Jean-Georges Vongerichten isn’t a name that rolls off the tongue of your average Londoner, yet the opening of Spice Market in the new W hotel on Leicester Square marks a return for this New York-based culinary master.
Born in Strasbourg, France, Vongerichten, 53, holds three Michelin stars for Jean Georges and runs restaurants from Las Vegas to Paris. He previously ran Vong, the Thai venue at the Berkeley Hotel from 1995 to 2003. (The space was taken over by Boxwood Cafe and now is home to Koffmann’s.)
Spice Market, which formally opened yesterday, is part of an international chain that Vongerichten is developing with W Hotels, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc.’s luxury boutique brand. He said he’s glad to be back eight years after closing Vong and he can see that the city has changed.
“It feels amazing to be back in London,” he said yesterday in an interview at Spice Market. “It was a terrific time and a lot of people miss that place and talk to me about it. Since we opened Vong, you have Nobu which opened after us, Zuma and Hakkasan. For people in London, Asian flavors are always part of the culture, more than in New York.”
The menu features dishes from across Asia, including crab dumplings, sugar-snap peas and aromatic spices; wild sea bass sashimi, green-chili condiment, pistachios and mint; pork vindaloo; wok-charred eggplant, sweet-chili glaze and peanuts; Ovaltine kulfi, banana brulee, spiced milk chocolate sauce.
“It’s more Asian than Vong was,” Vongerichten said. “Vong was French techniques, using Asian spices and flavors. Here, we’re using woks in the kitchen. The dishes come from across Asia, though Thai is still my favorite. I arrived in Bangkok in 1980: I was 23 years old and it changed my life.”
Vongerichten worked at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, having learned his craft in France at l’Auberge de l’Ill and with Paul Bocuse and Louis Outhier at l’Oasis. His restaurants now include Market, in Paris; Prime in Las Vegas; and Perry St, JoJo, Mercer Kitchen and ABC Kitchen in New York, the home of Spice Market. He also operates a Jean Georges in Shanghai.
The London Spice Market is part of Culinary Concepts by Jean-Georges, which he operates with his business partner Phil Suarez. Their involvement ranges across everything from design and concept to staff selection. Vongerichten said he spends about three weeks a month back in New York, so he’s not going to be a constant presence in London. How often will he visit?
“I go to Paris about three times a year,” he said. “I’ve had a restaurant in Paris for 10 years now. I’ll probably be in London four or five times a year, every other month: a couple of weeks for the opening and then back and forth. Sometimes I think it’s easier going to London than going to LA.”
The opening of Spice Market follows the arrival last year of Bar Boulud, brought by fellow three-Michelin-star New York chef Daniel Boulud. Beverly Hills chef Wolfgang Puck plans to open a Cut steak house at 45 Park Lane in coming months.
How about the food at Spice Market? What’s special about it for a city that already has so many Asian restaurants?
“For me, it’s about good food, good ingredients,” he said. “I’ve been cooking this food now for 30 years and I feel, how can I live without chilis any more or pepper? Food for me has to pop, and at Spice Market the food really pops.”
Spice Market, W London -- Leicester Square, 10 Wardour Street, London, W1D 6QF. Tel. +44-20-7758-1088 or click on http://www.spicemarketlondon.co.uk/.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)