Hardly the spice of life at the W

Timothy Barber
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Spice Market
W Hotel, 10 Wardour Street, W1D 6QF www.wlondon.co.uk

Cost per person without wine: £45

WHEN the W Hotel dropped like a spaceship on the corner of Leicester Square earlier this year, it brought with it Spice Market, the Pan Asian restaurant originated in New York by the lauded chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

With a menu apparently inspired by his experiences of Asian street food, it’s a large, snazzy, moodily-lit place lined with shelves of spice jars, and with all the soul of a Nandos. A Nandos where the cheapest red wine is £33, mind.

Spice Market partakes of the “sharing food” philosophy, in which help-yourself dishes are stacked in the middle of the table. The problem with the sharing idea, other than the whiff it carries of production-line cooking, is its requirement for consensus and agreement in the ordering process. Glazing over as we browse through the 40 or so dishes on offer, we take the easy route out and try the five-course, £48 tasting menu.

It doesn’t start well and goes downhill from there. Shaved tuna in chilli tapioca consists of a few sloppy slivers of taste-free fish floating in a chilled white soup, with little hint of the pear and lime described on the menu. Accompanying it, a lobster summer roll contains only the tiniest off-cut of lobster meat, and tastes of vinegar.

Next up, spiced chicken samosas with a coriander yoghurt score neither for interest nor taste – what coriander? What spice? – while little, lukewarm clumps of beef on skewers register only for their strange, spongy texture.

Something a bit more substantial arrives in the shape of a halibut fillet, sitting plumply in the midst of a sticky, mahogany-coloured Malaysian chilli sauce. It’s a good bit of fish, nicely cooked and easy to pick apart, but utterly swamped for flavour by the icky, catch-the-back-of-the-throat sweetness of the sauce, of which there’s far too much.

Each course is explained at tiresome length by our friendly, orange-pyjama’d waiter, who points out this bit and that as though we’ve never laid eyes on a plate of soy-doused broccoli before.

Having said that, one thing I haven’t seen before is the accompaniment to our main course of char-grilled chicken: a huge, perfectly circular pile of fried rice on top of which sits a Frisbee-sized fried egg, its white encrusted thickly with a rust-coloured dust. The dust, apparently, is fried ginger, but once our waiter has helpfully mashed the whole thing together with my fork, the only thing to taste is burnt garlic and oil.

It’s revolting, and so is the chicken accompanying it. The burnt, bitter carbon taste of the grill is as nothing compared to the astringent horror of the kumquat lemongrass dressing it’s soaked in.

Dessert is – give me strength – Ovaltine kulfi, an oblong slab you could use for furniture stuffing, topped with a splurge of sugary cream which, if it didn’t come from a can, gives every appearance of having done so. A mouthful of the kulfi sits in the belly like a lead weight.

Other than the fried rice, the dishes look pretty, and that’s the best that can be said of them. Even in this jazzy new hotel, it seems the best traditions of Leicester Square dining are being maintained: this is naff, overpriced and lousy.