Spice Market is in the flashy W Hotel near Leicester Square, and is outlet of the Jean Georges Vonvichteren restaurant empire, whose flagship restaurant is in New York. I am old enough to remember eating at Vong, Jean-Georges first London venture, which was in the Berkeley hotel in what later became the Boxwood Café and is now Koffmanns. Spice Market has a downstairs bar with the main dining room upstairs. The décor is very smart and modern, with an open kitchen, banquettes and assorted shelves with spices, and a brass spiral staircase leading up to the dining room.
There was a lunch menu for £18 and a tasting menu for £48, in addition to the a la carte. The wine list was quite extensive: the excellent Bonny Doon Cigare Volant 2006 was £73 for a wine that retails at around £19 and the lovely Alion 2006 was £139 for a wine that you may find for £42 if you look hard, while Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2004 was £288 for a wine that will set you back about £91 in the shops. We drank Weinbach Cuvee Theo Riesling at £64 for a wine that retails at about £23.
As we looked at the menu some popadoms arrived with spicy tomato-based chutney. These popadoms were very good indeed, crisp and well-made, with lively and well-balanced chutney. It is easy to take popadoms for granted, yet there is a gulf between the really good ones (such as those at Haandi in London and here) and the worst. The most absurd were some I had from a west London Indian place that I could actually fold in half, so soggy and pliable were they: popadom origami anyone?
Crab dumplings (£10) were rather soggy in texture, served with nicely cooked sugar snap peas and an aromatic broth, the crab flavour lost behind the strong taste of the broth (11/20). Slightly better were black pepper shrimp prawns with sun-dried pineapple (£12.50). The shrimps were a little over-cooked and the pineapple was an over-sharp contrast, but the pepper gave an interesting flavour note to the prawns and this was still an acceptable dish (12/20).
Haddock with wok-fried Chinese leaf cabbage, cucumber and water chestnut (£17) had decent enough cabbage but woefully overcooked haddock, which was very dried out (10/20). Halibut (£18) with Malaysian chilli sauce and Thai basil was the best dish of the night by a country mile. This was a well-cooked, good quality slab of fish, resting on a restrained but spicy chilli sauce that the halibut was easily able to stand up to (14/20).
On the side, green curry (£8) with vegetables had assorted vegetables (e.g. broccoli, courgette) that were barely cooked, resting in a sauce that unfortunately was overwhelmed by the flavour of basil (10/20). Lobster Pad Thai (£18) was also flawed, the noodles rather soggy, the pieces of lobster deep-fried and in several cases chewy (oddly, one piece was tender, but sadly this was the only one) – overall perhaps this was 11/20. Fried rice with ginger (£6) arrived with an egg on top, mixed in at the table by the waiter: the rice was decent, though for me the ginger was overly subtle (12/20).
Ice cream (£3) arrives in a little carton, which is all very well for presentation but distracted from the fact that the ice cream was served at far too low a temperature at the table, so could barely be cut into with a spoon. This was a pity since when eventually it warmed up enough, the mango ice cream had good taste (13/20 given the texture and temperature problem).
Service was very good indeed, led by an experienced manager who had in fact worked at the original Vong in Knightsbridge. The young staff were attentive and clearly had been thoroughly trained. Overall this felt very much like a restaurant feeling its way. Ingredient quality seemed quite good, but there were several technical problems with the execution of the dishes, and the odd dish that was not well designed. Prices are hardly low, and a meal where perhaps the best dish was the basket of popadoms suggests a kitchen that has yet to hit its stride. The best main dish (the halibut) showed that there were flashes of competence here, so perhaps this is a place to try in a few months when the kinks have been ironed out.