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Under a veneer of chic that nearly scared us away,
we found Thai food for those who're squeamish about Thai food,
that was a great value, to boot!

We dine out in New York City at least once a week. An old standby is the destination of choice on the first and third Monday of each month. The other Mondays, and the once- or twice-monthly additional trips are adventures; the destinations chosen by yours truly.

The block on the West side of Second Avenue between 73rd and 74th Streets is where one can find Turkish (2), Burmese, Iranian, Chinese/Sushi and Thai (2) restaurants competing for the business of the discriminating upper-east-side clientele. One of our good friends and regular dining companions is a gentleman who has been a denizen of this neighborhood for over fifteen years, and has seen places come and go; some good, some awful. We end up in this neighborhood often because it is one of the neighborhoods in which I have the best luck finding either free parking (on a side street) or at least an available meter.
 

A choice made to address myriad, diverse needs

A little background about my fellow diners. What our well-traveled, erudite friend craves is the exotic, the unique. What my wife craves is spicy food. Both have in common the need for healthy food. Their meals of choice include things like tofu, fish, myriad raw or slightly-cooked vegetables. The only "meat" not considered dangerous by either is chicken. Their idea of the ideal starch is brown rice. My idea of health food is more like "health for the taste buds food:" Caesar salad; a well-marbled steak (not some wimpy filet mignon) with no less than a pint of Bearnaise sauce to accompany it; and a plate full of Idaho's finest, boiled and then beaten to a pudding, loaded with butter and a fillip of heavy cream.

Pangs of longing washed over me as I drove by a favorite Italian spot, then a well-known steak house. When I lit my third cigarette in a row and then voiced out loud my yen for "something to raise my blood triglyceride to dangerously high levels" both wifey and our friend groaned out loud. But after having put these two individuals through their version of culinary hell not once, but three times in the past two months, I reconsidered, and waxed angelic. "Say, sweetie, would you like to eat Thai food today?" I asked, in an Academy Award winning voice. The overwhelmingly positive response I received assured me that a) I wouldn't sleep on the couch tonight, and b) I could also probably get my "okay, you can go to the bakery and get whatever you want without me lecturing you" card punched, as well.

I noticed Spice Uptown Restaurant one recent afternoon having eaten at the Turkish place two doors down. Someone had obviously spent a bit of money on the decor, and the clean, uncluttered look of the place appealed to me. But that particular afternoon, I retreated, repulsed, as quickly as would Martha Stewart from a bed made with fewer than 200-thread-count linens as soon as I spotted the words "Thai Cuisine" on the menu displayed out front.
 

A troubled start

We were the first to arrive. The time was about 11:45 a.m. Our senses were overwhelmed with sights, smells and, above all, sounds. The tables of this handsome restaurant were polished stainless steel. Some of the chairs were standard restaurant chairs, the ones in the bar were cheap '60s-retro-looking plastic. The bar surface was stainless steel also. Lighting was from wall-mounted industrial-looking metal fixtures, neon cove lights behind light-colored leatherette banquettes cast an eery blue glow on the walls. In the middle of the dining room was a very peculiar looking lighting fixture consisting of cords coming from a central core, and hung in a circle, terminating with bare (also clear; revealing their filaments) light bulbs hanging at different lengths. Kinda like an industrial-pop medusa with lightbulbs. About two dozen lovely one-gallon glass apothecary jars with glass tops, filled with all different kinds of what were ostensibly spices, lined two white shelves at one side of the dining room. Sadly, the designer forgot these, leaving them in a very unappealing shadow. (Peculiar for being the key visual link to the name of the restaurant; this would be a really cool tool for customer top-of-mind-recall; but this writeup is not a course in marketing). I looked; there were no spotlights nor other fixtures that had been forgotten to be switched on by the staff.

Some sort of techno-industrial music with a touch of trance mixed in was blasting from a cheap sound system. Mind you, I have nothing against any of the three aforementioned genres. The problem was with the room. There wasn't a thing (beside the cushions on the banquette seating) in the whole place that would effectively absorb any of this noise. So the resulting soundwaves-bouncing-around-helter-skelter effect was neither trendy nor cool. It was cacaphony. I suggested that perhaps it would be turned down once other diners enter. Our friend was not so patient. He approached the bartender and demanded firmly that the noise be turned down. I cringed.
 

Okay, so you don't eat ambience

Once seated, our efficient waitress (who looked like a Benetton model) brought large glasses of ice water and asked for drink orders. I was driving; my peppermint tea was brought in a lovely cast-iron teapot (the better to keep it warm). Wifey's Merlot was serviceable. Our friend had a Thai beer; Singha, I think.

