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Revisit: Spice Market

photoAdmitting 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:

  1. Bland ground lamb skewers garnished with some fine lemon zest
  2. Thai-style chicken coconut soup that tasted salty from its fish sauce but didn’t have the woodsy/floral flavor of galanga that I was looking for
  3. Nice brown rice (you can also get jasmine rice, but I’ll take my whole grains if offered)
  4. A “salad” of fried onion rings, shaved radish and spectacularly unripe avocado (Someone needed to say “86 avocado, chef.”)
  5. A nicely seared round of cod in a winey sweet chili sauce.
  6. Lightly pickled cauliflower and peppers.

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.

photo 2My 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.

photo 3We 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.

photo 4My 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.

11 comments Add your comment

Fred

January 27th, 2010
1:07 pm

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Fred

January 27th, 2010
1:10 pm

i hate when I hit enter instead of tab lol anyways…….

I love your last sentence. I have felt that way many times in a place. Everything is so wonderful and the food is bland or merely average (but they are charging spectacular prices, not “average” prices so average just isn’t good enough).

Did you see the Korean place I named for you on your Po’boy place blog?

Food Fan

January 27th, 2010
3:16 pm

I was here once and was thoroughly unimpressed by the food – was dissapointed that I could have had a far better meal at a place on Buford Highway for the $10 I had to pay just to valet my car at the W. Their take on “fusion Asian street food” was terribly executed – the overriding flavor profile of all the real street food is that there should be an interplay of flavors (spicy, sweet, sour, cooked, raw, fresh, etc.) all at once. I found the food very one-note and dissapointing.

I also found it pretentious when seated in a 3/4 empty restaurant on a Friday night that the “food would come out when it was ready since everything is made fresh”. I know everything is designed to be shared – even the main courses – but when I got my main course of a bowl of (lacking) noodle soup before my appetizers came out, while other guests at my table were getting their appetizers, it just made the experience that much worse. John – I commend you for a revisit, I vowed I wouldn’t!

crackbaby

January 27th, 2010
4:18 pm

Spice Market and the scene at the W tries hard to look good but there is no substance to support it. Thanks for the honest review – our experience was similar except no yearning to “like it more.”

Intowner

January 27th, 2010
4:48 pm

I went once for lunch went it opened – I was unimpressed and have never gone back. All hype no substance – too bad. Good thing they are tied in with the hotel or they wouldn’t survive. Maybe the owners will see this and try to improve it, but maybe they don’t care due to the hotel draw.

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Steven Josovitz

January 28th, 2010
1:22 am

John, the bento box is one of our favorite meals in Atlanta…. totally incredible. It does not look like allot of food but after you polish off the ice cream you are stuffed… Great value at $16.00. Strange thing though is that is I have never tried anything else so I can comment or critique any other food offerings.

John Kessler

January 28th, 2010
3:13 pm

It’s definitely a lot of food for the money.

Bill Veezy

January 29th, 2010
8:52 am

I was excited to go about two years ago. A friend and I arrived at closing but persuaded them to serve us. What followed was one of the most disapointing meals I’ve ever had at a “name” restaurant. This started a big debate among my friends as some thought that it was our fault for expecting something good when the kitchen was winding down. Others felt that once we were seated we were deserving of the same quality that should be available at earlier hours. They certainly charged the same steep prices. What’s your opinion?

Kathryn Duckworth

January 29th, 2010
11:00 am

I went to Spice Market for a business dinner recently and ordered a noodle dish with tofu and garlic. It was possibly the worst restaurant food I’ve ever encountered. It was very oily, the garlic was under cooked and bitter, the tofu was tasteless and the broth was awful. Too bad!

Tanya

January 29th, 2010
2:57 pm

I had a similar experience- 3/4 empty on a weekend night and un-special food. We were disappointed. This place feels like what it probably is- an unloved stepchild restaurant, wound up by the W powers that be and left to just run down… Market on the other hand, in the buckhead W was very good.