No restaurant can be all things to all people. Atlanta is blessed with diverse options, as well as a large and varied pool of diners, all looking for something different. Some of us want authenticity and value, and we're exceptionally lucky that we can have both in the city's many ethnic eateries. Some of us want glamour and style, of which there's plenty in Atlanta, as long as you're willing to give up authenticity and value.
Spice Market, in the new W Hotel on 14th Street, brings Jean-Georges Vongerichten and his take on Asian street food to Atlanta. As celebrity chefs go, few are as respected as Vongerichten, and his arrival has been highly anticipated. It may be just a fluke that Spice Market celebrates a cuisine that Atlanta is rich in, along Buford Highway and beyond. To devotees of the ultra-authentic, Spice Market will seem somewhat overwrought and overpriced. Why pay so much when the real thing is only a short drive away? If you crave authenticity, this may not be the place for you.
As for beauty and precision, Spice Market has a lot to offer. The space boasts soaring ceilings hung with wooden cages, thick ropes and golden bells. The design acrobatics, matched with an airy, Zen-like atmosphere, works somehow.
Heading up the kitchen is Atlanta chef Ian Winslade, the man responsible for Bluepointe's and Thrive's original menus. Vongerichten spent a few days at Spice Market when it opened before jetting off to one of his 17 other restaurants, but these are his dishes, and the menu is a slightly modified version of his New York establishment of the same name.
At their best, Vongerichten's creations are fully realized and meticulous compositions. He has a gift with texture that's compelling enough to keep your interest even when the flavors aren't as accomplished. A pile of shrimp coated in sticky and spicy black bean sauce contrasts with the pronounced crunch of finely diced jicama, and is offset by the dehydrated sweetness of sun-dried pineapple. The flavors are bold and complementary, but the textures make the dish special. On one visit, the pineapple was barely dried and the juiciness made the experience much less exciting.
Tuna tartare, layered with avocado, swims in a bath of ginger and yuzu, but the visual and textural interest comes from the copious pile of shaved radish that tops the dish.
The $48 tasting menu showcases the restaurant's best dishes and is a bargain by almost any standard – the menu says it's a five-course meal, but not including sides and extras, I counted seven courses. The crispy-skinned cod reminded me of the art and beauty in a perfectly cooked piece of fish, and the layer of Malaysian chili sauce under it had depth and sweet, spicy character. Kumquats make their unique sourness and citrus pith flavor known atop a chicken breast with a caramelized sugar sear.
When success eludes the kitchen, it's invariably due to uneven or underseasoning. Snapper over a medley of exotic mushrooms was strangely tasteless except for the overly salty strip of ginger, scallion and tarragon topping. The Shanghai noodles with pea shoots also suffered from a lack of flavor. Every few bites a high note of chili, garlic or the pea shoots' übergreen freshness would interject, but not with enough impact to make a lasting impression.
The fry on the crispy squid salad over papaya and frisée was pitch-perfect – brittle, crunchy, not too oily – but again, the batter and therefore squid lacked seasoning.
It's obvious that great care has been taken to hire professional waiters, but the song and dance can be intricate and laborious. Maintaining the required level of enthusiasm to match the waiter's every-five-minute "Isn't it just fabulous?!" proved tiring. Explanations are long, and the reverie shown for the great chef, his food and even his cookbook (it was toted out and shown off during one meal) is a little silly. But I encountered only one minor service blunder in all my visits, which is impressive.
If the enthusiasms of the servers are slightly ridiculous, their outfits are even more distracting. Women wear backless wrap dresses in dark eggplant. I guess the back-baring is supposed to be sexy, but I spent a whole evening trying to figure out how it's possible to work an entire shift wearing no bra. For those unwilling to go braless, the men's uniform of a stylized caftan over pajama bottoms is allowed.
Spice Market can claim one of the city's best cocktails in the beguiling sweet-and-sour kumquat mojito, which is lucky because its wine-by-the-glass selection is sparse. The full wine list is more satisfying, and carefully chosen to complement the food, although most of the exciting bottles, at $60 or more, were out of my price range.
While Spice Market may not appeal to those among us who are most passionate about Asian street food, it showcases a highly artistic brand of cooking. There are few chefs in Atlanta who think about texture, exactitude and composition in the way Vongerichten does, and none at this price point. Spice Market may not be the holy grail, but it has significantly elevated our upscale pan-Asian offerings, and what we should expect from them in the future.