Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the New York superchef by way of Alsace, France is unarguably one of the most acclaimed chefs in the world, with restaurants across the globe in London, Paris, Shanghai, Las Vegas, and of course, New York, where the flagship of his empire, the 3 Michelin Star eponymous Jean Gorges restaurant sits atop the Trump Hotel overlooking Central Park.
Spice Market in the W Hotel near Leicester Square is in fact Vongerichten's second stab at the London market, following a failed and rather short-lived attempt to mimic the success of his (now shuttered) New York City Vietnamese fine dining venue Vong, with an identically entitled establishment at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge.
Spice Market, on paper at least, would seem to follow a similar template to Vong - it, once again, comes to us on the back of a well-established, same-name New York City restaurant, and also draws from the cuisine of the East, this time citing the street food of South East Asia as its inspiration. Clearly, if Vongerichten has learned anything from his previous London endeavour, it will have had to have been below the surface.
I must confess, I always approach upmarket pan-Asian restaurants such as Spice Market with a degree of skepticism - having been born and raised in Malaysia, I know only too well the great delights of the region's street food, and also that it's the kind of food that doesn't transport well out of its natural habitat - the street. Add to that the fact that most of these street food vendors spend a lifetime, generations even, perfecting just one dish, and Spice Market serves not just one speciality dish, or even fare from just one country, but rather from the entire region, and you begin to understand where my doubts arise from. Nevertheless, I endeavoured to keep an open mind on my visit.
The decor and ambience at Spice Market is right on the money. The room is cool and chic, yet cosy and welcoming - the booth where the four of us were parked for the night surprisingly homely; the atmosphere buzzy but not too loud; the service friendly, personable and not in the least bit too formal.
We went for the tasting menu - £48 for ten courses, with dishes served "family style", i.e. for sharing. The first set of dishes to arrive, which I guess we can term the appetisers were:
Shaved Tuna, Chilli Tapioca, Asian Pear and Lime
Lobster Summer Roll, Sriracha Emulsion
Spiced Chicken Samosas, Coriander Yoghurt
Charred Chilli Rubbed Beef Skewer, Thai Basil Dipping Sauce
The first dish I tried was the tuna, and I was very pleasantly surprised. Cold and refreshing with a touch of spice, this was a delicately balanced, unusual preparation that actually worked, and hinted at the promise and potential that might exist in a kitchen with access to all the wonderful and varied flavours that make up Asian cuisine. Perhaps I was wrong about Spice Market after all.
I eagerly sampled the next of the starters, the lobster summer roll, clearly a slight variation on the perennial Vietnamese favourite...and it didn't take long to bring me right back down to earth. The use of thick, firm chunks of lobster rather than the more common thinly sliced prawns, served no purpose other than to inflate the price of the dish, and to diminish one its key qualities - its soft, pillowy nature. Couple that with the far-too-sour, jelly-like substance that could also be found in the filling, and we were left with a reinvention of a classic that fell several rungs below the original on which it was based.
Things went from bad to worse with the samosas which were insufficiently crisp, overly stuffed and lacking in flavour - never mind the very agreeable version recently enjoyed at Roti Chai, go into any random Indian takeaway anywhere in the country and I suggest you would have a more than even chance of finding a better version there. As it turned out, that wasn't even the worse of the starters - I had unwittingly left that for last - the beef skewer had a weird texture, and again, lacked any real taste, be it a nice char, or a bit of spice, both of which one might not unreasonably be entitled to expect from a "Charred Chilli Rubbed Beef Skewer", I dare say.
The next set of dishes featured:
Cod with Malaysian Chilli Sauce, Thai Basil
Baby Corn and Broccoli, Lemongrass, Chilli
Char Grilled Chicken, Kumquat Lemongrass Dressing
Ginger Fried Rice
And unfortunately, things did not get any better. The cod was said to showcase a "Malaysia Chilli Sauce" - now I'm Malaysian born and bred, but I certainly did not recognise the sauce. My best guess is that it was an attempt at a "sambal" or chilli and curry paste - if that was indeed what it was, then it was an incredibly poor approximation of the real thing. Authenticity aside, this was also the third consecutive dish with a "blandness problem" - never a good thing.
The baby corn and broccoli tasted like a typical Chinese vegetable dish in oyster sauce, with nary a hint of the advertised chilli, or lemongrass. The char grilled chicken actually had a char to it, and that in itself marked it down as one of the better dishes on this night, so low had the bar been set by what preceded it. It also had a reasonably appetising sauce, sort of like a Malaysian "kerabu", a sweet sour salad, dish but even on this relatively successful plate, the flaws were all too apparent - the lack of balance in the flavours making for a far too intense (sour) experience.
Finally, the ginger fried rice, and arguably the worse indictment yet of the restaurant's lack of expertise with (Asian) cooking. Many a Southeast Asian dish (the Indonesian nasi goreng in particular), will feature a fried egg served on top of fried rice, a component that actually adds a great deal to the dish - the runny yolk giving the rice a lovely fresh, eggy taste and fragrance just before it is consumed. One presumes that was the same effect the chef here was endeavouring to achieve, but the yolk on our egg was not in the least bit runny, so when mixing it with the rice, as we were advised by our server to do, all we were doing was mixing in a dry omelette, which hardly had the same effect. That wasn't even the worse of it either - the fried rice was...clumpy! Has no one told the New York superchef that rice needs to be boiled then left to stand for a few hours for the moisture to dissipate before it can be fried?! More than anything else, this was an unfathomable, and unforgivable misstep.
Proceedings were concluded with two dessert offerings:
Ovaltine Kulfi Banana Brulée, Spiced Milk Chocolate Sauce
Thai Jewels and Fruits, Crushed Coconut Ice
In a nutshell...
Of the 10 dishes that made up the tasting menu, only one warranted an above average score. The tuna aside, everything else was either improperly composed, un-balanced, under flavoured, ineptly prepared or a combination of all four. The food was abundant, with none of the minuscule portions that frequently pervade tasting menus; and for that the restaurant deserves to be commended, although at a whopping £48 a pop it was still far from good value. Given the success of the New York original, I can only presume that the London outlet was a very poor replica. Otherwise, the success of the Spice Market brand is completely beyond me. It says here that the London Spice Market will soon be going the way of Vong. And if Jean-Georges was ever to consider a third attempt at running a successful London outlet, may I suggest that he spares us anymore of these woefully inadequate Asian-themed restaurants and sticks to what he knows best by bringing over his flagship French restaurant.
W Hotel, 10 Wardour Street, London, W1D 6QF
Average Price: £40-£50