Since my Gourmet recommendation was six years old, I wasn’t even sure The Spice Market even existed anymore. As it turned out, the hotel had changed ownership. What was once The Regent is now a Four Seasons. The Spice Market occupies the same courtyard location it has for the past 22 years.
A woman in traditional Thai dress carved flowers, hearts, even the restaurant’s name into watermelons and cantaloupes on a pedestal near the hostess stand. A school of koi swam in a pond right outside the front door. Neither of these touches would have mattered if the food wasn’t outstanding. Happily, Spice Market delivered the two best Thai meals I ate during my eight nights in Bangkok.
Canisters, jars and sacks of every spice from A to Z lined the walls. I spotted anise, dry galangal, cardamom and “gals of snake.”
The Spice Market manager of five years, Wasant Chanroom, was a great guide, clarifying ingredients and establishing context. The menu was so compelling, divided into ten sections, almost every dish new and interesting, that I froze up. Without Wasant’s help, I might still be looking at the menu.
I started with a drink. Bangkok offers endless fresh fruit juices, but nowhere did I find a more a more varied and exotic collection than at The Spice Market: lychee & mint, Thai tangerine, coconut, and pomelo among them. Pomelo juice (170 Baht, $4.25 U.S.) was great, slightly sweet and yellow on bottom, frothy up top, with citric overtones. Grapefruit?
The restaurant started me off with a large amuse bouche, miang kam. There were three loaded lettuce cups: dried shrimp & peanuts; ginger, green chilies, lime, and onions; and shredded, toasted coconut. The cups came with a stack of leaves to wrap the ingredients in and a dish of plum sauce to add sweetness. As good as the miang kam was, I had to save room.
Even though I was dining alone, the menu was so compelling that I ordered three dishes. Yam Hua Plee (210 Baht), “banana blossom salad with chicken and chili paste,” received three chili peppers on the menu, out of a possible three. The strips of banana flower with shredded chicken and the kick of red chili paste were a great mix of sweet and spicy.
Poo Ja (250 Baht) involved “deep fried crab meat and minced pork stuffed in crab shells.” The stuffing was primarily crab meat fused with pork. It was crammed into two crab shells and fried, served on a bed of fried rice vermicelli. A dish of sweet and sour dipping sauce was unnecessary for a dish that was already flavorful. Considering it was fried, there was very little grease, and the dish was surprisingly light.
“Khanomjeen gaeng kiew warn lookchin plakica (280 Baht) featured four Thai rice vermicelli buns served with a green curry, black feather fish dumplings and eggplant.” This was an unusual and delicious dish. One bowl held four buns of rice vermicelli, each topped with a single sliver of red pepper. In another bowl was the green curry filled with cuts of red and orange chili, crunchy, pea-sized green eggplants, tender sections of golf ball-sized green eggplants, basil and pillowy “dumplings.” The dumplings had no casing, were similar to meatballs, but were flatter and made of juicy black feather fish. Wasant said to pour the curry over the noodles to eat it “Thai style.” I did and it was a great idea.
The portion sizes at The Spice Market are generous, and I was stuffed, but figuring I might never return to Bangkok, I ordered dessert. The dish that intrigued me was “Bualoi Nga Dam: rice dumplings stuffed with black sesame seed in ginger and brown sugar syrup.” Wasant labeled the dessert “Cantonese,” suggested I order mango with sticky rice, “more Thai.” I did.
A pyramid of sticky rice with sliced “Nam dok-mai” mango was phenomenal, drizzled with coconut milk and green, pureed pandanus leaves. The slices of mango liquefied once they hit my tongue. This mango with sticky rice was far better than any other version I’ve ever eaten.
Convinced this was easily the best Thai meal I’ve ever had, I asked Wasant if there was any other food in Bangkok that compared. “Plenty. On the street. At stalls.”
Across the courtyard at gourmet food shop Mocha & Muffins, The Spice Market sells jars of homemade green curry paste for home use.
I have a general rule not to eat at any restaurant more than once when I’m on a trip. After seven days of eating three meals a day in Bangkok, I was convinced I wouldn’t find a better meal than at The Spice Market, so I returned for lunch, where they have the same menu as at dinner.
My lychee mint “frosty” (170 Baht) was outstanding, flecks of refreshing mint and sweet lychee blended with crushed ice.
Khao soi (200 Baht): Northern style egg noodle in curry with chicken, was tremendous. The yellow curry was sweet and spicy. Thin egg noodles were topped with crispy fried egg noodles and mixed with big chunks of white meat chicken. It came with a plate of condiments: lime wedge, onion, pickled lettuce, and a dish of spicy chili oil. Great.
Pad Krapra ow goong (360 Baht), stir-fried shrimps with chili and basil, was another winner. This restaurant can do no wrong. Seven large prawns were stir-fried in a hot and sweet chili sauce with crispy basil and cuts of red and orange chilies.
For dessert, even thought Wasant advised against it the other night, I still ordered Bualoi Nga Dam (140 Baht), rice dumplings stuffed with black sesame seed in ginger and brown sugar syrup. The dessert wasn’t what I expected; it was better. There was a ginger and brown sugar broth filled with four dumplings, slices of ginger shaped like leaves, and two types of Chinese dried fruits the size of grapes: burgundy and bright yellow, that day manager Rath couldn’t identify in English. The dumplings were ethereal, so light that when I bit down on them, I felt barely any give on my teeth. Inside was a black, grainy, slightly sweet sesame ooze. After I ate the dumplings and fruits, I was left with what amounted to a hot, refreshing tisane, which Rath said was even healthy.
Along with Wasant’s guidance, I owe the success of my meals to The Spice Market’s long time chef, Mali. Mali means “jasmine” in Thai. Wasant said Thai women often choose flower names.