75 5th Street NW, Atlanta, GA 30308 (Map); 404-892-9111; www.thespenceatl.com
Cooking Method: Wood-grilled
Short Order: The trendy new hotspot from celebrity molecular gastronomist Richard Blais does wild things with food, but his Juicy Lucy is prone to leaking
Want Fries with That? Blais' triple-cooked fries are among the best you'll taste... even when they're subpar
Price: Juicy Lucy, $13 at lunch, $14 at dinner
I hate to start a review with a disclaimer, but I feel it's necessary. Here it is: I've never watched Top Chef. (I know. Bad foodie, bad foodie.) So, as sacrilegious as it may be to admit, Richard Blais isn't a rockstar to me. As a result, I didn't venture into his newest intown restaurant with the same kind of wide-eyed, do-you-see-him-is-he-here-oh-my-god-I-think-that's-him breathlessness as (seemingly) the rest of Atlanta. But the early buzz has been that The Spence is an instant add to the city's roster of true top-flight eateries—and that there's an amazing interpretation of the famed Jucy Lucy on the menu.
More than one person I know has called Blais' take on the Minneapolis classic "the best burger I've ever had." And while that casual claim doesn't generally carry much weight with me, I knew I needed to check this one out. I mean, Blais does know the milieu, having all but single-handedly kickstarted the local gourmet burger boom back in late 2008 with FLIP Burger Boutique. I won't play spoiler by blowing my reviewer wad here in the second paragraph, but if your spidey-sense is tingling after seeing that top photo, you're on the right track.
The Spence is drop-dead gorgeous inside—almost surprisingly so, given its generic glass-and-steel bottom-floor-of-a-high-rise exterior in the middle of Midtown. At once hip and haute but also comfortable and casual, everything about the place cleverly waffles between relaxed and refined. (Why, yes, that is real silver at every table, thank you for asking...)
Blais' molecular gastronomy bent is strong here, and starts before you even open the menu. "A gift from Chef," our spectacular server Kevin told us, as if Richard himself spied us dropping the car at the valet stand and simply HAD to whip up some Parker House rolls especially for us. "With coconut butter."
No, not even the spread on the free rolls is ordinary at The Spence. (The name is an antiquated European synonym for "larder," which is itself kind of an old-fashioned term for "pantry.") The menu claims to be reinvented daily, to reflect whatever's inspiring Blais and his staff at the moment, from ingredients to songs to local shops to "life after Chef." Those inspirations can take wacky food-snob form, like Macaroni & Headcheese, Uni Spaghettini & Lobster, and Foie Gras Terrine & Peaches, but the menu is also balanced with more widely-accessible options, too. One particularly nice touch is the nightly "Family Meal," a portion of the same dinner cooked up for the staff, sold to you while it lasts, at cost. Usually $4-5, there may not be a better deal in the city.
But I was here on a mission to sample the Juicy Lucy ($13/$14). (Blais uses the proper spelling, so I will here as well.) An omnipresent fixture on the menu for both lunch and dinner service, it's six ounces worth of brisket, short rib, chuck, and dry-aged beef fat, ground in-house daily...encasing a 1.5-ounce scoop of white American (a perhaps curious choice from the mad scientist). After a shot of salt and pepper, the burger is grilled on the massive and ancient forge seen above. (It was reportedly found literally rotting on the side of a road in the UK.)
As it cooked away on the grill, I contemplated how I would handle my burger's photo op. If you slice into a cheese-stuffed burger for the usual cross-section pic, all the cheese oozes out, and you've ruined the whole effect. The point is for that cheese to flood out when you bite in; that's why it's called a Juicy Lucy. Perhaps I'd forgo the standard autopsy shot in favor of a snapshot taken just after that first magical gush-inducing bite. So imagine my dismay when this showed up:
Call it Leaky Lucy. Despite some harsh lighting that had me seated roughly eighteen inches away from the late evening sun, it's still easy to see that my cheese had already gushed well before hitting Table 32 and was now puddled on—and under—my H&F Bread Co. bun. I was heartbroken.
Anyone who's ever tried a Juicy Lucy on their own backyard grill has lost one or two thanks to an edge that didn't get fully sealed. I mean, it happens...but this is Richard Blais. His kitchen must have some nifty bit of wizardry to keep this from happening. I asked him about "leakers" in a later email exchange. "They leak from time to time," he wrote back. "So are the perils of molecular gastronomy." He went on to tell me that the key is to let the meat rest sealed for a few hours and to cook the burger on a slightly lower temp to start. Hmmph. So what had happened on mine?
