Thursday, 14 April 2011

Spice Market

In maybe 2005 The Piglet and I went on our first New York trip. It was filled with all the big names of the time; PastisThe Mercer Kitchen and Spice Market. The Meatpacking District was hot, Sex & The City was credible and it was a very exciting time to be in New York. I'd never heard of Jean-Georges though, even though the latter two places are his.

I remember thinking how exotic and louche Spice Market felt back then. The opulent bar area, the sweeping staircase, the B-list celebs we spotted. But the cynicism of hindsight has me envisaging a Busaba, remembering the food as style over substance, and the family-style sharing 'concept' (vomit) as lazy.

rib eye with coriander sauce
So here we are in London, 2011. Spice Market has opened on the ground floor of the new W Hotel in Leicester Square. A natural bedfellow perhaps.

Immediately you can tell it's been pared back. No recession here, but the decor is much less ethnic, more urbane and restrained, and where there are flourishes, such as the mirrored tiles, they hark more to North Africa or the Middle East than Southeast Asia. I suppose those places have spices and bazaars too...

The service is quite rushed, even though you aren't personally. It's because there are hundreds of staff, tearing around in their ridiculously ugly red outfits, making the place feel a bit more like a tube station than a somnolent lounge. But they're attentive and friendly, and seemingly from all corners of the earth, which is interesting. Our cocktails were great - we sampled the Ginger Margarita (£11), Passion Fruit Whisky Sour (£10) and some fancy sangria (£8) - pretty steep, but well made and presented.
pork satay
The Pork Satay (£8) was the perfect starter. It was very generous, nicely seasoned and well cooked, with a softness and moistness yet nicely charred. No peanut/satay sauce though, which was a shame. But easy to share, possibly the only dish here which was...

black pepper squid with sliced pineapple

shaved tuna with chilli tapioca, like caviar!
Salt & Pepper squid (£9) was served with a yuzu dip, and highly praised, as was the slightly more Chinese Black Pepper Squid (£12.50).

The Piglet braved the Shaved Tuna (£12.50) from the Raw menu, and said it was delicious, although it came about 15 minutes after all the cooked starters. A little odd, and as we weren't sharing much (!), meant that he ate alone.

The fish mains were a hit. The Halibut (£18) with Malaysian chilli sauce was not too hot for our Scottish friend. The Crispy Salt & Pepper Brill (£18) tasted fresh, and whilst not as crunchy as I might like my tempura, wasn't too fishy (for me) and the lime dipping sauce was smooth, tangy and made the whole dish work very well.

crispy brill
The meats were less successful. The Onion and Chilli Crusted Beef Short Ribs (£18) served with noodles were actually in a potentially very messy noodle soup. How on earth a soup is shared 'family-style' with no bowls provided, I don't know! The beef is intended to be shredded off, and an unwieldy implement like a giant claw is provided for this. The meat itself was quite fatty and not that satisfying. Maybe I was unlucky with the ribs, but they shouldn't be 80% fat. The noodles in the fragrant, five spice-y soup were great though, and the only solid carbs provided with a main.

The Grilled Rib Eye with garlic, coriander and sesame (£24) was a better piece of meat, but not that memorable.

The wine list was interesting, predictably with a steep drop-off. We had a bottle of Oregon A-Z Pinot Noir (£48) which we encountered at The Mark restaurant in New York and it was great to see again. So light and easy to drink, it worked well with the Asian food I would normally have beer with.

All in all, Spice Market seems as frenetic, schizophrenic and desperately aspirational as it did in 2005. Every corner of 'the orient' is dutifully covered off, and it seems so un-exotic shoulder to shoulder with the dodgiest of Chinatown joints (as opposed to The Meatpacking District theme park). And I'm sorry, but the family-style service strikes me as a convenient excuse to not have to synchronise dishes. Noodle soups aren't easily shared across a table!

beef short ribs in noodle soup - try sharing this...

Special mention to the delicious and sweet little £3 ice creams and sorbets, in their own mini US-takeway containers. The Passion Fruit sorbet is really something special. The cookie bag (£6.50) was laughable, and you'd get better on Virgin Trains. That sort of thing is better left to Heston...

There is some good cooking here, and the bar area is worth a revisit for some snacks and cocktails (you do feel a million miles away from the migraine of Leicester Square), but the food is inconsistent and a little shaky. Maybe things might stabilise once the dust settles and the whole vibe calms down a little.

Food – 7/10
Drink – 8/10
Service – 7/10 (family concept aside, service was good)
Value – 6/10 (bill almost £250 - not cheap at all)
Tap water tales – 9/10 (numerous top ups from an iced jug)
Staff Hotness – 4/10 (they all looked a bit comical in their red get-ups)

Spice Market
10 Wardour Street, W1

Spice Market on Urbanspoon


  1. I found it a bit hit and miss too. I want more for my money - not one I'm hurrying back to. The one in New York looks more spectacular too, I think.

  2. Did you see MOL in the Metro this morning, in complete agreement! Good sign, as she's always spot on, but this does seem to be quite consensual.

    She even hated the beef and loved the ice creams too...