Is there a more delicious spot to sip a cocktail than in the narrow courtyard outside Paper Plane?
Do me a favor. Go to this Decatur spot on a warm evening a little past the prime dining hour and ask if it might be possible to have an outdoor table for a cocktail, maybe a snack, but not really dinner.
Take your table gratefully — a small one hugging a brick wall — and try to make sense of Paul Calvert’s cocktail menu. The short document will list ingredients you may not recognize, such as velvet falernum and coco bongo. You could interrogate the waitress or just wait and see what comes. It might be creamy white and served in an old champagne coupe (the “Make-out Bandit”) or brown and limpid with a serious ice cube (the “Formal Wednesday”).
If you like your drinks a little fragrant, a little bitter and a little strange you will love whatever you order. Sip slowly to feel that drum flourish (pa-DUM-bum) of flavors opening up on your tongue.
This is a well-constructed cocktail, folks, and it does what it should: It locks you into the moment. You appreciate the easy outdoor light. The potted plants. The welcome breeze pushing through this narrow passageway. The people cutting past your table en route to another patio for the burrito shop around the corner while you sit and enjoy your conversation.
It has taken me a while to figure out Paper Plane. This mature cocktailery/restaurant hides coyly behind its cheap, fun rock ’n’ roll baby sister, Victory Sandwich Bar. The small interior (a bar and booths) goes for a look of analog chic. Wood paneled walls meet a muted lighting scheme that captures the queasy yellow tone of a David Lynch film. Old hi-fi equipment with shiny silver dials shares bar shelving with glasses and bottles. Not a retro-modern speakeasy per se, but Paper Plane seems to be heading in that direction.
Here’s what it is not: a Holeman & Finch wannabe. The food doesn’t have that bloody, calorie-packed indulgence. I don’t know chefs Josh Sample and Melissa Allen, but I’m guessing they’d rather pour all their fine coco bongo on the MARTA tracks than become another place with a signature burger and a pork fetish.
I also think that Paper Plane has been mischaracterized as a small-plates restaurant. The menu pretty clearly offers a small selection of starters and main courses, though the latter are by no means belly busters. I ordered a stunningly beautiful striped bass panzanella — an heirloom tomato salad topped with a pan-roasted fillet and a few, cherishable croutons that tasted as if they had been fried in some rich duck or chicken fat. (The menu now lists the same dish with snapper.)
The short wine list offers a number of items I like to drink, including a mineral-driven Muscadet from the Loire. That’s good news because the cocktails, as interesting as they are, don’t play well with others.
I begin to get this place: it’s all about appreciating that tended moment when the food and drink are just so. I think I’d rather just have a bite of cheese, rather than a full dinner, to best enjoy the bar craft. But I’m still exploring the idiosyncrasies here. Paper Plane does not fly in formation.
Let’s get this out of the way: Richard Blais is officially bicoastal. Judging by the California time stamps on his frequent postings to Twitter and Vine, he’s spending a lot of time there with his family getting ready for the opening of a new restaurant, Juniper & Ivy, in San Diego. When he does show up at the Spence, the Atlanta restaurant announces his arrival with fanfare. So don’t go expecting to see him come out of the kitchen saying, “We got a really nice shipment of fish in this morning.”
Chef de cuisine Adrian Villarreal runs this kitchen, and he does a fine job with both the impish humor and technical prowess needed to bring Blais’ cooking to life.
The menu appears to have calmed down just slightly since I reviewed it a year ago, with fewer “Say what?” moments. I guess my wife did wonder for a moment about the white cotton string protruding from the ice cube in her cocktail but chose to pay it little heed. I was thrilled with my $8 glass of Kerner, an aromatic white grape varietal, bottled by Abbazia di Novacella in the Alto Adige region of Italy.
Wine guy-general manager Justin Amick brings a feeling of heart to the wine list that, to me, comes up lacking with the food. The dishes (almost all small sharesies) are fun and technically intricate, and they look smashing — smeared and scattered with bold strokes. Order Kerrygold cheddar with biscuits and roasted figs, and you’ll get a tableau of tiny geometries with cheese triangles and biscuits no larger than quarters.
These dishes often seem too processed, though. The Spence’s amusing take on the ubiquitous steamed Chinese bun comes with fried chicken, pimento cheese, ranch and pickles. And it all falls apart, the greasy batter sloughing off the perfect circle of boneless dark meat that had apparently gone through a multi-step process to get here.
An heirloom tomato salad with crisp bits of pork belly, creamy burrata cheese and a whey dressing didn’t lack for intrigue, but it did miss out on that all-important sharpening of acid and salt that makes tomato salads sing.
Frog legs with parsley and garlic looked grand under plumes of nasturtium in a dish with the color and translucence of onyx. But they tasted soft, damp and muted, evidently precooked to tenderize the meat before hitting the saute pan. They needed more lustiness and less refinement.
I would recommend the Spence if you’re looking for a compelling wine list and a room with the kind of slick energy you only find in certain big city restaurants. The food is indeed fun and, in part, praiseworthy. But unlike my reaction to Paper Plane, the more I explore this one-of-a-kind restaurant the less I seem to get it.
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