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Molasses-roasted duck breast arrives in a cloud of hickory smoke. (Photo by Kate Thompson / Palindrome Creative Co.)
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The dining room of Spoonbread Bistro (Photo by Kate Thompson / Palindrome Creative Co.)
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Lobster Pop-tart (Photo by Kate Thompson / Palindrome Creative Co.)
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Chef Michael Hall (Photo by Kate Thompson / Palindrome Creative Co.)
If you’re anything like me — and thank God chef Michael Hall isn’t — you stand at the stove with a double old-fashioned cocktail, knowing that what you’re cooking isn’t sublime. Serviceable, occasionally exotic or, on the flip side, reserved for ritualistic communions such as holiday dinners. (Drink, please!) But righteously delicious Franco-Virginia-inspired fare? Definitely not. For that you need the Six Million Dollar Man of special-occasion Southern cuisine.
Spoonbread Bistro is Hall’s latest, a new venture for this chef notable for a stint at The Dining Room at the Berkeley Hotel in the mid-aughts and, more recently, M Bistro and Wine Bar. Sunlight from the second floor, filtered through freshly installed stained glass bearing Spoonbread’s logo, strikes rosebud-garnished platters, but this isn’t a prim-and-proper room; placemats are the first clue. Nor is it trendy: no “snacks” or small plates here, just old-school appetizers. (The shrimp scampi over grits is divine.) Waiters, attired in jeans and copper-colored oxfords, sink to ear level to take orders, even though the acoustics don’t require such deference. It’s night and day from the last two tenants — Fan House and Jorge’s Cantina — and more like the semi-formal Greek restaurant Konsta’s, which held this address for what could have been forever. The bar and lounge is back upstairs, and an easy elegance has returned.
At one dinner, all eyes are on me as the waiter lifts the glass dome encasing my duck breast. A cloud of hickory smoke unfurls from under the lip of the cloche, wafting away from the table like a genie leaving its lamp. Imagine sipping Earl Grey tea at a barbecue — it smells like that. Guests at other tables lean in to ask what I’ve ordered, and they’re right to do so. A caveat: Be sure to specify a temperature unless you prefer duck medium-well.
Trying the menu, I find myself paraphrasing Parliament Funkadelic: What is soul? Soul is collard greens in your egg roll, chili sauce pooling. It’s lobster in your Pop-tart. Hall’s lobster Pop-tart looks more like a toaster strudel: flaky pastry iced with hollandaise, bleeding out creamy, lobster-claw Mornay as I cut it with my fork. Under the sea bass waits sugar-rich spoon bread. Composed plates be damned, I’m eating soul food; highly seasoned, familiar, and it makes me smile like a kid at the kitchen table.
But, instead of gravy — that sloppy mistress of the South — plates are wiped and drizzled with glassy French mothers: béarnaise, hollandaise, béchamel, velouté and espagnole, the Five Graces. Drippings like this come from a trained hand, not the home kitchen.
Another distinction: The center of the plate at Spoonbread is kingly, lamb chops and scallops, not working cuts. The last bite of my stunning New York strip on a block of Himalayan sea salt is as hot as the first, juice rivulets carving the rosy base. In a nod to steakhouse chic, I wash it down with Bulleit rye instead one of the 20 glasses of wine on offer.
The decadent brunch menu has me wanting it all, but in actuality, the chicken biscuit is as heavy as the Tin Man’s heart, the bread leaden. A surprising weight given one dinner’s Sally Lunn rolls, which were expertly formed with golden tops and soft, ivory bottoms. Perhaps an off morning? The French toast arrives as thin, dry sheets rather than custardy wedges. What to order then? Breakfast cupcakes: gluten-free, eggy-hammy bites, and the rum-bruléed grapefruit.
Many cooks source globally for ingredients and inspiration. Today, it’s nothing to see Japan, Mexico, China and several other countries sharing print. Sometimes this works; sometimes you get an unmixed, gastronomic Frankenstein. Spoonbread culls classic Continental and French; the East Coast-South and a soupçon of American-Chinese. The menu melds, in part, because this is how Hall’s cooking has evolved — it’s not a recent affectation. Like in the old days, main courses are generous, starch- and vegetable-inclusive. I associate Hall to an unstoppable Steve Austin over Shelley’s fractured “Adam of his labours,” knowing that when it comes to grand Southern dining, his team has my back. And it won’t cost me an arm and a leg.
2526 Floyd Ave., 359-8000
Hours: Monday-Thursday: 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday: 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Prices: $4 to $29