New York, NY, tasted on May 8, 2004 —
For some time now I have come to the conclusion that street food is
among the best food you can get in the world. The question is, can
the intangibles of Southeast Asian street food survive translation
by Jean-Georges Vongerichten into a chic and sleep restaurant in
Manhattan? The challenge is really one of authenticity. I have
rewritten this paragraph several times to try and make it not sound
negative, because it's not meant that way. The truth is that if you
try to recreate some jewel of ethnic authenticity, by definition you
lose something. This is natural as you aren't serving one dish from
a stall in a night market in Chiang Mai. It's just different. That
said, being different doesn't mean you can't be great. And so we're
eating on this day at
I'm sure the designers would cringe, but Spice Market
feels to me like a hip
Disney does Singapore chic, but understated. The
details are really well done. And the environment feels great. I
normally don't really care about decor but I was struck by how hard
they'd tried to make a beautiful place to eat. And I think this place
was very positive. There was a beautiful open kitchen with a snaking bar
making its way in and out of nooks and crannies facing the kitchen.
There was also a beautiful
temple-like structure that you had to go through to the downstairs
bar and bathrooms. Really quite lovely.
This is going to sound terrible, but one of the main
things that distinguishes this eating environment from a traditional
street food environment is that... well... Spice Market is very clean.
I'm sure there's plenty of street food stalls that are clean too (as
well as many that aren't) but I'm not the health inspector, it's more a
statement of "feeling" and frankly, the "grunge" factor does contribute
to some of the difference in how you feel at the restaurant. I'm not
suggesting I'd prefer a dirtier restaurant, just pointing out the
differences that challenge authenticity.
Most important however is, of course, the food. And on
that front, Spice Market fared very well. Soon after we sat down were
delighted to get a plate full of
Pappadums. This particular variation was crispy, thick, and yummy.
These were soon followed by
Vietnamese Spring Rolls which were amazing and light with perfectly fried skins
surrounding hot chunks of shrimp inside. Given the profusion of fried
spring rolls in the world its hard for them to stand out (to me anyway).
But these were truly special.
Next up was the
Black Pepper Shrimp with Sun-Dried Pineapple. This dish had bright strong flavors
crunchy jicama and grilled pineapple which was particularly juicy and delicious.
Chicken Skewers with Peanut Sauce were a touch dry, but salty in a good
way. Unfortunately the peanut sauce didn't have much flavor.
I was particularly intrigued by the
Lobster Roll with Dill and Sriracha. It was a gorgeous little
sushi-like maki roll with flat rice noodle instead of nori and chunks of
beautiful fresh lobster filling the roll. I love clean simple flavors
and this looked very good. Interestingly there were also big cubes of citrus jelly
dotting the inside of the roll with the lobster. And as novel a
complement as they were for the lobster they were a touch dominating.
This dish I think could have been really wonderful if it had been more
If I had to articulate the center of gravity for food that I like it
would be refined clean simple and interesting flavors. And frankly,
refined but authentic ethnic food is always one of my favorites. I
didn't know what to expect from the Spice Market rendition of
Tom Yum Goong (Thai hot and sour shrimp soup) but I was happy I
ordered it. It was very very good. The flavors were very refined and
clean with a sharp kick on the
Brown Rice was interesting and a nice complement in general,
especially to the
Charred Chili Rubbed Beef Skewer. It was super juicy with a kaffir lime
flavor I think.
The cilantro sauce was also good.
Roee, who had accompanied me
on this meal said "super, I dig it."
We did get one main dish, the
Shrimp and Noodles specifically. The noodles had a lovely and
delicious sour and spicy film on them that made them quite good. The shrimp
grilled with savory dry seasonings and accompanied by fresh chili sauce and scallions.
Everything in this dish was really great especially with all the contrasting textures.
We were eating a late lunch and had to hurry a bit as
the kitchen closed at 3pm. We were bummed but I do understand that the
kitchen can't stay open all day for 2 customers. It was annoying however
when someone in a position of authority who saw me taking pictures came
by and rudely told me to stop photographing. Luckily I'd a) already
taken a zillion pictures of the food, and b) had already decided that
I'd really enjoyed the food. Not that her being so controlling would
have changed my opinion about the food, but it would definitely have put
a bit of a damper on lunch.
We went on to dessert. The
Flan we ordered was weak.
Sorbet very good. The fruit flavor built slowly with a touch of alcohol.
This was followed up by a
Cookie Goodie Bag. The peanut butter cookie was great. It was salty... like...
peanuts! The coconut chocolate chip cookie was interesting as well.
Here's the thing. We weren't in a floating market
outside Saigon. We weren't in the streets of Bangkok. And trying to make
believe we were would have been an exercise in futility. But we were in
Manhattan eating quite excellent Asian street food in a beautiful
surrounding and enjoying every minute of it. And that's pretty great.