Entries in Pichet Ong (4)


Review Recap: Spice Market

Today, the Brunatrix bends Spice Market over the table and administers a one-star spanking:

When Spice Market opened its doors in the fleetly evolving whirl of Manhattan’s meatpacking district in early 2004, it…suggested the possibility of excellence in a genre often content with frivolity.

Today it suggests the steepness of many a restaurant’s decline once it has made its first, glowing impression, especially if the restaurant was conceived as, or destined to be, the parent of money-making offspring elsewhere. Said restaurant comes out of the gate strong, whipping up the buzz and establishing the brand, but once that mission is accomplished, its motivation falters. Its cooking deteriorates. Sloppiness creeps in…

While it still looks gorgeous, sends out the occasional superb dish and delivers a measure of fun, much of its menu is executed in a perfunctory or even slapdash fashion. Once a compelling destination, it’s now a modest diversion.

He has some choice words for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who is still nominally the chef at Spice Market, even though the menu hasn’t changed in five years:

Mr. Vongerichten is equal parts proud artist and profit-hungry entrepreneur, on the one hand making big-hearted contributions to the city’s restaurant scene while on the other wringing as much lucre from his stardust as he can.

Jean-Georges the Great helps finance and promote Wylie Dufresne at wd-50 and Jim Lahey at Co. pizzeria. He imports — and collaborates with — serious Japanese talent at Matsugen, a principled restaurant with remarkable prix fixe deals at lunch and dinner. He keeps careful watch over his outstanding flagship, Jean Georges.

Jean-Georges the Not-So-Great presides too distantly and cavalierly over the likes of Vong, Mercer Kitchen and Spice Market. He’s clone-happy, and in 2006 established a special wing of his empire, Culinary Concepts by Jean-Georges, to supervise his swelling brood of restaurants in hotels worldwide. That wing oversees all the Spice Markets.

This is yet another one-star review that reads like zero. Although one star is supposed to mean “Good” in the Times nomenclature, Bruni has often used that category for reviews like this one, where the tone is overwhelmingly negative.

It creates a perception that one star is an insult, and makes it difficult to give one star to places that actually are “Good.”


Review Preview

Record to date: 3–2

Tomorrow, Frank Bruni corrects one of the most egregious errors in recent New York Times reviewing history, when he will demote Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market.

The Skinny: Spice Market currently carries three stars, thanks to Amanda Hesser in 2004, when she served as interim critic before Frank Bruni arrived. The much-ridiculed and much-lampooned review began with these memorable bon-mots:

As you approach Spice Market, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new restaurant on West 13th Street, the stench of blood and offal from the surrounding meatpacking district intensifies. It’s hardly an olfactory amuse-bouche.

It turned out that Vongerichten had written a gushing jacket blurb for Hesser’s book, Cooking for Mr. Latte, which the Times admitted that Hesser ought to have disclosed. (Vongerichten later claimed that he had never met her.)

No one thought that Spice Market was a three-star restaurant then, when it had Vongerichten’s full attention, and it certainly isn’t one now. When I visited two years ago, I gave it 1½ stars, an option not open to Bruni, as his system lacks half-stars.

I am not saying that Bruni will demote Spice Market because this blog does not consider it worthy of three stars. It’s because nobody does. There have been no intervening events that would justify a return visit, except to correct the rating, and it has only one direction to go: down.

Bruni has done this to Vongerichten before, when he double-demoted Vong and Mercer Kitchen, knocking two stars off the rating of each. The only question here is whether Bruni will give Spice Market the full-body slam (one star or even zero), or if he’ll leave Vongerichten with a shred of dignity intact (two stars).

We can see it going either way, but we have to go with a full-body slam. Let’s charitably assume that the original rating should have been two stars. Does anyone doubt that the restaurant has gotten sloppier over the years, and that it has less of its owner’s attention than any in his large empire? How could the rating today not be lower than the “correct” original rating? Now add Bruni’s well known disgust for the whole Meatpacking Scene, and the blatant cynicism of the place, and the odds point to a monumental smackdown.

The Prediction: We predict that Frank Bruni will give one star to Spice Market.




Note: p*ong closed in March 2009. The space became the Scottish-themed restaurant Highlands.


After an underwhelming dinner at FR.OG, we didn’t quite feel ready to call it an evening, so we headed over to p*ong, the new dessert place by former Spice Market pastry chef Pichet Ong.

pong01.jpgActually, that’s not quite accurate. p*ong has savory courses on its menu too, like a shrimp and mango ceviche ($12), bluefin tuna tartare ($14), or American wagyu carpaccio ($19). A ten-course tasting menu is $59, with six savory and four sweet courses. But it’s for desserts that Pichet Ong made his name, and it’s for desserts that we dropped in.

The specialty cocktails looked interesting, so I gave the Bangkok Margarita ($12) a try. Made with tequilla, pineapple, ginger juice, agave, and aleppo pepper, it packed a hefty punch.

For those who come only for dessert, there’s a three-course tasting for $25, or a five-course tasting that includes cheese for $35. Most of the individual desserts are either $10 or $12. We were a little too full for a dessert tasting menu, but we ordered two of the items featured on that menu, and shared.

pong02a.jpg pong02b.jpg
Chevre Cheesecake Croquette (left); Malted chocolate Bavarian tart (right)

Chevre Cheesecake Croquette ($10) came with pineapple, a walnut crust, and chocolate-coffee fudge. I lean toward the theory that the basic cheesecake is too perfect to fool around with, but in this case the walnut crust worked perfectly with a wonderful gooey cheesecake.

The Malted Chocolate Bavarian Tart ($12) was topped with carmelized banana and served with Ovaltine ice cream on the side. This was less memorable than the cheesecake, but I’m not a choco-holic, so you can take that with a grain of salt.

pong03.jpgWe weren’t sure whether petits-fours or the plate they came on were the more interesting attraction, but we appreciated both.

Service seemed a bit rushed to us. There was about a 15-minute wait for a table when we arrived at 10:00 p.m. By the time we were seated, the restaurant was clearing out, so we saw no good reason for the food to come quite as briskly as it did.

We suspect that the rhythm of the place is geared to quick table-turning, as there are West Village rents to pay, with a menu that doesn’t lend itself to large tabs. Still, two desserts and two drinks came to $55.27 including tax (before tip). We’re in our 40s, and we didn’t notice many patrons older than us. Long-term success will depend on drawing in diners who are willing to spend that kind of money on dessert.

We weren’t quite as enamored with p*ong as we were with Room 4 Dessert, but p*ong is plenty of fun. Both the signature cocktails and the desserts warrant more exploration, and I wouldn’t mind giving the savory courses a shot. Make sure to look at a map before you go, as it’s located at one of those West Village intersections where one can easily get lost.

p*ong (150 West 10th Street at Waverley Place, West Village)

Food: **
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *½


Spice Market


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)

Food: *½
Service: *½
Ambiance: **
Overall: *½