On paper, The Spence is my ideal restaurant. Modern American cuisine, creative and eclectic dishes, a slightly swanky atmosphere, and a menu full of craft cocktails. Oh, there’s also that Richard Blais, celebrity chef thing going for it. The Spence has been on my list for quite some time now, but ironically, I kept avoiding it because it was simply too available. Literally, I don’t think I went on Open Table one time in the last year when The Spence didn’t have an open reservation. Eventually, curiosity got the best of me and I decided to check things out for myself.
Let’s start with the atmosphere. The Spence definitely met my expectations for slightly swanky. The concrete floors and exposed ductwork were complemented by a wall of floor to ceiling windows and a gorgeous bar in the center of the restaurant. We were also met with a mouthwatering aroma upon entering the restaurant, which I definitely didn’t hate. I did notice, though, that the place was only half full on a Friday night. Maybe it was the 20-degree weather. Maybe.
Onto the cocktails. I started with a delicious vodka-champagne cocktail, with a touch of pomegranate liqueur. The best part? The liqueur was served on the side, so I didn’t end up with something that was too sweet for my liking. The worst part? It took a good 25 minutes for our cocktails to arrive.
The Spence’s menu changes daily, so the chef must have known I was coming when he put a kale Caesar, beef tartare, bone marrow, and pork belly on the menu that night.
The kale Caesar was simple and extra lemony, which is just how a Caesar should be. Although the dressing looked heavy at first, it was surprisingly light for a Caesar. I find baby kale to be a lot less bitter than traditional kale, making it the perfect green for a crisp salad.
The beef tartare was pretty traditional, and was served alongside a pumpernickel crisp with a nice twist of shaved celery root and pickled celery. The best part, though, was the duo of sunny side up quail eggs. I love the smaller and more delicate nature of quail eggs, and a drizzle of yolk added another layer of complexity to the dish. My true confirmation on the tartare came when Chad tasted a bite, and then actually wanted a second and a third.
To supplement the tartare, we also ordered the fluke crudo. This was the only dish at The Spence that I really disliked. The fluke (aka a fancy word for flounder) was so fishy tasting that it completely overpowered the other flavors of the dish. After one bite, I pushed the crudo aside and returned to the tartare.
We weren’t originally planning to order the bone marrow, but when I saw another server walking by with it, I decided we couldn’t not order it. The bone marrow was roasted to perfection and topped with a layer of tuna tartare and two more quail eggs. I generally think of bone marrow as pairing well with a sweet marmalade or chutney, but I loved the savory combination and textural contrast of the tuna in this dish.
We completed the meal with the pork belly dish and a side of thrice cooked fries. I thought we had maxed out on richness with the bone marrow, but the pork belly took things to a whole new level. Let’s start with the pork itself. It was cooked better than any pork belly I’ve ever had. The outside took caramelized to a whole new level and you certainly didn’t need a knife to cut through the tender center. The pork was served atop a layer of “grits”, somehow transformed into a rich, yet fluffy cream. With all that richness, the roasted radishes were a yummy and necessary addition to balance the dish.
Under normal circumstances, the meal would have then progressed to dessert, but I was fairly confident that not even a delicious chocolate torte could top the pork belly.
Other than the crudo mishap, the food at The Spence was delicious and definitely indulgent (we may or may not have consumed a week’s worth of fat content in one sitting). To be honest, I was expecting the dishes to be a little bit more creative and molecular gastronomy-centric, but the flavors were spot-on.
Despite the excellence of the food, the mystery behind The Spence’s over-availability lies in the service. Our server was pretty absent during the majority of our meal, to the extent that the bartender even had to come by a few times to take our order and refresh our drinks. This would have been somewhat understandable if the place was packed out the door, but at only 50% full, I expected a bit more. Life is full of tradeoffs, and in this case, I’ve decided that another bite of that pork belly is worth a few hours of sub-par service.