Fresh Spice 

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Clockwise from top: Tom kha, seared dumplings and gang masaman from Spice Asian Bistro.  Photo by Antonio Padilla.
Spice Asian Bistro
434 N. Loop 1604
11am-10pm Mon-Sun
Credit Cards
Price range: $8.25-$13.95
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Well, I'm surprised - pleasantly surprised, let me hasten to add. I had grown apathetic about Mon's Thai Bistro due to lackluster lunch offerings and a slightly shopworn look, but their new offshoot, Spice, in the nouveau nexus at Blanco and 1604 (right next to the new Silo sibling), has turned tired into trendy and put a new face on the once-fresh enterprise.

I should also mention that I'm becoming increasingly intolerant of the term "bistro" being thrown about with abandon, but that's a tirade for another time. In any case, Spice is the utter opposite of the traditional French format: open and airy instead of close and often cloying, crisply black and white in place of calculatedly casual. (The use of rotating shows of art for sale has become a cop-out cliché in its own right, and the less said about the current work on display the better, though it is, at least, colorful.) In this setting, the presence of a fancy-drinks list seems altogether appropriate, and though I'm rarely seduced by concoctions that suggest tiny umbrellas, I made an exception. Must have been Fiesta fever.

Surprise number one was hence the Asian Pear Mojito, composed of Absolut Pear, simple syrup, lime juice, and mint. With its Dior-like hints of delicate pear, the drink worked in wine-pair fashion with the food, besting a good, but less focused, Mango Mojito with flavored Bacardi rum. (There's also a nicely composed wine list.)

The well-stuffed, pan-seared pork dumplings, served a little cool with wrappers just a touch tough, were perfect partners to the drink - especially with a dunking in the tingly ginger sauce. As sushi is a large part of the Spice equation (belly up to the under-lit bar for a front-row seat) we had also ordered a Stone Oak Roll from the daunting roll call of overdressed options. Served sliced and serpentine, the Stone Oak is good enough, especially with jolts of bracing wasabi-laced soy sauce and preserved ginger, but, perhaps appropriately, it lacks conviction: the salmon and avocado cladding is fine but the interior of spicy tuna and masago (smelt roe, little in evidence) is mushy and contributes little.

Surprise number two was a brace of soups. As with much of the Spice menu - stir-frys, curries, and the like - one can add protein such as tofu and seafood to the base. Emboldened by the (umbrella-less) mojitos, we went bare and found both the ginger-  and garlic-accented rice soup and the unadorned tom kha, lush with creamy coconut milk and chock full of cartoon-like straw mushrooms, to be just fine sans extra stuff.

Absolut and Bacardi waning, we weren't so bold with the main dishes; yes, we added chicken to the gang masaman. We weren't sorry, but it is the masaman curry itself (coconut milk with a fragrant ginger/garlic/spice paste) that steals the show - surprise number three. We had elected to up the chile count from one to two on this dish and weren't sorry there, either (carpe capsicum, I always say); the heat level was just right, playing perfectly against the sauce's blander potato and chunky avocado components, and toasted peanuts added textural contrast.

Spice's Angel Shrimp already has the main ingredient in mind, but here, too, we upped the chile ante from two symbolic pods to three - and I wouldn't have it any other way. What I would change is the way the heat is delivered. The shrimp being simply battered and expertly fried, the heat comes from a quickly sautéed dry mixture of scallions, ginger, garlic, chiles, and black beans scattered atop shrimp that have themselves been bedded on chopped lettuce. It's accordingly hard to get a representative bite; the garnish keeps falling off. If the dipping sauce, advertising both wasabi and honey, were truly honeyed (the taste was slight, that of the wasabi only slightly more forward) it might act as a useful glue. In any event, this is a good idea that doesn't live up to its potential.

The most popular dessert at Spice, according to our just-friendly-enough waitress, is the fried banana with honey and ice cream - so of course we rejected it in favor of the black rice pudding which, surprise number four, arrived hot. Served with a squirt of whipped cream-like substance, the cool-hot contrast is fine, and though the pudding is quite sweet, it has an appealing wild-rice texture. I doubt the maraschino cherry is an obligatory item in the birthplace of black rice, but this is outer Looplandia, and aberrations are to be expected.


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