During a two-hour layover en route to a business meeting in Silicon Valley, I managed to devour every single delectable word of Garlic and Sapphires, the raucously entertaining bestseller to be by Ruth Reichl, erstwhile restaurant critic for the New York Times. The book–woven with the same incomparable alchemy with which she crafts her restaurant reviews–was transcendent in its ability to paint vividly palpable pictures with unmatched clarity and flair.
I can only hope a modicum of that alchemy rubbed off on me because the Spice Islands Cafe, the first restaurant I visited after reading the book, deserves the Ruth Reichl treatment. Not being Ruth Reichl, I’ll probably subject you to my usual parochial repertoire of tired adjectives in describing a meal a Japanese dining patron might say had moments of unami–moments in which something is exactly right.
Spice Islands is tucked away in a woodsy idyll less than an hour away from San Francisco. For aficionados of Asian cuisine, downtown Mountain View is Nirvana with Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Thai and Sushi restaurants occupying many of the area’s edifices. Your greatest challenge will be selecting from which cuisine to partake.
For me, the recognition that Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian dishes form a unique intermingling of tastes and aromas from the various cultures of Southeast Asia made it a “no-brainer.” In Asia there is no cuisine as diverse yet as inclusive as those of Southeast Asia–cuisine which skillfully melds Indian curries, Chinese seasonings and the pungent herbs and spices of the region: hot chili, garlic, curry, basil, lemon grass and more to create aromatic flavors and even better memories.
With over 150 menu selections (all of them tempting) from which to choose, it may be daunting to make a final selection, but it’s unlikely you’ll make a bad selection.
An excellent prelude to an outstanding meal should begin with poh piah, steamed Singaporean spring rolls that melt in your mouth. Stuffed with jicama, lettuce, bean sprouts and prawns, four spring roll halves arrive sliced diagonally in a triangular black plate on which is drizzled in a linear arrangement, a spicy, sweet peanut sauce. The presentation is truly worthy of these succulent, moist and delicious rolls.
A second Singaporean appetizer option is the Lamb Murtabak, essentially a crepe-thin pancake stuffed with minced lamb, potatoes, onions, bell peppers, egg, cloves and other ingredients then served with a pungent curry. Like the rest of your meal, the only thing that would make it better would be sharing it with someone you love.
A worthy successor to these outstanding appetizers is the Chicken Nenas, a hallowed-out pineapple filled with a curry of tender, sliced chicken and pineapple then made even more rich and redolent with flavor by the infusion of coconut milk laden curry, lemon grass, scallions and mint. It was a dish on par with any curry dish I’ve had anywhere including the fabled Las Vegas institution Lotus of Siam.
For dessert, a popular choice is the house specialty, the peanut pancake. A crispy yet chewy pancake is filled with ground peanuts and honey on top of which is dolloped a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with chocolate sauce. It was plate-licking good. The Spice Islands Cafe is a rare restaurant, one whose food will imprint itself on your memories for a long time and a restaurant in which you will truly experience unami.
Photos courtesy of my friend Ming Lee.
Spice Islands Cafe
210 Hope Street
Mountain View, California
LATEST VISIT: 10 May 2006
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Murtabak; Poh Piah; Chicken Nenas; Peanut Pancakes