Entries in Spice Market (5)


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.


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


Mad for Meatpacking

It’ll tell you how hopelessly un-hip I am, that, until yesterday, I had never been to the Meatpacking District since it became anything other than a neighborhood where wholesale meats are sold. The area is bounded roughly by Gansevoort St on the south, 14th St on the north, and Ninth and Tenth avenues. I say “roughly,” because like any hip neighborhood its boundaries are stretching. My Manhattan street atlas limits the district to the two square blocks bounded by Little West 12th, 14th, and Ninth and Tenth Avenues. But nowadays, even places on 15th St have Meatpacking aspirations.

A lot of the district’s hip nightclubs hadn’t opened their doors when my friend and I walked by in the late afternoon, but we were able to get a look in many of the restaurants. After a long walk from the Financial District, we were ready for a short break. Zitoune (46 Gansevoort St) snootily refused us an outdoor table when we ordered soft drinks, claiming a $10 minimum outside. We tried Macelleria next door, where they happily accepted our order for soft drinks and biscotti (ironically, we spent more than $10 anyway). The whole time, Zitoune never did use the outdoor table they denied us.

There’s a large triangular space where Gansevoort, Little West 12th, Ninth Ave, and Greenwich St converge at odd angles. At one of the outdoor tables at Zitoune, Macelleria, or nearby Pastis (9 Ninth Ave) you get a panoramic view of the Meatpacking crowd’s comings and goings. The intersection seems to demand a life-size statue of Mr. Gansevoort (or whoever/whatever that street was named for). If we were in Europe, it would have one.

I wanted to see what Spice Market (403 W. 13th St.), Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s latest hit, was about. From the outside, you’d barely know it’s a restaurant. Inside, the $5 million decor overwhelms the senses. It seems no one opens a destination restaurant in New York these days on the strength of the food alone. We peeked in around 6pm, as the place was just beginning to fill up, and the staff didn’t mind terribly that we were there only to gawk.

We were particularly intrigued by the sensuous private rooms at the back of the downstairs bar, where you pass through curtains of gauze into a world of your own. I wonder how those creamy white luxuroious sofa pillows will look after red wine is spilled on them a few times, but for now they look inviting. Whether or not Spice Market deserves the three stars the Times awarded, as eye candy it amazes.

Many other restaurants caught our eye, but we were struck by the friendly reception we received at Vento (intersection of 9th Ave and 14th St), which doesn’t even open to the public until April 19th. The staff are just practicing for now, and the tables were all set for a friends-and-family dinner. The flatiron-shaped building, dating from the Civil War, is all the decor Vento needs.



The New York Times hasn’t had a full-time restaurant critic since William Grimes stepped down from the post at the end of last year. As Grimes is still with the Times, working on other assignments, you’d think the paper could have persuaded him to stay in the chair a few months longer until a permanent successor could be named, but for whatever reason that wasn’t possible. Evidently Grimes couldn’t take eating out 10-12 times a week (and the rumored $150k+ expense account that goes with it) for a day longer. Marian Burros filled in for a while, and for the last couple of months it has been Amanda Hesser. Hesser is a fine writer, but she has made a mess of things, and no doubt the Times will heave a sigh of relief when a permanent successor to Mr. Grimes takes over.

Hesser got herself in trouble with a glowing, almost fawning, 3-star review of Spice Market (403 West 13th Street at 9th Avenue), the Jean-Georges Vongerichten-Gray Kunz homage to Asian street food that’s the latest rage in the trendy meatpacking district. Well, it turns out that JGV wrote a glowing jacket blurb for Hesser’s book Cooking for Mr. Latte. It is safe to say that Hesser benefited enormously from such a high-profile endorsement, and her review looks like a quid pro quo.

Bear in mind that, according to the Times, there are just five 4-star restaurants in New York City, and all of those are temples of French haute cuisine. A 3-star review of a place that sells “street food” is thus highly unusual, if not unprecedented. Coming from the Times, such a review instantly puts Spice Market at the top of the pile. To add insult to injury, Hesser failed to mention JGV’s partner, Gray Kunz, and she praised the desserts while failing to credit the pastry chef. The review mentioned Vongerichten’s name eleven times.

The embarrassed Times says it stands by the review (how could it do otherwise?) but had to issue a correction:

A restaurant review in the Dining section last Wednesday about Spice Market, on West 13th Street in Manhattan, awarded it three stars. The writer was Amanda Hesser, The Times’s interim restaurant critic. Last May, before her assignment to that post, Ms. Hesser published a book, “Cooking for Mr. Latte,” that was praised in a jacket blurb by the restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who later opened Spice Market. He wrote: “Amanda Hesser’s charming personality shines as the reader experiences the life and loves of a New York City gourmet. `Cooking for Mr. Latte’ is perfectly seasoned with sensuality and superb recipes.” The review should have disclosed that background.

Reviews of Spice Market have been mixed, which only adds to the perception—whether justified or not—that Hesser had no business awarding it three stars. (Although Hesser’s lack of disclosure may raise eyebrows, the rating is defensible. Andrea Strong praises Spice Market just as highly as Hesser did, sans conflict-of-interest. So does Hal Rubenstein in the April 19th issue of New York.)

Hesser’s problems didn’t start or end there. On February 24, she reviewed Asiate, awarding just one star. Now, from all I’ve read Asiate is an extraordinary restaurant that isn’t yet clicking on all cylinders. Nevertheless, to award just one star is practically an insult, and nothing in the review itself seemed to justify such a hard slap. She ends the review with this bon mot:

There is also the view. You sit atop an urban canyon, as the sheer cliffs of Midtown drop off into the park. From this height, the traffic below seems to glide and swirl without an ounce of contention. The pressures of city life ease a little. And for that alone, I might order a glass of sake, stay for the gougères, then feign illness and steal across Columbus Circle to Jean Georges for a meal that never disappoints.

Once again, a bouquet for Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

When not praising her favorite restauranteur, Hesser has been stripping restaurants of stars previously won. On March 17 Montrachet was demoted from three stars to two, while today Compass got the shove from two stars to one, despite the installation of a new highly regarded chef, Katy Sparks.

This passage of her Compass review showed another lapse in judgment:

A renovation is planned, and I hope it includes the service, which vacillates between comically inept and smothering. One night, I asked the waiter if he could describe the venison entree. “It’s awesome!” he said. Later, when we were having dessert, the waiter popped open a half-bottle of Bruno Paillard Champagne and began pouring.

“What did we do to deserve this?” I asked.

“It’s nothing,” he said. “I forgot to serve it to another table, and I didn’t feel like taking it back to the bar. So here you go.”

It’s pretty well known that the Times does not permit its critics to accept free food or drinks. Does Ms. Hesser really believe that the waiter was unaware whom he was serving, or the lame excuse he offered for giving her a drink she neither ordered nor paid for? Obviously the restaurant’s largesse did them no good in this instance, but why did Ms. Hesser accept it, in clear contravention of her paper’s stated policy?

And if a “renovation” is planned, why review Compass now? Given that the Times cannot re-review a restaurant very often, would it not have made considerably more sense to wait until after the rehab was complete?

Between keeping up with new openings, and cleaning up the mess Ms. Hesser has made in her brief tenure, the Times’s new restaurant critic will have his or her hands full. (Update: The Times has now announced that Frank Bruni, presently the NYT’s Rome bureau chief, will become the new restaurant critic. His first review will appear June 9th.)