Spice Market

Spice Market
403 West 13th Street (between 9th and Washington Avenues)
New York, New York

5-second summary:

Price Range–  Dinner entrees $16-35 (at time of posting)
Ambiance Warm, friendly, casual elegance
Cuisine- Southeast Asian
Hits- Hospitality, decor, food texture, our soup and dessert
Misses- Food temperature

My boyfriend Rich and I constantly find ourselves dining and dancing in the Meatpacking District, the resurgence of which has been surprising and fun to watch.  Fifteen years ago, the area south of the Jacob Javitts Center was dotted with shadow-creeping drug dealers and dubiously-gendered prostitutes.  Predominantly the home of  bloodstained aprons by day and a few dive bars or  occasional, short-lived underground dance clubs (hard to find because no signs ever went up outside) by night, there was little reason to visit the area unless you were particularly interested in old New York cobblestone… or you were looking for what the area was known for in the 1980s, which I won’t discuss here since this is a “family” blog.  🙂

By the beginning of Rudy Giuliani’s second mayoral term, haute couture made its way into the neighborhood, soon followed by haute cuisine. Before long, the city’s historic slaughterhouses were replaced by trendy boutiques and A-list clubs frequented by celebrities and long lines of Sex-in-the-City-esque fashionistas who really wanted to be on their guest lists.  Straddling its shady past and nouveau riche present, the current state of the neighborhood makes for an interesting blend of yuppie awnings and blue collar yawnings.

Some of our favorite restaurants are in this crux of crooked streets, and for Restaurant Week, we decided that we were long overdue to try Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market.  Let me share that I had my reservations about blogging during Restaurant Week.  It is a unique period of time, and the food one is served may not always be indicative of the normal experience.  However, a good restaurant should take care to preserve its reputation and consistency, even during Restaurant Week.  I write, then, only to share my experience despite this open caveat.

The restaurant’s strong suit is its hospitality.  When we stepped in front the street, the first thing we noticed was the smell. It was warm and inviting, as if we had walked into someone’s kitchen for a home-cooked meal. We were warmly greeted, our coats taken, and a coat check ticket delivered to our table.  The entire waitstaff was unpretentious and warm, taking the time to explain dishes, to ensure our comfort and satisfaction as if we were houseguests and old friends, and to make sure our glasses and dishes weren’t empty.

While we were surveying and admiring the decor -a light, airy space balanced with deep, romantic shadows- we were offered freshly-scented, hot towels.  Copper light fixtures suspended from exposed wooden beams, and the upper reaches of the room were all warm rust and bronze hues.  A shelf lining the room displayed red and black ceramics, old steamer trunks, baskets, and birdcages; when combined with deeply knotted cherry woods, elegant white upholstered chairs and benches paired with red-cushioned, barrel-round stools, the decor invoked the stately grandeur of colonial India.  Dark, wood-bladed fans hummed above, gently swaying large palms and rice paper lanterns and transporting us –from the incongruous flurries of snow swirling beyond mustard-colored drapes and panel windows– to a balmy Jakarta cafe.

The waitstaff, all clad in loose cotton salwars (pajamastyle trousers) gave the rooms a more authentic feel and feigned a major climate change.  Waitresses wore backless orange kurtis tied up the back with string, while the waiters had uniform, mock-necked orange tunics. The breezy clothing promised that it was not twenty degrees outside, but -rather- that you were an exotic photojournalist stopping in a little known Bangkok gem before heading north to quieter villages inland.

With Jean-George’s inspiration (the street food of Southeast Asia, namely Vietnam, Thailand, and China), we expected easy eats and weren’t disappointed.  We were first offered a generous dish of triangular papadum, beautifully seasoned, wafer-thin Indian flatbread with an accompanying bowl of mildly spicy kasundi: a paste made with lentil, tomato, and fresh chilis.  Having skipped breakfast, we proceeded to eat two more bowls, which were politely refilled with verbal acknowledgement of their deliciousness, the waitstaff like flattered grandmothers overtly pleased by our requests for additional helpings.

