Sugar & Spice and Everything Nice?

I count myself, unabashedly, among the cognoscenti when it comes to food. I was born and raised in Singapore, where

I count myself, unabashedly, among the cognoscenti when it comes to food. I was born and raised in Singapore, where a staggering variety of regional and international cuisines steadily court the diner’s attentions; where, already sated with a large lunch, people ravenously discuss what they will devour for dinner that same day; where taxi drivers are polled regularly by newspapers on the best and most elusive hawker stalls island-wide.

I remember revolting at the obligatory lunches in whichever Chinatown my family found ourselves in while on vacations abroad. The twiddling of Chinese cuisine in an attempt to defer to a foreign palate never ceases to amuse me. Bold flavours, robust odors, all attenuated and toned down to a median of blandness. This dish, and seven others only remotely similar to it, sloshed over with the same all-purpose sauce. Or, more unscrupulously, a restaurateur exploiting the relative ignorance of his clientele and passing off slapdash imitations as the real thing.

So which of these two cases applies to Spice, which boasts “fine Thai cuisine” on Holyoke Street? Adaptation, or simply fraudulence? Real Thai food, to my mind, is a harsh taskmaster, intransigently fiery and torrid, laced with demanding, domineering accents—lemongrass, basil, shallots. I didn’t expect the typical American palate to be able to hold up against the full assault. There was clearly going to have to be some compromise. Not that this was necessarily a bad thing, of course. I have vivid memories of nasal-laryngeal conflagrations brought about by incendiary Tom Yum soups and innocuously colored green curries.

On this Saturday night, the restaurant was deftly crammed to capacity, with an additional 20 or so people spilling out onto the sidewalk, mostly cliquish undergraduates. Spirited conversation thrummed. And yet, despite the thick sheet of ambient noise and constricted seating, it slenderly avoided becoming just another frantic Oriental eatery with flagrant fluorescence and brusque service. Dark wood panelling. Sparing, warm lighting. And a host of perfectly poised waiters dexterously weaving in and out of the non-spaces between tables, taking orders and refilling glasses with a bit too much of a graceful flourish.

How does one square “fine Thai cuisine” with the presence of beef satay, “shumai” and Thai “tempura” on the menu? We passed on the motley appetizers and each just ordered an entrée of just-manageable proportions. Reworking a perennial favorite, their Crispy Pad Thai ($8.95) was a scraggly nest of brittle threads strewn with shrimp, chicken, bean sprouts, scallions, egg and ground peanuts, sweet and sticky and sour, the whole inescapably recalling peanut butter (which, to me, is a good thing). The Rad-Na (wide rice) Noodles ($7.95/8.95) were to all appearances a facsimile of a staple Singaporean dish, beef kway teow, which uses exactly the same ingredients (beef slices and Chinese broccoli, or kai lan) and a more or less similar gravy composed mainly of dark soy sauce. This was very good indeed.

The yellow curry emblazoned with a cautionary star (“spicy”) was, at least to my desensitized, spice-assailed palate, only faintly challenging, and had a number of irrelevant vegetables cluttering up the dish (although on hindsight perhaps they were meant to temper the spiciness, such as it is): pineapples, potatoes and cherry tomatoes. The traditional accompaniments, I believe, are tiny Thai eggplants—mini-grenades of acridity, the size of a blueberry, spurting an intensely bitter juice when bitten. But the curry itself was smooth and velvety, laden with an appropriately immoderate amount of coconut milk.

I was looking forward to that iconic Thai dessert, sticky rice with mango, but it was nowhere to be found. For those of you in the dark, this is a positively inspired pairing: gooey glutinous rice suffused with circulation-clogging salty (no, seriously) coconut milk, rounded off by that most sensual of tropical fruits, the musky mango. All they had were some dubiously Thai ice creams (green tea?) and Thai fruit (lychee, rambutan, longan). The ice creams were priced at $2.95.

Spice isn’t really the real thing, but it comes close. It makes adjustments in dishes where the full deal would probably repel the more spice-resistant. For the more intrepid, however, the unmitigated experience is there to hazard; just look out for the clearly-posted signs: two stars (“Hot and Spicy”), or the telltale names (“Seafood Kamikaze”).