Ah, the yearly birthday dinner. Over the past four years a pattern has
certainly emerged. James always chooses Nuevo Latino and/or meat heavy, and
I always pick Asian and/or the dreaded fusion. So, when Spice Market, and
its Southeast Asian street food shtick, opened a month or so before his
birthday, it was crying out for a try. Being new and disturbingly sceney, I
was afraid reservations might pose a problem. And they did, we were posed
the 6 or 10:30pm dilemma. Like it or not, 10:30pm it was (which worked out
well since I had class, mere blocks away until 9pm anyway).
They've captured the dark, teaky, temple quality well. Arches and
carvings that make you wonder if they're pre-fab or authentic (they're true
blue imports). It could be construed as Pier One or ABC Carpet and Home
depending on your point of reference. And despite our late reservation, we
were still made to wait what seemed like an unusually long time at the front
bar. I didn't immediately notice time passing because I was busy consuming
the abnormally fat wasabi peanuts set before me. Unlike the more typical
peas, these are thick with spicy spring green crust, fiery, addictive and
tooth-shattering as it turned out. (Part of James's tooth chipped off hours
later as he caught an early morning cab to JFK. He blames the wasabi
peanuts. I say bullshit. I also recently read how Nicole Kidman began
choking in the bar at Spice Market and had to be Heimliched. Wasabi peanuts
as culprit?) I assumed they were either made in-house or by some exclusive
purveyor, but on a recent New Jersey trek, I noticed them at Trader Joe's.
Definitely more Pier One.
Two things pleased and surprised me. No, not the clientele, they were
about as ick as expected (though no sightings despite all the reports of
Martha Stewart, Howard Stern and Tom Cruise making appearances that same
week). It's not outrageously expensive and the food is actually quite good.
There's a high-end vibe at work, perhaps it's in knowing that the restaurant
is a Jean-George creation, but the overall feeling is breezy and casual.
Some might say too casual, considering how they bring dishes to the table
all higgledy-piggledy with no regard for the appetizer first, entre second
convention. They make it sound like a conscious decision where it would be
easily interpreted as lack of coordination.
The oft-mentioned shaved tuna and chili tapioca balls in a coconut
kaffir lime broth was fresh, chewy and intriguing. (I know Amanda Hesser got
a lot of flack for using the phrase "the dish is eaten with a spoon" in her
review, but that is what the waiters tell you when the bowl arrives.)
Another talked about dish, the Ovaltine kulfi, also was more than a one-hit
wonder. The malty frozen rectangle was firmer and more pliable than ice
cream, almost like a dense, iced candy bar. Blah sounding ginger rice, which
I ordered just for the heck of it, was one of the more flavorful and light
fried rice renditions I've sampled. Pork vindaloo wasn't scorching (as I
might've liked it) nor the red curry duck, but both were equal or better
than what you'd get at many Indian and Thai restaurants around Manhattan,
and hardly priced higher.
It's hard to feel cheated by the prices, portions, quality or flavor,
which is important when you're a silly library student and splurges are few
and far between. Once the crowds have moved on to other Meatpacking
hotspots, Spice Market will probably be even more enjoyable.
SpiceMarket 403 W. 13th St., New York, NY