In recent years, the Decatur Southern staple Watershed has incubated some of Atlanta's most exciting new eateries. Billy Allin worked in the restaurant's kitchen before opening Cakes & Ale, as did Steven Satterfield prior to opening Miller Union. And now comes Sprig from Daniel Morrison, who worked at Watershed as the longtime dining room manager and bartender.
If Allin and Satterfield were able to imbue their menus with some of Watershed's simple Southern magic, Morrison has done the same with his bar and dining room. Located at the end of an Oak Grove strip mall, the whimsically designed room feels at once friendly and chic, warm and sophisticated. Long curtains with botanical prints divide the space, and a mix of wood paneling, metal accents, and red paint channel a particularly stylish yet unpretentious friend's house.
Since the restaurant opened in late October, the neighborhood has rallied. The room is often packed, and a wait on weekends is to be expected (no reservations are offered). Young parents dine with their kids, extended families in town for the holidays gather around the larger tables. Part of Sprig's appeal is its accessibility — there's something for everyone here, and not much about the place is particularly ambitious or challenging.
The chef is Robert Elliott, who met Morrison while they were both at Watershed, Elliott as sauté cook. His menu at Sprig borrows some of its aesthetics from Scott Peacock's menus at Watershed — fiercely local, Southern, seasonal, simple. And when I say simple, I mean really simple.
The most inventive dish at Sprig is probably the mozzarella grit cakes appetizer — two puck-sized golden rounds of grits that break open to reveal cheesy, gooey centers. Bright tomato sauce and sautéed spinach bring sweetness and acid to the plate.
The pile of green leaves that comprises many of the appetizer plates, including but not limited to the salads, often supersedes more flavorful ingredients. An appetizer of fried chicken livers is really a plate full of lettuce with five small fried livers positioned daintily, one small piece of toast smeared with apple compote at the center. The interesting flavors — that of the compote and the livers — is all but lost among the forest of greens. A marinated cucumber and feta salad is, in truth, a heap of spinach with a few (four, on one evening) thin slices of cucumber and a sparing crumble of feta. The endive and arugula salad had no detectable endive the night I tried it, just a lot of arugula, too few delicious grilled apples, and a scattering of pecans.
In terms of portion size, the kitchen is anything but stingy. In fact, the vegetable risotto appetizer could easily be an entrée, although I wished for something more in the contents of the dish. Fresh-tasting carrots, green beans and mushrooms brightened the creamy rice, but no herbs or stock asserted themselves, making for a nicely salted but otherwise bland dish.
Meat entrées pair the proteins with a couple of austere vegetables, the one exception being the roast chicken. The crispy-skinned chicken comes with a homey ham bread pudding, like stuffing but shot through with pig. Sweet potato-crusted grouper sits atop roasted Brussels sprouts and bright purple beets, each vegetable left to its own devices. A beautifully cooked and crisped duck breast comes over carrots and parsnips, cut into chunks, braised, and then left alone. Red wine poached pears deliver a little pizzazz to the plate, but not enough to make the dish feel cohesive. While Elliott's nonconfrontational approach is pleasing in its way, more interaction between ingredients and more dishes that feel composed and whole would be welcome.
The meat-and-two-simple-sides concept works better with comfort food, and is perhaps why a plate of bacon-wrapped meatloaf with mashed potatoes, a light brown gravy and green beans seemed more generous in its spirit than some of the other dishes.
Desserts are a high point, particularly the special in recent weeks of pear and raisin cobbler paired with maple ice cream. The ice cream here in general, which you can get as a sampling of three, has fantastic flavor, but struggles with a grainy melty texture.
If servers are sometimes harried they're also enthusiastically friendly, but the kitchen is having some real issues with timing. One night the wait between appetizers and entrées stretched on and on; another, entrées arrived within three minutes of appetizers, forcing us to put one of the plates aside for them to go cold.
Owner Morrison's past behind the bar shows with a short, smart cocktail list that's mainly personalized takes on classics, such as the "Sprizerac" and a wickedly dry Manhattan. Wines and beers offer plenty of drinkable choices that veer just a hair beyond the expected, but cocktails are where the fun is.
It's obvious from the crowds and the general buoyant feel of the spot that this neighborhood needed a place to call its own. Sprig, for all its simplicity, is a thoughtful restaurant where you can bring the kids, the parents, the neighbors, and feel at home. If a little growing is in order for the place to live up to its potential, well that's to be expected. The beginnings of something quite lovely have already sprouted.
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