If you've ever tried to get a Saturday night reservation at Spice Market in Manhattan, you know how maddeningly popular this ode to Southeast Asian street food is. Not willing to miss my callback, I once took the phone into the shower with me. (I got the table.) The restaurant certainly looks stunning: Jacques Garcia designed the soaring, Buddhist templeinspired space, and Alpana Bawa created the backless outfits the servers wear. Add to that Jean-Georges Vongerichten's delicious twists on everything from fish cakes to samosas, and it's no wonder Spice Market is still packed more than two years after opening—attracting up to 1,200 people a night.
Spice Market's fun, sexy, irreverent approach fits perfectly in New York City's hip Meatpacking District. But how might Vongerichten's reimagined Southeast Asian food play in Asia? Very well, Vongerichten hopes. He's planning to take Spice Market worldwide later this year or early next, eventually opening in Asian cities like Bangkok and Tokyo, as well as in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Vongerichten has been amazed to find how much Asians visiting New York City like Spice Market. He believes it will be just as enthralling in Singapore as it is in Manhattan.
In order to go global, Vongerichten has been codifying the Spice Market recipes, down to the gram. "Consistency is the most important thing," he says. Gregory Brainin, Vongerichten's research and development chef, spent two months fine-tuning 45 recipes. "If you're prepping 80 spring rolls a night, having a recipe that calls for one chile and two cloves of garlic is not exact enough," Vongerichten explains, describing one of his best dishes—spring rolls stuffed with lemongrass-spiked duxelles (a buttery French blend of mushrooms and shallots). Seasoning is just as important. Vongerichten's cooks are used to working with salt. "But nam pla to taste?" he asks. "How much is that?"
Which dishes is Vongerichten likely to take around the world with him? In addition to the mushroom spring rolls, he'll definitely offer his crunchy fried shrimp cakes, studded with green beans, as well as crab balls, rolled in crisp panko crumbs and sesame seeds and served with a refreshing ginger-scented grapefruit salad.
Vongerichten is astonishingly confident about spinning off Spice Market, even though the contract for his empire hasn't been signed yet. "Anytime we put a recipe from Spice Market on the menu at one of my other restaurants, anywhere in the world," he says, "that's the dish people always want to order."
Spice Market, 403 W. 13th St., New York City; 212-675-2322.