I went back. This time I was asked for my doneness preference. When my raised eyebrows gave away my skepticism, Rori (another fantastic server) told me that the kitchen cranks 'em out at medium, but they can "go a little more or a little less." I went a little less, my faith in the guys working the grill restored. Nailing a certain temp on a stuffed burger is notoriously difficult; surely if they're taking doneness requests it means that they've resolved their earlier leakage issues and will present me with the Juicy Lucy that the Journal-Constitution's food critic called "a marvel of engineering and an incredible burger."
Nope. (And don't call me Shirley.) Version 2.0 looked even less fully-sealed than my first Lucy. Despite Blais's reco for letting the meat rest sealed for a few hours, I watched the guys in the open kitchen use two three-ounce patties to sandwich the cheese, give it a quick hand crimp before my eyes, and immediately place it over the fire. Total rest time couldn't have been more than nine seconds. (Maybe the lunch crowd doesn't get burgers that have rested for hours. Maybe the dinner crowd normally does—except for me, of course. Maybe. Or maybe this kitchen is still very hit-or-miss with what seems like a sound Juicy Lucy strategy from Chef Blais. Kenji has an awfully good technique of his own here, if you'd like to give it a whirl.)
A quick peek under the bun showed dramatic grill marks, but this looked like a basic double-patty burger with cheese in between. That's essentially what it had turned into.
So my first bite wouldn't release a torrent of cheese. (Again. Not bitter, though. Really.) But I did feel something significant happen upon getting my initial mouthful...
Seriously?!? The entire burger broke up into three pieces with a single bite. Blais told me he set out to make the burger at The Spence "a little more adult" and "less complex" than FLIP's out-there offerings. The simple presentation includes caramelized onions under the patty and housemade bread and butter pickles on top. The heavy dose of onions was soggy enough to soak into the bottom bun (along with 1.4 ounces of cheese), making for a sloppy burger experience. Even turning mine upside down, it was complex, all right...complex to hold everything together long enough to eat the rest of it like a burger.
The "juicy" in a Lucy is supposed to come from the cheese. Since it requires two thin patties of meat to create, the beef itself is often on the dry side. Grilling it over hickory provides some smokiness, but it can also contribute to a dry taste. It did here. But the kitchen did manage to leave a lot of color inside the patties. A rare and impressive feat. Unless, of course...
C'mon, man. I'm willing to stretch the limits of "medium rare," but only to a point. And I don't think this final bite of burger had not yet hit that point.
On the upside, those are the Triple-Cooked Fries that accompanied my first Lucy. Incredible. They're blanched first in potato stock until soft, then chilled. Next, they hit 250°F pork fat until cooked through, and then they're frozen. And finally, they're crisped up in the same oil mix—now at 350°F— and tossed with sea salt (and apparently some parsley). The result? Some of the best French fries I've ever eaten, so at least I'd have those to rescue my follow-up Leaky Lucy, right?
Much darker and practically devoid of the sea salt that was so wonderfully noticeable on Batch 1. But the fries this time were still nice and thick. Crisp on the outside, super fluffy on the inside. If these had been my first and only exposure to The Spence's triple-cooked fries, I'd have been plenty pleased. But I know in my heart they weren't as rock-my-pants-off awesome as the ones I'd had a few weeks earlier.
So The Spence seems to have some consistency issues. Understandable, perhaps; it's just their third month in business. I wish I could report that Blais's Juicy Lucy is, in fact, "the best burger I've ever had" or even just "a marvel of engineering and an incredible burger." I believe it may well be. But the sad truth is, I still don't know. Not really. I had two defective models that were still pretty tasty, but clearly not the way they were intended to be.
And despite all of that, I love The Spence. Blais has won me over with a place that's both cozy and elegant, the kind of destination eatery that works as well for drinks with your crew as an office-lunch field trip as a romantic date night. The menu is packed with fun stuff from top to bottom, even if some of it is overly show-offy. The service is exceptional. You feel noticeably cooler just for having eaten there.
They say Richard Blais is a rockstar, so The Spence is undoubtedly here to stay. I sincerely hope that'll give him the opportunity to perfect a Juicy Lucy technique that his kitchen can duplicate every single time.
About the Author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers for AHT and pizzas for Slice, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for Hootie & the Blowfish. Or both.