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Spice Market, 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 Spice Market.

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 complemented by crunchy jicama and grilled pineapple which was particularly juicy and delicious.  The 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 in balance.

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 finish. 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 themselves were 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. But the 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.










Tastingmenu is focused on superlative restaurant experiences from two perspectives: behind the plate and behind the stove. Tastingmenu is written by Hillel (professional eater) and Dana (up-and-coming professional chef) in Seattle, Washington.

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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