Note: Spice Market closed in September 2016. The restaurant remained successful; the landlord simply wanted them out, to make way for a more lucrative retail tenant. Jean-Georges Vongerichten says that he hopes to re-open at another New York location. In the meantime, you’ll have to make do with clones in Punta de Mita, Mexico, and Doha, Qatar.
Amanda Hesser of The New York Times comically over-rated Spice Market when it opened in 2004, awarding three stars. It was probably a solid two, but suffered the inevitable decline that plagues almost all of the Vongerichten restaurants. In 2009, Frank Bruni demoted it to one star, which was probably about right. By the end, it was basically a party restaurant for tourists, but as tourist restaurants go, you could do a lot worse.
A little over three years ago, Spice Market’s arrival signaled a milestone for the Meatpacking District. For the first time, a serious restauranteur (Jean-Georges Vongerichten) was staking claim to an area that used to be a wholesale meat market and prostitution haunt.
Indeed, in a much-ridiculed three-star review, Amanda Hesser of the Times advised Vongerichten to pump ginger aroma into the street, to overcome “the stench of blood and offal from the surrounding meatpacking district.” She added, “It’s hardly an olfactory amuse-bouche.”
Nowadays, your tender nostrils needn’t worry about the stench of blood: the original meatpackers are long gone, and the area is a maze of clubs and mostly second-tier restaurants. Whether it has any restaurants worth your while is open to debate. I am probably in the minority, when I tell you that there are actually a few Meatpacking restaurants I like.
Until yesterday, I’d never been to Spice Market, except for drinks. In the early days, it was one of the city’s toughest tables to book, and I never bothered. However, when a friend suggested it, I was happy to accept the invitation, as it was the only one of Vongerichten’s Manhattan restaurants I’d never been to. Things have settled down a bit, although Spice Market still does brisk business. On a Tuesday night, most tables were taken, and I noted that all of the luxurious private rooms downstairs were fully booked.
The pan-Asian menu is divided into appetizers ($9.00–14.50), salads ($7.50–14.00), soups ($7.50–8.50), seafood entrées ($18–30), meat entrées ($16–36), and noodles/rice ($2.00–14.50). At the bottom comes the ominous warning, “All dishes are served family style.” That means they come out of the kitchen, and onto the middle of the table, when the kitchen is ready to serve them—not necessarily when you’re ready to eat them.
We weren’t sure how much food we needed, and “small plate” restaurants like Spice Market tend to encourage over-ordering. For appetizers, we tried the Black Pepper Shrimp ($14.50), which was nicely balanced in true Vongerichten fashion with sun dried pineapples. Mushroom Egg Rolls ($9.50 for four) with a galangal dipping sauce were also excellent.
We moved on to the Ginger Fried Rice ($7), which came topped with a fried egg, sunny side up, with ginger and garlic. This was so irresistible that we practically inhaled it, and didn’t wait for any of the entrées to arrive. The kitchen also did well by a tangy Cod with Malaysian Chili Sauce ($19), which the waiter divided and served tableside.
Both meat entrées disappointed. Pork Vindaloo ($19) and Red Curried Duck ($19) both tasted like they could have been simmering for a week, with generic sauces that could have come from any curry house on any back street. Amanda Hesser loved both, but they’ve lost whatever appeal they once had.
In the end, we probably ordered one dish more than we needed, but I was glad to be able to sample a broader swath of the menu. Most dishes were spicy, but not particularly so. The server was about right, when he said that the heat of the Pork Vindaloo was “5 on a scale of 1 to 10.”
I had recalled that Thai Jewels were the best of the desserts, and though we were quite full, we had to give it a try. Here we agreed with Amanda Hesser, so I’ll let her tell it:
Tiny bits of sweet water chestnut are glazed with tapioca, dyed candy colors like cherry red and lime green. These jewels are blended with palm seeds and slivers of jackfruit and papaya, then heaped onto a nest of coconut ice. It is fruity, nutty, cold and slushy, a wonderful mess of flavors, not unlike Lucky Charms.
The wine list isn’t long or complex, with reds and whites listed in each of three categories: smooth, bold, spicy. I chose a spicy red wine for $48, and we were quite pleased with it.
Servers were well versed in the menu and gave reasonable ordering advice. The choreography of waiters and runners sometimes got a bit discombobulated. At the table next to us, they managed to spill a whole bottle of water. Nothing so alarming happened to us, but there were minor glitches. Yet, at other times the service was more polished than you’d expect for a restaurant in Spice Market’s price range.
Despite the “family style” menu, the pace was quite reasonable, and we spent around 2½ hours there. I don’t know if we lucked out, or if they actually try to time the courses intelligently. Anyhow, it’s a good thing we were never served more than one dish at a time, as our small two-top wouldn’t have accommodated any more.
What can you say about the Disney-meets-Thailand décor, and serving staff in orange pajamas? You’ll love it or hate it, but it has no peer in Manhattan. I would guess that Jean-Georges Vongerichten spends no more than 15 seconds a month thinking about Spice Market. It runs on reputation. But there’s just enough left that you can see what all the excitement was about.
Spice Market (403 West 13th Street at Ninth Avenue, Meatpacking District)