Tuesday, September 27, 2005

When It Rains . . . New York City Entry #15

I used to be a habitué of Manhattan's Meatpacking District. In fifth grade, forty-five years ago, we were bundled off to see butchers at work. In time, meatpackers became meat markets, as our economy has sunk from production to consumption, beef to beefcake. Today those fragrant warehouses are haunts with handsome filles, not filled with handsome haunches. (Shoot me now.)

A friend and I reserved a table at Spice Market, Jean-George Vongerichten and Gray Kunz's take on Thai-Malay street food, an establishment where authenticity is a dirty word. Neither of these notables oversees the kitchen, that is the responsibility of Stanley Wong. The space dazzles, a fantastic concoction of a Malay street as wed to a Delhi seraglio. So beautiful was it that by the end of the evening, I was tempted to nibble my chair, finding pleasure where I could. Given some fond notices for Spice Market, I wonder what radical changes might have transpired over the past few years.

We set 6:30 for our dinner, and as a second friend had just arrived from out of town, I decided to meet her at 5:00 for drinks, having been assured that Spice Market would be serving. Technically the reservationist spoke true. If one didn't mind sitting at the bar or at some wobbly tables in the foyer, one could order a drink, just so long as one hied oneself to the bar to order and to pick it up (and for all I know to mix it - and tip oneself). No food was available.

Trudging through the rain, we landed at Pastis, where I had a most satisfying - what else? - pastis and my partner a chicken Caesar salad. For a restaurant to force their customers to their competitors seemed an act of perverse generosity. But to Pastis I shall return.

I arrived in time for our reservation at SM. As we were questioning the menu our waitress emphasized those wines and plates that we should avoid. Both the Thai and Indian wines were not to her - and perhaps to anyone's - liking. We were warned off the Striped Bass with Wok Fried Napa Cabbage, Water Chestnut, and Cucumber. Too fiery, we were told. When we selected it, the order was forgotten, and we were brought a single entree to share. I realize that servers try to befriend customers, but starvation might just go too far.

When I requested a copy of the menu, I was told that this was not permitted; I was allowed to copy the dishes we ordered. Whether our server violated a rule, I don't know, but the menu for Spice Market does not appear on Jean-George website, a decision for which I now share some sympathy.

We were informed that the dishes were intended for sharing, a nice concept, but with overly large plates on overly small tables, this plan seemed as fantastic as the setting.

With a single exception, the dishes ranged from the unimpressive to the unpleasant; the preparations from ineffective to incompetent.

But as I am sweetheart - everyone tells me - let me start with the dish. I enjoyed the Cod with Malaysian Chili Sauce with Thai Basil. The cod was mild and tender without being mushy. The Chili Sauce was more fruity than flaming, and the Thai Basil added a little complexity. It was a satisfying and pretty dish, with the bonewhite cod set off by the maroon sauce.

As it was emphasized that the dishes were meant to share, we were surprised when the two of us were served three Spiced Chicken Samosas with Cilantro Yogurt. Could they not realize that if dishes are to be split for a table of two, an odd number was, well, odd. Fortunately the samosa was not of such a quality that we were motivated to fight. The batter was not as crispy as needed and the meat was reminiscent of Taco Bell. The cilantro yogurt was, in contrast, refreshing.

Our Lime Noodles with Vegetables, Basil and Sesame raised a question: why did we order this mess. Yes, it was recommended, but as I read this I feel queasy again. Aside from the strange combination of tastes, the noodles sat patiently in a pool of sauce, a sauce for which our sporkish utensil was not well-suited, and so the poor pasta became soggier as time ticked on.

Given that our bass never appear, we were persuaded that this was a grave warning, and so we choose Onion and Chili Crusted Short Ribs, Egg Noodles and Pea Shoots. After about twenty minutes, they made their entrance. Lime Noodles redux! The noodles sat in a bowl of sad sauce. If there was crust on the soft ribs, I missed it. The flavors were just right, but the textures were a sodden muddle.

One can often count on dessert to save an otherwise unfortunate evening. Not so "Thai Jewels and Fruits with Crushed Coconut Ice." Although we were clearly sharing the dessert, the server brought a single big bowl (this dessert is enough for four), and when we requested separate bowls (scoops were provided to ladle the fruit and other spoons to eat with), we were asked "Do you want them?" Uhhhh. Note to kitchen: crushed ice does not mean marble-sized hunks. Yes, the dish was pretty, and as the coconut ice melted, it was cool and sweet. The sweet water chestnuts, lychee, and papaya were a chewy counterpoint, but not one that I shall repeat.

Something is wrong at Spice Market. The errors on the floor and in the back were so frequent that this can hardly be a bad night. The idea, a loving paean to Asian streetfood, is to be praised. If only we could dine on ideas alone.

Upon exiting, rain was pouring. A perfect end to a perfect evening.

Spice Market
403 West 13th Street
Manhattan (Meatpacking District)

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