New Spence chef brings taste of the Gulf

I ate at True Midtown Kitchen in Mobile once, and the circumstances were more than a little weird.

I was driving through en route to New Orleans and made plans to meet my brother, Tom, there for lunch. Tom loved the idea because he considered the owner-chef, Wesley True, the finest cook in Mobile. He wanted to show me there was more to dining in his hometown than barbecue and fried seafood.

What Tom didn’t realize was that, with the complicity of his wife and assistant, I was planning an intervention.

He had been working 80-plus hours a week and was starting to get so fat and out of shape that we were all worried for his health. Tom hated exercise as much as I did, but I had found a personal trainer who would put me through my pitiful paces twice a week, and it wasn’t too painful. Alas, Tom would be more likely to lead a krewe in Mobile’s Mardi Gras parade then ever go to a trainer.

As it happened, there was a workout gym next to True Midtown Kitchen. I called a trainer there and set up an appointment. Tom’s wife dropped off a gym bag. His assistant cleared his afternoon.

And so I ambushed my poor brother. He gamely did his squats and crunches and got down on the mat for a set of alternating Supermans. Afterward, we had lunch. Maybe I met Wesley True? I can’t remember.

True — an accomplished chef who trained at Bouley in New York and City Grocery in Oxford, Miss. — didn’t last much longer in Mobile. To Tom’s sorrow, he decamped to Montgomery, where he ran a restaurant with his wife.

But True’s skills and perspective might be better suited to diners in a larger city. Earlier this year, he showed up here at the Spence, the Tech Square spot that was built as a tailor-fit showcase for Atlanta’s once-upon-a-time celebrity chef, Richard Blais.

I think I can safely say that the Spence has foundered since Blais cut ties and moved to California. It pitched itself as a neighborhood eatery, but the edgy design and modernist menu suggested more of an auteur’s playground. Wesley True might be the right chef to lure curious diners back.

It’s easy enough to walk into this once-hopping restaurant, even on a weekend night, and if you’re there on a mild evening, with the doors open to the easy-breezy patio, you’ll be glad you did.

True’s best hits come early on the menu, among the snacks and small plates. Whether he’s making catfish sticks with the fine, crenelated crunch of Popeye’s chicken fingers or octopus ceviche in a bell-clear tomato-citrus marinade, he shows off a Gulf Coast feel for seafood. I best like the toasts, spread first with a layer of mushy peas then topped with West Indies salad — a Mobilian concoction of crabmeat sparkled with the lightest of vinaigrettes.

One night, we arrived early for drinks in the bar and never left because the small bites kept coming in rounds. Vidalia onion rounds were baked in a parchment bag with white wine and butter. Open the bag to a poof of steam, and you can lavish the onions on rusks of grilled bread with a smear of goat cheese. Yumzos.

Some dishes drift a bit into edgy Blais territory, though without the former’s chef’s tricks and props. There will be no glass cloches filled with smoke or soup poured from cans. But an ice-cold tartare of lamb with swirls of thick harissa sauce, olives and mint hints at Blais’ global pantry.

Entrees leave me a bit colder. Chewy slices of sirloin flank steak with burnt broccoli florets (more singed, actually) and broccoli-cheddar puree are playful but disjointed. An “Alabama dry aged hamburger” comes with something called “foie-blano cheese” — a house-made cheese supposedly flavored with foie gras and peppers. All I could taste was the too-sweet bacon jam that tipped the flavor balance disastrously astray.

Your best bet in this kitchen is seafood. Monkfish medallions with mussels, an herb broth and a warm potato salad work well. This singular fish comes out firm and unctuous in that “poor man’s lobster” way.

The once-notable beverage program needs a tuneup. One night, I ordered a cocktail from the supposedly daily menu only to find it was no longer offered. The first bottle of white wine we tried to order was sold out. The second was in ample supply on a fanciful storage shelf hanging above our heads but not chilled. The one suggested by the manager was stylistically different from what we wanted — oaky and alcoholic rather than lean and minerally.

On the other hand, Andrea Kirshtein’s desserts seem essentially unchanged from the old days. Small yuzu curd bars arrive amid artful heaps and plops of toasted white chocolate and blueberry sorbet. The curmudgeon in me wishes she’d use her talents on a simple, classically plated sweet finale.

I never did get to talk to True, because he was out of town while I was researching the Spence. But I do hope to visit the restaurant sometime with Tom, who has indeed gotten into exercise. In fact, the time may be coming for him to kick my butt.