Salads–every menu includes them. Every restaurant has to cater to healthy eaters and dieters, vegetarians and the vegan, and diners who view any vegetable but potatoes or head lettuce as a source of horror. But few chefs really think about salads as something good to eat or offer much beyond the basic triumvirate–plain mixed greens with balsamic vinaigrette on the side, some variation of the Michigan salad, and the good-lord-will-it-never-go-away Caesar salad. They tend to ignore the variety of fresh vegetables that can be made into a salad, and if they do jazz up their offerings, it’s usually with too much cheese, a trendy new ingredient used inappropriately–quinoa, anyone?–or a hunk of protein. I often resort to looking at the side orders of vegetables for an alternative to a salad.
Now, happily, I can also resort to visiting Spencer, a new restaurant in the old Wafel Shop/Cafe Japon spot on Liberty St. Abby Olitzky and Steven Hall of Central Provisions, a catering business and pop-up kitchen, have rebranded their business without altering their delicious food. An expert cheese-monger, Hall concentrates on perfecting cheese and charcuterie plates with locally sourced items. Olitzky, the principal chef, crafts a small, changing menu centered around vegetables. The partners concentrate on simple food, imaginatively conceived, well prepared and artfully presented. Choices are few and not always conventional.
Not including the cheese and charcuterie plates–which are beautifully composed and accompanied by a house-made garnish or two–only ten items, ranging from a dish of warm olives to a single dessert, make up the dinner menu. The seasonal list changes almost daily, favoring local ingredients, so there’s always something new to try.
Those seeking to eat predictably and traditionally–appetizer, entree, dessert–with a range of choices in each category, may be disappointed. Not me. Spencer offers food with real flavor that I could eat every day.
At lunch with a friend in early February, roasted tomatoes and cinnamon enhanced a pleasing Moroccan chickpea soup. A baguette sandwich layered together strong yet surprisingly harmonious ingredients–hummus, roasted cauliflower, green Picholine olives, preserved lemons, radicchio. But our salads were the highlight. My bowl of carrots, sliced into coins and tossed with pickled currants and spiced almonds, brought together crunchy, sweet, vinegary and toasty elements in happy company. Bitter and sweet flavors echoed throughout my friend’s salad, a tangle of Belgian endive and mild lettuces, grapefruit, fried shallots, sumac, and candied hazelnuts. A wedge of almond cake–dense, moist, simply dusted with powdered sugar–finished off that lovely winter lunch.
Spencer’s Caesar salad offers another example of how well Olitzky makes food. In concept, this salad is perfect in its simplicity–crispy in texture but creamy from the egg, with garlic pungency tempered by lemon or vinegar and balanced by salty anchovies and Parmesan. But now every restaurant in America–including McDonald’s–serves it, and rarely is it worth eating. Spencer’s is worth eating. The best version I’ve ever had was at the iconic Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. Olitzky, a native of the city and a big fan of that restaurant, has created another stellar version, best eaten with your fingers: long wedges of romaine, heavy with garlic and anchovies, are nicely mollified by a scattering of crunchy croutons, still soft in the middle.
Other highlights–there were no real disappointments–from dinners I ate at Spencer include another salad of beets, smoked salmon, herbs, and creme fraIche–again, a beautiful testament to simplicity, though some might not like the barely cooked beets. A plate of crusty duck fat-fried potatoes served alongside red cabbage kraut and caraway aioli paired wonderfully with a crispy, succulent duck leg confit enhanced by a rutabaga puree and roasted rhubarb. Lighter, but delightful nonetheless, was a briny bowl of house-made linguine tossed with Manila clams and pickled ramps.
North African and Middle Eastern influences abound, all to good effect, whether in chicken wings glazed with pomegranate molasses and tossed with crispy toasted rice, grilled squid with chickpeas and preserved lemon vinaigrette, or braised pork shoulder finished with red lentils, chermoula, and a house-made flatbread.
Even with winter scarcities, vegetable options are equally imaginative and carefully considered. Torn rye croutons and pickled chard stems accented a dish of creamed greens and poached leeks. A plate of greaseless fritti misti featured light, feathery broccolini, sturdy cauliflower, and caper aioli. One night labneh (yogurt cheese), za’atar (Middle Eastern sesame seed-spice mix), and honey embellished wedges of roasted sweet potato, while on another carrots smashed into a zesty Moroccan spread topped more of the kitchen’s tasty grilled flatbread. I can’t wait to taste what Olitzky does with the produce of summer.
She does sweet as well as she does savory, so, when we could manage, we tried that day’s dessert. A gently set, creamy buttermilk panna cotta with candied kumquats was exceptional, and chocolate-rye cookies sprinkled with sea salt bested most brownies I’ve tasted.
Do I have any caveats? Certainly not about the food. An exposed brick wall, rubbed brass pendants, marble counters, dark walnut tables and chairs, a hexagon tile floor, and antique paintings and artifacts help make the space warm and inviting. But the front window and door, framed in cold metal, are utilitarian and uninviting, and the lighting feels schoolhouse bright. A deli case with cheeses and charcuterie, along with a counter displaying wine and beer and a few favored grocery items, take up valuable real estate. (How many people will really come in to buy a bottle–or a bag of dried beans?) Because the space is small, seating is mostly communal, with orders taken at the counter. The fellow behind that counter is friendly, personable, and very knowledgeable about the small, well-edited list of wines and beers. Then you grab your own napkins, silverware, and water, and the food is brought out by the kitchen staff, who can, of course, speak quite intimately about the dishes. (Hall and Olitzky want that connection between the public and the cooks.) As you eat, someone, always friendly, always pleasant, usually comes by to check in and fetch anything additional you might need; if not, you go back up to the counter. And you pay your tab there, which, while certainly in line with the food quality, is not likely to be low.
A restaurant meal is the sum of many parts–food, service, ambiance, and cost. At Spencer, with so many of the important attributes already in place, I’d like, in a perfect world, to eat at my own table, with only my family and friends, with a server to fetch and, yes, tip, with intimate lighting that flatters and glows and with a sense, perhaps, that the real world is far away. But maybe that’s my dream. In the meantime, I’ll keep returning for what is there–those salads and all the other food–and be happy for that.
Spencer, 113 E. Liberty St., 369-3979.
Sun., Mon., Wed., & Thurs.: lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5-10 p.m. Fri. & Sat. lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5-11 p.m. Closed Tues.
Lunch dishes $5-$11, dinner dishes $5-$25