Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s career is currently playing like Meryl Streep’s in the eighties, during her Sophie/Silkwood/Karen Blixen phase; inexhaustible, incapable of misjudgment, reveling in risk. The main difference is that while Streep mastered multiple accents, the French culinary star speaks in just one, and it’s nearly as dense as his lacquer-thick veal reductions.
Luckily, Vongerichten has found other ways to communicate. Each of his kitchens sends out the dining equivalent of Circean melodies, captivating not just gourmands but most everyone who adores being out in New York. Because he has yet to fail—in this city alone, JoJo, Vong, Mercer Kitchen, 66, Nougatine, and Jean Georges not only thrive but display a daunting global versatility—snappish foodies sometimes take swipes. Doesn’t matter. Unlike such gifted chefs as Alain Ducasse, who believes that Nutella and salads served in petri dishes titillate the masses, Vongerichten is driven more by eagerness to please than by ego. Which explains why Spice Market, inspired by Vongerichten’s passion for Asian street-vendor food, and conceived in collaboration with formerly hibernating chef Gray Kunz, has been vibrating with diners, drinkers, fans, celebrities, and the dressed-to-kill from the moment it opened.
The restaurant’s vast space is immediately disorienting yet instantly welcoming, energized and undeniably dazzling. Architecturally, it’s the exact opposite of 66, going vertical instead of horizontal, shadowy rather than bright, utilizing no glass, all wood, with nary a right angle or unadorned square inch. Jacques Garcia, who designed the popular salonesque Hotel Costes in Paris, has assembled expensive container-shipped artifacts as if he were designing with Lincoln Logs: Southeast Asia Edition. The result is a carved and tiered temple to hedonism with great sight lines, bordello lighting, and terrific traffic flow.
That last quality is crucial because Spice Market really moves, from the constant activity around the main bar, safely located downstairs but easily observed from the dining balcony, to the bustling servers, clad and half-clad (the women’s outfits are backless) in orange and racing dishes to tables as soon as they’re ready, in the sequenceless love-it-or-hate-it style of 66.
What’s being hustled is Asian street fare of the sort you might find in the pushcarts of Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City as interpreted and reimagined by Vongerichten, Kunz, and executive chef Stanley Wong. Because the dishes are deliberately not refined, flavors are as up-front as a good ol’ boy’s handshake. You’ll be consistently surprised, sometimes pleasantly startled. But you may not like everything equally, so consider your first few trips exploratory ventures.
“Vongerichten is inspired more by eagerness to please than by ego.”
Start with the mushroom egg rolls with their vibrant galangal dipping sauce; slightly sweet mussels steamed in lemongrass, Thai basil, and coconut juice; and fried chicken wings in lime and fish sauce—the most fiery item on the menu (if the accompanying mango slices don’t cool you off, perhaps a blood-orange mojito will).
While some dishes are more substantial than others, Vongerichten aims for you to order from all over the menu. Simple twists reawaken the most mundane choices. Crackling crisp squid is surrounded by the unexpected zip of ginger, cashews, and papaya. The smoky appeal of shrimp in black-pepper sauce is happily intruded upon by flecks of sun-dried pineapple. Chicken samosas arrive with a lovely cilantro-laced yogurt. And I don’t think I’ll ever order egg-drop soup again without longing for Market’s addition of tomato purée.
But exoticism doesn’t always add intrigue. Sometimes, it’s just weird. I’m still cringing at what the cloying sweetness of tapioca pearls does to fresh shaved tuna. Delicious chili-garlic egg noodles are trapped under shrimp bitterly scorched by star anise. The appeal of a congealed tamarind glaze coating overfried monkfish remains a mystery of the Orient. Thankfully, the pleasures of other dishes—lobster steamed in fried garlic and dried chili, moist cod in a gentle chili-and-basil sauce, curried duck in lemongrass, pork vindaloo, and grilled chicken under a soothing shower of sliced kumquats—are plainly revealed.
The must-try dessert is Ovaltine kulfi; like ice cream without the air, dense and guilt-inducing as a frozen Snickers. The dare-you-try-it dessert is durian ice cream. Derived from the eponymous spiny fruit, it has a unique and oddly appealing taste—if you can get past the smell. Oh, come on. Do it for Jean-Georges. He hasn’t let you down yet.