When around the world is around the corner

All the dish: when around the world is around the corner

Brad Goldfarb

For reasons as much to do with school calendars as with weather, summer is the season we tend to associate most with getting away. Of course, for many of us, a summertime adventure to some exotic destination may be more an ideal than a reality, but there are other ways to see the world than getting on an airplane. No city better demonstrates this than New York, where a simple walk around the corner can offer the sights, smells, and sounds of the big, complicated world–to say nothing of its taste. With that in mind, I went in search of a few Manhattan restaurants where the combined impact of food, setting, and ambiance has the power to transport you far, far away. Happy trails.

SPICE MARKET

403 W. 13th St., 212-675-2322

When a restaurant is as hyped–and as difficult to get into–as Spice Market is, it’s tempting to dismiss it as a purely publicist-driven creation. Do so, however, and you risk missing one of the most consistently transportive dining experiences the city has to offer. The latest from uber-chef and restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Spice Market offers a fantasist’s conception of Southeast Asian street food; and while that may mean items on the menu have little or no bearing on what you might find while actually roaming around Bangkok or Borneo, the sense of adventure is nonetheless palpable. The same can be said for the setting. With its intricately carved balustrades, sweeping silk lanterns, and individual teak stalls, Spice Market’s expansive, two-story space is graced with an unexpected air of intimacy. And if the enterprise ultimately feels as if it’s being readied for a national rollout, so what? Food this good deserves to be shared. Like it or not, that’s exactly what you’ll be doing when you order the black-pepper shrimp with pineapple, the crunchy squid salad with papaya, even the fiery tomato egg-drop soup: Compulsively eatable creations such as these are an invitation to those around you, so be prepared to move fast or resign yourself to a single bite. The same goes for entrees such as the pan-fried halibut with peanut sauce, the crispy cod with Malaysian chili, and the grilled steak with coriander. There’s plenty to choose from in the way of dessert, but if it’s adventure you’re after, the weird and wonderful Thai jewels–sweet water chestnuts dyed a gum-ball array of colors–is your ticket to another world.

ZERZA

304 E. 6th St., 212-529-8250

There is perhaps no culture as ready-made for restaurant interpretation as that of Morocco. With its signature look and unique brand of cooking, it’s the go-to location for restaurateurs in need of inspiration–just scatter some rose petals on the floor and presto: Marrakesh. Still, there are varying degrees of commitment. Somewhere in the middle lies Zerza, a year-old operation offering a little variety on the East Village expanse known as Indian Row. Though the owner, Radouane Eljaouhari, worked for a time in the Moroccan pavilion at Disney World’s Epcot Center, Zerza forgoes the theme park’s famously detailed, if over-the-top, re-creations, settling instead on a more restrained rendition of this Maghrebi culture. Curtains embedded with tiny crystals, brass lanterns in an array of shapes, and of course, plenty of rose petals underfoot create little doubt about what sort of cooking lies in store, though a touch more Mickey magic wouldn’t hurt. Choose wisely, however, and the kitchen can help complete the fantasy. Starters such as eggplant puree with tomatoes and garlic, pastries stuffed with chicken and almonds, and grilled merguez sausages prove the kind of evocative, pleasurable eating that can silence a table–only the hummus disappoints. For entrees there are fine grilled lamb chops, terrific tagines (from chicken to spicy lamb), and a host of couscous options. Desserts are by and large a letdown, though like the best journeys, the fig and the rose-petal ice creams strike the perfect balance between the comfortable and the exotic.

PUBLIC

210 Elizabeth St., 212-343-7011

Unlike most restaurants that successfully take you to another place, Public, an eight-month-old establishment in NoLIta, relies not on visual cues but on the power of the imagination. Perhaps that’s because as the city’s first, and likely only, Australasian restaurant, it must work to evoke an assortment of cultures. To achieve this, the owners wisely turned to their site’s industrial past to drive the design. Though there is nothing inherently exotic about elements such as poured concrete, exposed brick, and an old card catalogue salvaged from a library, the overall effect is one of air and space with a dash of whimsy–qualities that prove powerful in planting the impression you’ve left Manhattan behind. It’s a pleasant wheream–I feeling that’s enhanced by the eclectic menu. To begin there’s a wonderful pan-seared foie gras with edamame salad, an exceptional snail-and-oxtail ravioli with pickled mushrooms, and Public’s signature: grilled and sliced kangaroo piled atop a lightly fried falafel. Entree standouts include New Zealand venison with a fig-and-walnut chutney, roast cluck in a coconut-curry sauce, and pan-fried Tasmanian sea trout on a bed of pickled beets. Desserts range from a goat-cheese creme brulee to hokey pokey ice cream (that’s vanilla flecked with chunks of caramel honeycomb to those of us not from New Zealand), but it’s the pavlova, doused in a rhubarb-and-balsamic reduction, that ultimately convinces you’re not in Kansas anymore.

Brad Goldfarb is Interview’s executive editor.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Brant Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group