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Spice Market London: Style or Substance?

The W London Hotel has arrived at Leicester Square on the V Day and with it came Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s London outpost of Spice Market, the restaurant much raved about in NYC’s Meatpacking District. What’s to expect? Hip black-gold-contrast interior design. There is a well-stacked bar and an elegant sushi bar on the ground floor and the bustling dining room with two open-plan kitchens on the first floor. Yes, if you are booked on 1st, you may expect the heat and the fragrance of spice! Personally, I do like the decor but dining at the ground floor bar and overlooking Special Zone 1997 and Four Seasons Restaurant sort of undermined the exclusivity of being at this ‘hip’ venue. Unfortunately, photography is forbidden and I was too slow to snap a decent shot…

I should perhaps add I was offered some press images but I simply couldn’t be arsed to wait as those images will turn up elsewhere anyway. My focus is only on the FOOD!!!

The menu? It reminds me a bit of Asia de Cuba but bolder and more interesting. In case you haven’t heard of Spice Market, this is a Pan Asian restaurant, meaning dishes of many Asian origins – Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indian, etc. – are the features. The menu, with a bit of some gastronomic facelifts from its NYC original, is extensive, ranging from Spice Market signature dishes of Shaved Tuna with Tapioca Chilli to new creations for the London crowd. Dishes, yes, dishes are caught between the revival of great Asian tradition to the new, somewhat exciting innovation. And the price? Well, comparing and contrasting the NYC with the London menu, dishes are similarly priced. Unfortunately, they differ in the currency suffix. If you pay 16US$ for a Pork Vindaloo in NYC, you’ll be paying £16 for the same dish in London. Same and similarly shocking pricing philosophy as Bar Boulud, I must add.

We started with the freebie of popadom served with kasundi. The crispy popadom was lovely and the kasundi was even lovelier! There was this intense mellow sweetness of the tomato coming through first and then – boom! – the after kick of chilli jam. This was, to me, bold flavours rightly balanced and definitely one of the most memorable taste of my lunch.

(1) Lobster Summer Roll with Sriracha Emulsion
This is a Vietnamese spring roll – was the term “summer” just a word play on this? – of meaty lobster, finely sliced carrot, salad leaves, vermicelli and lime jelly. It was served with mild Sriracha emulsion, which for those familiar with Thai food, was a style of heated, slightly vinegar-y chilli sauce. The dish was fairly large for a starter. Flavour-wise, it was almost fresh with the tangy bitterness seeping through from the lime jelly. The emulsion was not strong enough and did not do much.

(2) Frisee and Papaya Salad, Cashew and Ginger
If you’re looking for a Thai papaya salad, you’re not in luck ordering this. The salad here, instead of being that of raw, grated papaya, was predominatly leafy with sweet, cashew, ginger and sesame dressing. Quite fragrant. So, where did the papaya come in? There were mini scoops of ripe papaya – yes, ripe! – which seemed redundant to the already decent salad. It struck me as a dish that tried to be “hip” or something it was not.

(3) Shaved Tuna with Chilli Tapioca, Asian Pear and Lime
This dish was inclined to being innovative. Ribbons of super fresh tuna fillet was submerged in chilled and perfumed coconut broth. It was also a sweet dish but with a varying degree of sweetness – from the broth and from the refreshing, cleaner kind of sweetness from the pear. The light lime flavour added fragrance and well undercut the overall sweetness. At times, this stuck me as a sweet Asian version of Ceviche but more pleasant. The chilli tapioca was full of bounce but mild. It was the chilli oil that privided extra dimension, not the tapioca itself. So, where did the tuna come in? As much as I heart the broth, I felt it was so good and so flavoursome that it overpowered the delicate tuna. What I could taste was the textute of the tuna rather than the flavour itself. Shame, as from those many bites, I could tell it was such good quality!

(4) Charred Chilli Rubbed Beef Skewer with Thai Basil Dipping Sauce
This was, indeed, a starter dish but I was advised to have it after the tuna dish, a highly reasonable suggestion. The high quality beef was minced, perfectly seasoned, stuffed in probably some intestine and then chargrilled to a mouth-watering aroma. There was a mild offal – but not aw-ful – taste to it, which I loved. That said, I found the basil sauce quite lime-y, salty and bitter, which didn’t work to enhance the beautiful beef that well. I might be an old-school bore but I felt this could have been perfect with only a wedge of lime!

(5) Pork Vindaloo
If the tuna was Spice Market’s innovative highlight, the pork vindaloo must be the cornerstone of Spice Market’s rework of the great Indian tradition. Vindaloo is a Goan curry dish renowned for its delectable heat. Rumour has it that the dish actually originated in Portugal but was modified with a substitution of vinegar to wine for cooking in Mumbai. This version was quite dry with the saltiness hitting first, then the mild natural sweetness from the pork and lastly the mother of all heat from the chilli paste. I eat a lot of spicy food but this seriously got me so teared up I could spit fire any minute. It’s like a masochistic dish. I also died but I kept eating it until the pot was cleaned. So f**king amazing! The pork was tender enough and the ribbons of mooli and the deep fried basil leaves and deep fried garlic slices added fragrace of the street and the extra texture to it. If one was to capture the essence of “Spice Market”, this would probably be “it”. I must also add, the dish was served with either a choice of brown rice or jasmine rice, and despite being carb conscious, I finished my bowl of brown rice. Gosh! Finishing the dish, I was having a chat with my server and learning this was rated as “medium spicy” at Spice Market. I am so keen to try their “spiciest” dish.

Desserts? Too bad, my other bib had to rush back to work and we didn’t have enough time for desserts. Probably some other times? Overall, this is a good restaurant in a good setting. But, there’s a little too much style over substance for my liking, save that Pork Vindaloo. In short, I’m not totally sold to Spice Market.

Before I finish off the post, I must admit this is probably the smoothest restaurant opening day I have been to. My server was knowledgeable, engaging and competent. The dishes came at the right timing and the ambiance was mostly pleasant — well, except for the American next to us who talked as if he was a caricature of his whole nation and couldn’t help peeping at our dishes and constantly asked, “What’s that?”.

“That’s my meal, alright, and could you just piss off!!??”

Enough said,

My head rating says, “7 out of 10″.

My heart rating says, “6 out of 10″.


Ground Floor
W London Hotel
10 Wardour Street
Leicester Square

Tel. 020 7758 1088

Spice Market on Urbanspoon


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    • I usually don’t have faith in a Pan Asian kitchen either but there’s something special about this one. So far it lives up to its name and popularity in NYC. But, damned pricy compared to the HQ one!! Do ping me back if you try it at last. I’m keen to have a look at desserts!!!

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