If you speak on occasion with young chefs (or cooks who aspire to be a chef one day), you undoubtedly will hear about a certain kind of restaurant they covet.
It is a small place, maybe no more than 40 seats. The menu is short, only a few dishes made from the best-sourced and prime in-season ingredients. The drinks all complement the food.
There’s no kitsch or gimmick or trendy element designed — in the parlance of less-romantic restaurateurs — to “put butts in the seats.” No, just a place with good, honest food made to the best of a kitchen’s ability.
Well, young chefs, eat your heart out at Brian So’s Spring.
If this Marietta restaurant has any fault, it may be that the place is so averse to kitsch and gimmicks and any kind of attention-grabbing behavior that you may not notice it all. Located in a small brick building along the railroad tracks that run west of Marietta Square, the entrance is nearly hidden. To find the door, you have to leave the Mill Street sidewalk and walk along the tracks, past the back of Thaicoon & Sushi Bar.
Even if you do notice their sign, you might look them up and see a short menu of shrimp bisque and endive salad and duck breast and think, “Oh, I’ve had that before. Nothing special.” That would be a shame, because Spring is a very special place.
The charm begins with the bread and butter, which will arrive after you’ve ordered. Both are made in-house and delivered at room temperature — a slice of sourdough and a ramekin of salted, dark-yellow butter made from the cream of pasture-raised cows. Everything about this is lovely, from the way the soft butter is ready to smear across the bread to the lightly acidic tang of the sourdough.
When you realize such care is taken with the simple details of bread and butter, you may start appreciating the other subtle details of the room: the small trios of cut flowers on each table, the ancient-looking railway door and thick, unadorned rafters, the well-chosen, sturdy flatware.
Ordering at Spring is easy for two reasons. First, because the menu is short. Second, because everything on it is good.
An apple and Belgian endive salad is just about flawless, an eloquent balance of sweet and bitter flavors, crunchy textures, the subtle complexity of pickled fennel, flecks of white cheese, walnuts, and the colorful finish of pomegranate seeds.
The shrimp bisque is just as stunning. Judging only by the depth of flavor and velvety texture, one can assume the amount of shrimp and shells required to make even a single bowl must be enormous.
A plate of hand-chopped beef tartare is coated in a shaving of cured egg yolk and topped with a simple and sturdy plate’s worth of lavash flatbread.
In what is perhaps the restaurant’s most decadent touch, a plate of chicken liver pate arrives as two brioche heels topped with generous dollops of mousse, embedded with a thick blueberry jam and dusted with a yellow-green coating of crushed pistachios. It is as outrageously rich as any dish of foie gras I’ve ever tasted, but made from the humble chicken liver.
Let’s pause for a moment before moving on to the main course, just as the excellent service at Spring always does. You may be wondering about this chef: Who is he? Where is he from?
In fact, So is from right around the corner. He’s a Marietta native, a 28-year old kid who briefly attended Kennesaw State University before changing courses and attending culinary school. After noticing his attention to detail at Spring, you won’t be surprised to learn that he also spent a year staging in some of San Francisco’s finest restaurants (Benu and Quince among them). Most recently in Atlanta, he briefly served as chef at Sobban, a short-lived restaurant that unfortunately occupied a cursed location. Spring is the first restaurant he can call his own.
For the main course, you’ll have a choice of a few meats or a pasta or risotto. Every plate I’ve ordered bears some evidence of impressive technical skill and attention to flavor. A plate of duck breast was paired with discs of precisely ripe persimmon. When the chicken leg arrived deboned, I was skeptical at first, but the meat was as crisp and juicy as any cut of poultry I’ve been served in this town. A filet of grilled king mackerel is plated with a subtle, restrained pair of light golden brown potatoes and dill.
There’s a little danger in So’s style — the qualities of technical virtuosity and eloquent subtlety are just the other side of boredom — but I’ve never once been bored by my meals at Spring. On the contrary, I’ve been entertained by the vivid flavors and balanced execution he wrings out of these familiar dishes.
That skill was plainly obvious on a recent plate of sunchoke risotto. So’s composition of the dish resembles a combination of familiar New American tropes: the rustic but luxurious risotto and the market vegetable plate. He folds a creamy puree into a stock-thickened Arborio rice, but tops it with a cornucopia of crisp-roasted, thin carrots, sautéed maitake mushrooms and squash, whole Brussels sprout leaves, and ribbons of Parmesan. What could be an early fall descent into mushy, too-rich flavors is instead a symphony of crunchy, tender and soft textures and, above all, a bright dish brought to a fine, vivid note of lemon zest.
While I was eating that plate, I became aware that Spring does, in fact, have a gimmick, a trick so romantic that even the trendiest restaurateurs should be envious. Just outside the window, a freight train barreled by the window, blowing a horn and shaking the walls, plates and flower vases around us for a few magical seconds. Like everything at Spring, it had been there all along; I just had to be patient enough to see it.