The menu was very, very appealing. All the Thai standards were well-represented. The luncheon menu offered entrees at between $7 and $9, and included one's choice of "free" appetizer, as well. We ordered off of the dinner menu (which was also presented). The appetizer choices were abundant. I made a mental note that if I re-visit this place for dinner, it would be cool to just sit at the bar and graze on appetizers while trying something tropical from the appealing, innovative list of martinis and coolers. The pair of Thai-o-philes ordered their usual sour shrimp soup "Tom Yum Ka," papaya salad, and two different chicken curries. The Tom Yum Ka was not the firey broth served by authentic Thai places; it had rich seafood flavor, fresh tomato and other veggies and was hot; but not for heat's sake, the chili was flavorful and pleasant. The papaya salad was light, very fresh, and far from the vinegary mess I'd become accustomed to. But all this lightness and finesse was lost on my wife and friend. They longed for the real thing; not Thai "dumbed-down" for the Occidental palate.

I chose to make a meal of appetizers. Beef Satay was done to a turn, and the addition of tamarind sauce and a little sesame oil to the usual peanut-buttery sauce made it lighter and more delicious. Curry Puffs were just that; incredibly flaky pastry containing a lovely potato-chicken mixture that was tasty enough on its own, and just made better by the sweet-and-sour cucumber "salsa" with red onion served on the side.  Shrimp "Martini" were six jumbo shrimp arranged in a huge martini glass, resting on their sauce and a bit of mesclun greens. Rather than batter-coated; these shrimp were expertly wrapped in thin, crispy spring roll pastry, and were a delight. An unusual dish of pristinely-fresh calamari, fried lightly and nearly grease-free, were served heaped in a bowl with a marvelous sauce that was sweet and hot and salty all at once; a home run, in my book.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the taste of the curries ordered by my companions, they complained that the sauce was a) too sweet, and b) not spicy enough.

We passed on dessert because the only thing that didn't involve ice cream was a chocolate cake with banana chips; and I just wasn't in the mood after consuming a pretty substantial meal. Hot Thai coffee wasn't an option; for some reason, one could only get it iced.

This luncheon (which really was a dinner) cost a mere $68 after tax; inexpensive as New York restaurants go; and dirt-cheap in comparison to the other restaurants in the ritzy upper-east-side neighborhood. I plan on returning, if only to graze through the myriad sauces and tasty tidbits that pleased me this time around. I made a note to myself, however, to wear something Armani, and get wifey something from Express to don for our next visit. Albeit a value-priced destination, the other patrons, not to mention the waitstaff and manager, were dressed to kill. My dockers and button-down Oxford and wifey's Talbot's sweater and skirt made us stand out like a pair of sore thumbs.
 

Postscript

Upon returning home to write this, I jumped on the restaurant's website. Very well done, and easy to navigate, it was nonetheless trying so hard to be hip, not unlike the staff at the restaurant. Photos of the other restaurants revealed decor even wilder than that of their uptown locale. The Williamsburg, Brooklyn facility piqued my interest - I must visit if only to experience the nearly round-bottomed white chairs, which appeared as if one must perch upon them just so in order to avoid falling over. There's another restaurant in the nouveau gay ghetto on Eighth Avenue between 19th and 20th street. Two other restaurants in artsy, semi-upscale locations downtown complete the assortment. There's a Chinese restaurant on the upper west side named "Spice" also, but, according to reviews, has nothing in common with these locations but for its name. (I wonder how they got away with it?)

I was, by the way, made self-conscious yet again by our dining companion, who took out his latest techno-gadget, a Sony disc video recorder I'd bought him last year. He'd just gotten the hang of using it, and takes it with him wherever he goes, typically shooting stills instead of video. The same bartender he'd accosted earlier was now speaking firmly to him, stating that "New York City law says you can't take pictures inside of a store." A call to a friend in the business in New York confirmed my suspicion; there's no such law. I'd hazard a guess that the manager merely didn't want any pictorial record of the Electrical Code violation that was the Medusa-with-bare-bulbs affair in the main dining room (come to think of it, I've never in my life seen so much cord end in a single connection box, absent the proper rubber escutcheons, no less).

Finally, back to the website. There's a section entitled "Eating a Thai Meal" which insists that socializing is an important part of the Thai dining experience, and that food is brought out much later; all at once. Our food came out helter-skelter, the soups coming not as a first course, but parallel to the entrees. The pacing of the meal wasn't that rapid; but as soon as we turned down the offerings on the dessert menu, the check appeared, as if from thin air. On the site was also a paragraph on the importance of copious amounts of rice - a tradition. I thought it funny that the tiny bowls of rice we requested set us back $1 apiece, and weren't included with the meal. It certainly wasn't the cost that riled me; just the principle of the thing.

Jack mentioned that the node title might better be Spice as the subject of this writeup is one of a local chain. Their website applies to, and provides information about, all of them.


SOURCES:

  • The Spice Restaurant Group's oh-so-hip website: www.spicenyc.net

Various New York Online "Guides:"

  • http://cititour.com/NYC_Eats/listings/view_details.php?eats_id=2558
  • http://www.menupages.com/restaurantdetails.asp?areaid=3&restaurantid=5957&neighborhoodid=0&cuisineid=0

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