Back on the Road to Southeast Asia

WHEN Spice Market opened its doors in the fleetly evolving whirl of Manhattan’s meatpacking district in early 2004, it was something else: the Asian mega-restaurant reclaimed from fatuous gaudiness; a theme park, yes, but an unusually classy one in which the cooking reflected nearly as much thought as the lighting.
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Spice Market

Other kitchens around town had done the spring rolls, satays, chicken wings, laksas and curries that Spice Market cunningly recast as high-gloss “street food,” but few had shown them as much respect. Spice Market 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.

There are Spice Markets at this point in Atlanta, Istanbul and Doha, Qatar. That may be good for the residents of those places. But it’s not such a happy turn for the residents of this one, left with a Spice Market considerably less enjoyable than at the start, when it received three stars in The Times from Amanda Hesser. 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.

And it’s a testament to the frustrating career of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who set Spice Market in motion and maintains the designation — spelled out on the restaurant’s menu — of owner and chef. (The chef de cuisine, since about nine months ago, is Anthony Ricco.)

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.

And while it runs the one here efficiently, making sure that the sleekly costumed servers seat diners on time and get them their first rounds of drinks promptly, it bungles finer points. All my recent meals were spasmodically paced. And at one of them, a companion sat down to a place setting at which the empty bowl had some other diner’s leftover rice still stuck to it. It wasn’t a huge deal, but it was a clumpy little metaphor for the restaurant’s need to pay more attention.

Spice Market’s bearings, the structure of its menu and many of its dishes are pretty much unchanged from the early days.

The restaurant transports you to Southeast Asia, touching down in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and India. It envelops you in the flavors and perfumes of those lands — in lemon grass, ginger, galangal, coconut, Thai basil. And it celebrates the sweet heat of the region’s cooking. Mr. Vongerichten has long been fascinated by the ways he can make sugary and fiery notes snuggle, joust or play tag-team with one another.

Although the restaurant presents a dozen relatively conventional entrees, it emphasizes appetizers, salads, soups and sides for sharing. And on a menu with nearly 50 dishes in all, there are winners.

On the night my friends and I got the chicken samosas, we liked them so much we insisted on a second order. The meat inside was moist, the pastry shell was crisp and the cilantro yogurt with them was a tart, cool breeze. That same night we had “silken tofu” that fully lived up to its name and came with a dressing that wickedly, pointedly distilled all the flavors of pad Thai. And our gorgeous steamed red snapper eliminated any doubt that Spice Market’s kitchen has ample skill.

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