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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 15, 2005

A stylish celebration of Southeast Asia's cuisines

By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

From left, Roger Mies holds Spices' special seafood fried rice, while head chef Somphong "Pony" Norindr displays a taro-shoot salad. They're two-thirds of the restaurant's founding and operating triumvirate.

Photos by Andrew Shimabuku | The Honolulu Advertis

The special seafood fried rice is a delicious melange, surrounded by the crisp raw-veggie garnish so typical of a meal in Southeast Asia.

Spices, which took the place of Montien Thai on South King Street, is heating up the university area's dining scene this summer with Southeast Asian flavors from Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Burma. Open just more than a month, the restaurant is packing in customers with its aromatic cuisine and inviting interior.

Three friends decided to take up the difficult task of owning and running the restaurant together: Roger Mies, Tyronne Dang and Somphong Norindr, known as "Pony." After hearing that Montien Thai, one of their favorite eateries, was for sale, they talked with Montien's owners and bought the place. Despite any resemblance to a movie plot, the three actually have experience in the restaurant industry.

Roger has worked in various restaurants over the years. Ty, originally from Vietnam, is a physician who comes from a restaurant background in Saigon.

Pony, the chef, was born in Laos but grew up in Paris, and moved here 9 months ago to be part of the endeavor. He trained in architecture in Lausanne, Switzerland, but also studied hotel management in that country. Pony was banquet manager for the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C., for several years and has managed other restaurants.

It took four months of work to transform the space into its current incarnation as an attractive dining room painted the saffron and beet colors of a Southeast Asian Buddhist monk's robes. Roger and Pony manage daily hands-on duties. Ty's presence appears in the gallery of photos displayed on the restaurant's walls, which capture evanescent glimpses of Southeast Asian life.

The three hosts make you feel like a friend at this casual neighborhood eatery. Pony circulates among the tables, checking the food and making an effort to remember guests' names. Roger ensures that your meal flows smoothly and doesn't miss any amenities. And when Ty is around, he easily converses with guests, relaxing them as if they had arrived at an entertaining dinner party.

One goal was to present the food as the partners had experienced it in Southeast Asia. Spices is not afraid to use traditional ingredients, such as small Thai eggplants with a slight bitterness, a flavor that Americanized restaurants have toned down for fear of jarring Western palates. They believe diners are now cultured and well-traveled enough to appreciate these differences.

My friends and I certainly did and were delighted to find fragrantly refreshing kaffir limeade ($2.50) made seasonally, a perfect thirst-quencher for hot days. I recommend it sparkling and bubbly with club soda ($2.95) as a creative alternative to conventional soft drinks.

This is also a restaurant where people who avoid meat and enjoy vegetables will be satisfied because more than half the menu is (or can be) vegetarian, with dishes such as snake beans stir-fried with garlic, onion and scallions ($9.95) and with a choice of tofu instead of meat in other dishes.

Ty's taro-shoot salad ($6.45) is an unusual example of this vegetarian fare, made with seasonal taro shoots sliced thinly and tossed in a sweetly tart dressing. The only other time I've eaten this vegetable is in Vietnamese restaurants — where it's served in steaming bowls of vegetarian sweet and sour soup — so it was a pleasant surprise to encounter its spongy, crunchiness served cold. Vegetarian Thai yum wunsen salad ($9.45) featured cellophane vermicelli mixed with tofu, bean sprouts, lettuce and tomatoes for a light dish full of flavor from shallots, lemongrass and Spice's robust house dressing.

Patron Deb Taira explained why she and her family have become regulars. She enjoys the menu's variety and can taste the ingredients' freshness in the food, she said. Apparently, Pony's morning trips to pick up the day's produce in Chinatown have been noticed. She also likes the way curries are done here, which friends and I also savored. Although they are a bit more soupy than at some other places, they are full of a velvety richness that delivers what the restaurant's name promises.

Taira said, "The great thing for me is that my kids really like it here, too. ... It's really nice to be able to have things they can eat and that I can eat, too." Her sons, (Jason, 8; Brendan, 9) already have a favorite dish here: calamari special fried rice ($9.45), ordered mild, appeals to them, not just for its taste but also its texture.

A definite highlight at Spices is ice cream ($3.50) in bold flavors such as chili pepper-lemongrass and green apple-curry, outshining all the other desserts on the menu. However, these aren't for the fainthearted. Most places on the island don't make their own ice cream, so it's quite an accomplishment that this little place is able to churn out homemade stuff on a Williams-Sonoma ice cream maker. Our favorites were pandanus and durian. Eaten next to one another, they reminded us strangely of Cap'n Crunch cereal. Alone, the green pandanus tasted leafy but appetizing. Durian, a highly prized fruit in Southeast Asia that I had never before tasted, was simultaneously musky, citrusy, sulfuric and cheesy, yet entirely seductive.

Those who want a change from plain mom-and-pop Asian eateries and are looking for what was lost in the glam of E&O Trading Co. may find the sizzle they seek at Spices.