The Weekly Eater
Nadine Kam

Spices sizzles

Once I decide to descend on a restaurant, I rarely veer from course, but last weekend I stopped into Sushi King on King Street, and as I was leaving, I spied Spices across the street.

I wanted to check out Bistro Sun, the Italian-Japanese fusion restaurant a few doors away from Spices, but I could already smell and taste and see the colors of cinnamon, green peppercorns, curry and roasted chili peppers that I imagined would fill Spices menu. Tempting. Quicker than you can say galangal, I was there to sample the flavors of Southeast Asia.

The site was formerly home to Montien Thai, allowing current owners to build on that restaurant's following. They even kept the phone number. But the room has been updated for a more spacious feel, and repainted in saffron and toasty earth tones. Instead of the usual travel posters that pass for decor in restaurants of this scope and size, the walls are covered by dozens of beautiful photographs of people, animals and sites of Southeast Asia.

You have only a split second to take in your first impression because you'll immediately be welcomed and whisked to a table -- if there's one left open -- because the other thing you'll see are batches of "Reserved" signs for groups of four to eight.

No doubt service has something to do with that. When you're throwing a party you want a lot of attention, and Spices' staff delivers. Maybe the spices have an invigorating effect because staffers seem so happy, energetic and light on their feet. And they're very patient in explaining a menu -- a mix of mostly Vietnamese and Laotian specialties -- that will be new to many.

The owners of Spices, Somphong (Pony) Norindr, left, Roger Mies and Tyronne Dang offer a dish of stir-fried eggplant.

YOU MAY NOT get past the first page. There's a tendency for newbies to want to try everything they see, and before getting to the entrees I had to try the Spices shrimp ($9.45), tod man (catfish patty, $8.45), Laotian sausage ($8.45) and chicken satay ($9.45).

The first featured a whole shrimp wrapped with a mixture of pork, long rice and veggies, rolled in panko and deep-fried, then accompanied by a sweet chili sauce. The pork flavor dominates.

Galangal and kaffir lime leaves gave plenty of flavor to the four fish patties that weren't fishy tasting at all. I liked the tiny dice of green beans that studded the patties.

The pork sausage was dry, but nevertheless addictive because of the chopped chili peppers that gave it a powerful kick. Although it isn't for timid palates, it will be too tame for the fire eaters out there, who can dunk it in more chili sauce to turn up the heat.

Chicken satay was marinated in curry and coconut milk before being grilled and arriving at the table accompanied by peanut sauce, but was more chewy than it should have been, as if it had been cooked ahead of time and reheated. You may have better luck with tofu satay.

Speaking of tofu, there are several dishes geared toward vegetarians, including Buddha's Delight ($9.95), a cellophane noodle stir-fry including mushrooms, baby corn, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts and tofu in a garlicky sauce.

Of course, you can't leave without trying one of the curries at $9.45 for vegetarian $10.45 for beef, chicken or pork; $11.45 for shrimp or calamari, or a combination of seafood.

Rather than sticking to the usual green, red, yellow, penang or massaman curries, we went with Pony's Way, a Laotian curry that's more soupy than other restaurants in town. The Madras-based curry, layered with turmeric, garlic, shallot and coconut cream, also featured the heavy herbal flavor of dill. I'm still trying to decide whether I like the addition or not. It may be a matter of more exposure over time. Also distinctive was the use of orbs of Laotian eggplant the size of plums, and an even smaller species of eggplant slightly larger than a pea, and bitter! You can just swallow those. I left them on the side of the plate. Less impressive was the overcooked fish in the dish.

For those who prefer something mild, there is khao soi. It's the Burmese equivalent of local saimin or Japanese ramen, a comfort food made with thin, flat egg noodles and a dash of curry in a chicken stock and coconut milk broth. Compared with the explosion of flavors of the other dishes, it seemed rather dull at first, but grew on me with each sip of the broth. It would be great to have with a shared appetizer or two.

The spices don't stop coming with dessert. A no-freeze ice-cream maker allows them to make all the ice cream they want, so they've experimented with many fruits and spices. You must try the chili pepper and lemongrass ice cream ($3.50). It's cold; its fiery. Brilliant.


2671 S. King St. (on the right heading toward Waialae, just past Kokua Market, with parking in back / 949-2679

Food Star Star Half-star

Service Star Star Star Star

Ambience Star Star Star Half-star

Value Star Star Star Star

Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays<

Cost: About $25 to $30 for two; B.Y.O.B. with corkage fee of $2.50 per bottle

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

very good, exceeds expectations;
below average.

To recommend a restaurant, write: The Weekly Eater, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802. Or send e-mail to nkam@starbulletin.com

See some past restaurant reviews in the Columnists section.

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