An article to consider

Spice and The Spice

I've been on a real trendy roll the last few weeks. I am so hip culinary-wise, the inside of my mouth looks like the pocket lining of an Armani suit. That's hip, yes??Last week, I reported on the improved Mumbo Jumbo and the revised Cavu. Sitting at the latter, I gazed across the street and realized it was time to return to the ballsy Spice (793 Juniper St., 404-875-4242). I haven't been back since the opening in January 2001, when I encountered a menu of mainly beautifully staged food of layered textures and ingredients that left me feeling like a hole had been poked in my Armani pocket: very little flavor and quite a drain on my cash resources.

The restaurant had a significant staff shakedown some months following the opening, replete with all kinds of vicious gossip. Things seem to have settled down. At least I'm not still getting breathless voice mails in the middle of the night from disgruntled former employees. The opening pastry chef, Jonathan St. Hilaire, is now executive chef and Kevin Clark is chef de cuisine.

The dining room, with catwalks and tropical aquariums, still sets my teeth slightly on edge. Its self-conscious Beverly Hills ambience takes on a David Lynch-esque patina during a recession. The towering billboard — a testicular chili pepper with a sadly microphallic stem plunked on female flesh — is stale. (You can check out the restaurant's website, www.spicerestaurant.com, to see more firm flesh decorated with produce.) It's all about the eros of food, of course, and if the stage is a bit much, I'm happy to say the point of the drama, the food, has improved significantly.

St. Hilaire has eliminated the rococo excesses. While dishes are still slightly kinky, they don't confound you like a sex toy whose function you can't discern. ("Am I supposed to swallow this?") Flavors are clear and playful. Repetition — actually multiple improvisations on an ingredient — is common.

For example, Wayne's starter included three treatments of tuna ($14). A chopped tartare is piquant and layered between cooling slices of Asian pear. There's also tuna tempura garnished with candied ginger and rare tuna with a soy-based barbecue sauce. I confess I didn't much like the sweet sauce. One of my early complaints about the restaurant was its overabundance of sweet flavors. Perhaps because he's a pastry chef first, St. Hilaire can't resist continuing that, but he has toned the sweetness down considerably, if only by a more proficient balancing act.

My starter, which could as well be ordered at the meal's end, featured four cheeses from Sweet Grass Dairy of Thomasville, Ga. ($10). This boutique operation produces well-aged cheeses from cows and goats. St. Hilaire pairs each with an accompaniment — mainly sweet ones, like dried fruit compote and roasted beets. The cheeses, with names like "Velvet," "Lumiere" and "Green Hill," are surprisingly good.

My entree of grilled lamb chops ($21) was quite an antidote to the sweetness. The two chops — I needed three — were served over tabbouli heavy with the slightly bitter flavor of black olives. That bitterness was amplified several times over by a wedge of grilled radicchio. My mouth, that delicate Armani pocket, might have puckered had it not been for the vaguely sweet mint aioli, a quite fascinating concoction that topped the chops.

Wayne chose cedar-smoked salmon, pink and strongly flavorful, served over whipped potatoes heavy with white truffle oil ($19). A creamy sauce added notes of fresh leeks. The dish would have pleased me 100 percent had it not included grilled baby corn, as obnoxious as anything I've tasted in memory. "I like it better out of the can," Wayne whined. I agree.

St. Hilaire still makes the restaurant's desserts. His lemon assiette ($7) is killer but we chose the "warm chocolate truffle" this trip. It's intensely rich chocolate cake, heated and placed in a pool of mascarpone sabayon, richer and more adult than unsweetened whipped cream. Then it's topped with banana ice cream and slices of roasted bananas. A caramel wafer gilds the plate.

Service at the restaurant is completely professional. We were seated outside. The patio, practically overhanging the street and plagued the evening of our visit by the sounds of an auction being held at Cavu, is not very pleasant. Moreover, we were completely abandoned for about 10 minutes after we were seated. However, before we even had a chance to complain, the manager was apologizing profusely, bought us our drinks and begged us not to shove bamboo under his fingernails. We forgave everyone.

br>?More Spice
Confusion is good. A few days later, Wayne and I decided to try The Spice, a Thai and Malaysian restaurant at Toco Hills Shopping Center (404-728-0588). Ironically, we found a sign on the door announcing that the confusion created by sharing the same name with Spice (and others) has led the restaurant's owners to change the name to Top Spice.

This restaurant is quite lovely with a wall of spices in big bottles against a wall that glows greener than Oz. Otherwise, earth tones predominate, from sisal flooring to mahogany tabletops. It's a primo example of the way contemporary Asian restaurants are at last moving out of that predictable touristy decor of travel posters and plastic artifacts.

The menu here is mainly Thai, with a good many Malaysian dishes offered, too. Wayne and I could happily live forever off the food at Penang Malaysian Cuisine, so we were mainly interested in the Malaysian dishes.

There is only one Malaysian starter, according to our server — a version of satay ($6.95). I didn't find it very different from the usual Thai one, although the accompanying peanut sauce was much more interesting — red and spicy. You can pick beef or chicken or combine them, as I did. I suggest you stick with the beef. The marinade renders the chicken unappetizingly mealy.

Wayne ordered the better starter — a Thai salad of squid with hot peppers, onions and lime juice ($7.95).

Turn to the back of the menu to find the Malaysian specialties. I confess, I expected, considering the location, to find these quite toned-down for the local palate. I was wrong. Sambal undang ($15.95), huge sauteed shrimp with onion and asparagus, was as earthily redolent with dried shrimp paste as Penang's.

My mango shrimp ($15.95) looked like kiddy food when it came to the table. The shrimp were served over a split mango shell with sauteed mango and green and red peppers. The sauce was frighteningly orange and I feared it was going to taste like a typical Chinese-American sweet-and-sour sauce. Instead, it was fiery-hot and rich with the taste of fresh mango.

We also sampled roti canai, the popular pancake-like bread that you tear apart and dunk in a curry made with chicken ($3.50). The bread itself was as good as Penang's, but the curry was far milder.

If you live in the hood or are intimidated by the Buford Highway scene, this is a good choice, though you are certainly going to pay quite a bit more for the more interesting Malaysian dishes.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

Where to Eat
Food Events