It takes a special kind of openhearted restaurant critic to see "Tuna and Wasabi" pizza on a menu and keep her cynicism under control. At Spice Market, Jean-Georges Vongerichten's first Atlanta project in the W Midtown hotel, the menu focuses on Asian street food and avoids frivolity like wasabi pizza. But at Market, Vongerichten's second Atlanta venture, it's as if the chef and his staff are aiming to see exactly how far they can push our discombobulation. As I sat and stared at Market's menu for the first time, I realized it was gonna take a lot of celebrity chef magic to overcome fusions this silly.
The theme of confusion begins as soon as you exit the bar area (which is basically the lobby of the new W Buckhead hotel) and funnel through the restaurant's claustrophobic entrance. Step out of the tiny wooden passageway and into a room that hides its largeness around curved walls and partitions. Designer hot shot Karim Rashid created the interior, which consists of amoeba-shaped recesses lit with neon-colored lights, and large, screen-saver-esque-lined walls that could be accurately described as trippy. It's hard to get a handle on the space and how it's put together, and therefore hard to decide how to feel about it.
The same is true for the menu. Tomato soup with sourdough and cheddar is followed by truffle pizza, with a detour for sashimi spring rolls before going back to crab cakes and then into the more solidly Asian-influenced entrees. Maybe it's stodgy of me to ask, but Why? Why throw all these things together on a menu? Just to see if you can?
Of course, if anyone can, Vongerichten can. As one might expect of a chef with a reputation for exactitude and high standards, most of the execution is flawless. This means expertly cooked pieces of fish – a slow-cooked salmon that melts on the tongue; red snapper so delicate it brings to mind flower petals. The execution, overseen here by Ian Winslade (who also acts as chef at Spice Market), is damn near perfect. A pork chop is grilled and coated with a smoky chili glaze, all the components seasoned just right, heat and garlic meeting meat for an explosive tango of flavor. But the accompanying asparagus and shiitake mushrooms dressed with beurre blanc and a hint of tarragon are completely overpowered. Why put this classically French-tasting (and beautifully prepared) combination of delicate flavors next to a chili bomb?
Sometimes the fusion doesn't even make it into the "good idea/weird juxtaposition" realm. A warm asparagus salad, which according to the menu comes with hollandaise sauce and truffle vinaigrette, was nothing like the classic elegant salad I'd imagined. Instead, a large plate of romaine lettuce bears a fan of avocado and a few sticks of asparagus smothered in a huge glop of spicy goo I assume was supposed to be hollandaise. There was no hint of truffle, and if there had been, it would've clashed horribly.
And what of that wasabi pizza? I'd love to say it chastened me, changed my mind about the nature of outlandish fusions, put me in my place. Alas, it did nothing of the kind. The base of wasabi paste covered in warmish raw tuna did nothing to convert me to the Japanese/Italian cause.
Dishes with more purity of heart fare better. That salmon swims in a miso-yuzu broth, and is punctuated by ginger, soft tofu, and lovely pops of sweet cherry tomatoes. As out of place as pizza seems on the menu, the truffle and fontina cheese version, topped with a vinegary frisse salad, hits all the right earthy notes, although I found the crust a tad sweet.
There are also some undeniably cool dishes, such as the warm goat cheese custard appetizer, which pairs a creamy custard with sweet diced beets, pistachios and a more musky and astringent goat cheese foam. While not completely harmonious, the dish channels the Vongerichten ability to have us rethink textures and flavors, to focus on our food. It's both a sensual and a cerebral experience.
Chef Winslade and general manager A.D. Allushi find themselves a couple of blocks south of Bluepointe, where they both made their names as masters of the trendy Asian-influenced restaurant, and both seem very much at home at Market. Allushi's service team ranges from fine-dining pros to fresh-from-the-diner sweethearts, and hiccups are handled swiftly and professionally.
There's no doubt that Vongerichten and Winslade have the chops to put out highly stylized, perfectly executed food. Prices, for this level of dining, are fairly reasonable. And Market, with all its discombobulation, is a lot of fun. But to get the best of what's offered here, stick with the dishes that stay in one hemisphere.
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