless, with sous chef Brad Chance in the kitchen we had a mainly good but pretty glitchy meal. The menu here is lengthy, changes daily, celebrates fresh and sometimes exotic ingredients, and - sit down - isn't crazy-weird at all. It's also written with a type font worthy of the fine print on a credit card contract.

I'm still fantasizing about my starter - a big chunk of roasted cow bone cracked in half and overflowing with buttery bone marrow to spread on toast. There's a touch of topping weirdness: diced tuna tartare and two fried quail eggs. I get the surf-and-turf wit and the play with three velvety textures. I could do without the toppings myself - especially the eggs, which feel almost obligatory these days - but I'd certainly order this again.

Even trickier was the uni spaghettini with lobster, chili, and basil. To any uni lover like myself, the starter sounds completely decadent but really risky. How could such a delicate substance stand up to noodles? The uni turned out to be infused in the pasta - one of those changes of form for which Blais is so well known - and the taste was strikingly clear. The lobster was not subjected to alchemy and wrapped itself around the uni's flavor without suffocating it.

My entrée bordered on perfection, despite a major mistake. I ordered sous vide lamb with eggplant and a broccoli purée afloat in a pool of red wine reduction. It was supposed to be served over ricotta gnocchi. Instead, the lamb was served over juicy baby turnips.

I love turnips but I was disappointed. I pointed this out to our server Sabrina and she apologized profusely. At the meal's close, the manager did appear and also apologized, saying that the kitchen had made the same mistake several times that night.?The other entrée I sampled was a fancy-schmancy take on country-fried steak. Picture two fried rib-eye steaks stacked over fennel gravy with some roasted potatoes tossed in salsa verde. As compelling as the flavors were, I've got to say the dish was a bit oily. I guess that happens when you deep-fry a rib-eye.

Dessert was a big flat orb of pineapple upside-down cake with "foie caramel," prompting Wayne to ask if the dish was legal in California. Probably not, but it's debatable in this case. I've seen several pictures of the dessert and ours was pretty much absent the caramel. Seriously. This time, we didn't bother to complain.

There are far more small plates than entrées here and you can expect to spend well over $50 each without alcohol or tip. But here's a deal: The restaurant feeds its employees every evening and, when they're done, the kitchen offers the leftovers to customers for next to nothing. Georgia Tech students have discovered the deal, so you better get there early.
The overall impression after four weeks? A truly compelling menu, terrific service, brilliant décor, and, above all, Blais' stunning if sometimes risky play with flavors and textures. Is the food worth all the hype? I'd say so. Let us know your own impressions.

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