Admitting that you have a thing for Asian fusion restaurants is like saying you prefer the Eric Clapton covers of Robert Johnson to Robert Johnson.
But as I see it, Asian fusion cooking can have something to say in the hands of the right chef. It doesn’t have to mean mealy seared tuna, limp field greens and sweet sauces.
No chef in America has done as much to burnish the reputation of fusion as Jean-Georges Vongerichten. He opened the original Spice Market in New York as one of his first forays into casual, high-volume dining with a menu that riffed on Asian street food. It was so popular when it opened that reservations were impossible. When I stopped by one evening and asked just to peek inside, I was turned away at the door by a bouncer.
The Atlanta branch of Spice Market in the W Hotel Midtown reprises many of the dishes made popular in New York. It would be a fun restaurant to like.
I stopped by for lunch last Friday and found a mostly empty dining room, and food that had some visual and conceptual appeal, but often missed the mark in taste.
The lunch “bento” ($16, above) is a reasonably priced, nicely customizable sampler platter. The assortment I put together, going clockwise from top right, consisted of:
It was a pretty plate to consider, but I have to say I’ve gotten more eating enjoyment from those cheesy bento boxes in Japanese restaurants that hold chicken teriyaki, tempura, salad and three pieces of California roll. There more of a sense of contrast and more lustiness to the food.
My friend got the express lunch ($13) that came with a bowl of soup (she also ordered the chicken and coconut) and this warm chicken sandwich. It was an odd hybrid that referenced Vietnamese banh mi for its flavor profile of barbecued meat, pickled vegetable garnish and forward spice. But it went down more like a panini thanks to the soft ciabatta-style bread, thickly cut meat and gushy sauce. It might have been interesting with a sharper focus, but instead reinforced the “fusion as confusion” dictum.
We also got an à la carte order of the famous ginger fried rice ($8.50), which I had been wanting to try. I have long heard about this dish — which consists of a simply fried rice topped with a sunny side up egg and a flurry of fried ginger bits — from New Yorkers and Atlantans alike. It was even featured recently in the New York Times.
Alas, the ginger in this version had spent a long enough time in the frying oil to pick up a bitter aftertaste. It was almost great, but we gave up after a couple of bites.
My friend and I both opted to finish with the passion fruit sorbet served, cutely, in Chinese takeout containers. We agreed it was the best thing we ate. The pastry chef has used some banana for for sweetness, body and contrast and avoided the pitfall of adding too much sugar. It was puckery, cooling, tropical and wholly fantastic.
I would like to like this restaurant better.