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First look: Spice Market 

Jean-Georges makes his Atlanta debut

My head was starting to swim. I wanted to rip off my clothes, lie down and ... expand. I'd lost count of the courses. The menu said there were five, but I didn't realize each course might feature more than one dish. It was more like a 10-course meal. And the portions weren't small.

"Good evening," one of our servers, a young guy from the University of Virginia, said as he brought the latest course to the table. This was disconcerting. He'd been to the table at least three times before and he said "Good evening" each time he appeared. Then, after reciting the ingredients of each dish, he said, "Enjoy your meal."

This rather altering repetition only deepened the sense that our meal would never end at Spice Market, inside the new W Atlanta Midtown hotel (188 14th St., 404-549-5450). This is the zillion-dollar redo of the old Colony Square Hotel. Indeed, the culinary trance begins as soon as you enter the restaurant, which is bordered by something like a mammoth ski slope adorned by purple and blue lights that hypnotize you. The opposite wall is all windows, sheer-curtained in a saffron color that makes the arrival of dusk seem spectacular. Above are ropes and bells inside wooden cages.

This restaurant is owned by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the culinary magnate who operates restaurants around the world. He's probably best known for Jean Georges and Vong in New York. It would take several columns to reproduce the entire résumé of the native of Alsace, but suffice it to say he traveled and trained extensively in Southeast Asia, whose "street-food" flavors are featured at Spice Market. The Atlanta restaurant is one of several that will be opening in other W properties, including a new hotel in Istanbul.

I was excited about eating at Spice Market because my favorite cuisines are from Southeast Asia. On the other hand, I'd heard mixed reviews from foodie friends. One described it as unbearably spicy while others said it was bland. I was looking for flavor, not piquancy.

Vongerichten has selected one of our city's finest chefs, Ian Winslade, to run the kitchen here. Winslade came to notice at Bluepointe, then moved to Shout and, most recently, to Posh. He's a master of balancing somewhat exotic flavors, but one has to note that he's not producing his own menu here. It's basically identical to the New York Spice Market's menu. I wonder how long he'll be content.

As I indicated, we ordered the $48-per-person tasting menu, an extravagant bargain, considering the quantity of food. This is not like eating a Japanese kaiseki meal or one of Richard Blais' 30-course dinners of tiny treats. It's even heavier than the endless meal at Quinones.

For myself, I found most of the food good, although I don't think regular consumers of either the native cooking of, say Vietnam, or haute fusion cuisine are going to find the menu unusual. There are nonetheless delicious flourishes. Here's a brief rundown of the dishes that drove us slowly into a hypnotic state.

First out was a dish of grilled, black-pepper-coated shrimp over black bean sauce with diced jicama and sun-dried pineapple. Flavors: fruity, crispy, peppery, salty and fermented. I'll have another order.

Next was an almost comical stack of tempura-fried onion rings topped with sliced radishes, all served over a ripe hunk of avocado. The bottom of the plate was slathered with Chinese mustard – a surprising touch that just barely avoided absurdity.

A chicken samosa with cilantro yogurt was less impressive. The chicken filling was definitely bland and an inadequate contrast to the yogurt. The only dish of the evening I distinctly disliked was the pork satay. Maybe it would have had more depth if it had arrived with the pickled vegetables the menu said accompanied it. As served, it was little better than average.

Next was the evening's best dish – good enough that I'd return to the restaurant for it. Salmon Cha Ca La Vong was a large, meaty piece of fish, served over rice noodles in a pot with peanut broth infused, I believe, with chilies and perhaps some fish sauce. (Normally, this dish is made with halibut.) Our server, after bidding us good evening, explained that the dish is named after a famous Hanoi restaurant favored by Vongerichten.

The fish course was accompanied by a large plate of baby corn and broccoli. Neither vegetable is among my favorites – does baby corn ever taste like anything on its own? – but lemongrass and chilies perked up the dish.

The meal could have ended here and we would have still felt overfed. But next was a meat course – sliced, grilled chicken topped with a kumquat-lemongrass dressing. The ripe kumquats, cut into halves, were deliciously sour and juicy over the tender, blackened chicken. This was served with a plate of "ginger-fried rice," one of the evening's more picturesque dishes. Imagine a heap of rice topped by a huge egg cooked sunny-side up. Now coat the white of the egg in browned ginger and garlic. It's a beautiful sight. Our server, before bidding us to enjoy our meal, broke up the egg and mixed it with the rice. Delicious, although the flavor of the garlic was far stronger than the ginger's.

Finally, two desserts. One was "Ovaltine kulfi" with a caramelized banana, whipped cream and candied popcorn. The other was a something like chilled coconut soup with coconut granitas topped by candied fruit. I liked the latter most.

I have one warning. If you use the valet parking of the hotel, the restaurant will validate your ticket. We parked in the Colony Square portion of the complex and had to pay full price for parking. Moreover, we had a major expedition to get to the hotel, since doors linking it to Colony Square had been locked.

One final warning: Prepare to have your fashion sense, even if it's as primitive as mine, shocked by the servers' uniforms. Oy! Go and see for yourself.

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