We also tried some of the house non-alcoholic beverages.  Rich had both calamansi soda, a clean, refreshing carbonated tangerine-lime drink, and jasmine lemonade, which was all flowery jasmine syrup and very little lemon.  I had a delicious cherry yuzu soda, which was more sweet cherry than yuzu citrus, but delicious nonetheless.  We were both instructed to give our drinks “a good stir,” which released the flavors from our respective glass bottoms.

The Restaurant Week lunch special was a bento box, served all at once on a wooden tray.  We started with a hearty yet light butternut squash soup that blew us both away.  Perfectly diced bits of butternut squash and ginger added texture and bite, while a dollop of creme fraiche, ribbons of basil, and roasted pumpkin seeds tied together creamy, savory, sweet, and salty.  The flavors each took turns dominating, which lent a certain beauty to the dish, and both taste and texture elevated it from standard street fare.

From the soup, we moved on to crisp, flaky chicken samosas.  They were not at all greasy and stayed together neatly after each bite.  The filling was consistent in texture and beautifully spiced, although there was definitely some major heat.  I enjoy a good amount of chili but found the samosas too spicy for my taste.  The cilantro yogurt accompanying the dish in a small, white ceramic shot glass/ramekin was tasty but not enough to take the edge off the pastry’s heat.  My favorite touch was the salt sprinkled on the finished, fried crust.  What the tongue first encountered –warm, golden oil and salt– made the samosas utterly irresistible.

The only real choice in ordering the lunch special was chicken, pork, or beef satay.  Rich ordered pork, and I tried the beef.  Both, served on wooden skewers, were flavorful and tender.  My spiced beef was savory and salty, as well as soft and perfectly cooked.  The bento box also came with a piece of flaky, white cod with a Malaysian chili sauce and thai basil.  The cod was placed on top of the Malaysian sauce, which had soy sauce saltiness and tomato-like sweetness.  The Thai basil on top was a savory green smudge topped with finely diced celery for texture.  At the center of the bento box was a round dish of lukewarm basmati rice.  Unfortunately, the satay and cod were not incredibly (temperature) hot to begin with, so by the time one had eaten the samosas and soup, the main dishes were cold.

Finally, the meal ended with a choice of coffee ice cream or “Thai jewels and fruits with crushed coconut ice.”  I don’t care how good that coffee ice cream could possibly be, you’d be a fool to order it.  We each chose the Thai jewels dish, which was essentially coconut milk ice, festooned with multi-colored “jewels”: white and green tapioca shaped like sea glass, bright red pomegranate seeds, strips of yellow jackfruit, and clear palm seeds.  This dessert hit the ball out of the park and will remain one of my most memorable in both taste and texture.  The flavor was purely tropical without being too sweet, a feat achieved largely by the jackfruit, which has a pineapple taste but is meatier in texture and milder in flavor.  The palm seeds were syrupy and chewy while the pomegranate seeds had their anticipated viscous-pop then crunch.  The tapioca was soft and more yielding.  Thus, each mouthful had a different layer of bite to it, and no two spoons’ worth were the same.  All served in a clear bowl on a bed of crushed ice, I forgot everything else I had eaten before it.

All in all, the textures of the meal were a consistent strength.  The flavors were also strong but nowhere near as noteworthy and innovative as the textures.  The only real miss was the temperature.  Our “entrees” and Rich’s coffee, for example, were generally served cold.

I’m rarely one to return to a restaurant, especially when there are so many in the metro area to try.  However, despite the misses, I’d return to Spice Market after Restaurant Week.  It was original, delicious, and it felt good... like a short vacation. There’s something about the tropical warmth that -like a Bali breeze- invokes a gentle amnesia; for at least the duration of your meal, it temporarily erases the city’s bustle and the neighborhood’s sordid past, bringing you to gentler climes via your taste buds.

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