If you ate at Spice Market before it closed two years ago, you may experience low-key but persistent flashbacks at Wayan, which set up shop in February on the east end of Spring Street in Nolita. Again the flavours come from Asia and the methods, generally, from France. Again the far-off tropics are evoked through the play of indirect, dappled light as if filtered through jungle foliage or a carved wooden screen. Again the presiding culinary sensibility belongs to a Vongerichten.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten put together Spice Market in 2004, a confection of teak, silk, vodka, peanut sauce and high heels that brought the Asian Party Temple restaurant genre to its apotheosis. All the earlier examples suddenly seemed fumbling and unsophisticated, and with the possible exception of the Spice Market spinoffs in Qatar and Mexico, the ones that would follow seemed increasingly mindless and out of touch. Interior design that rummages through the musty old trunks of Orientalism doesn’t look as alluring as it did 15 years ago, and cooking that filters Asian flavours through a Western sensibility isn’t automatically met with gales of excitement.
Wayan, where Vongerichten’s son, Cédric, is the chef, avoids both traps, I think. The restaurant is a tribute to Indonesia, the home of his wife and business partner, Ochi Vongerichten, and the site of two restaurants that he opened recently. (He is also the chef of Perry St. in Manhattan, which his father owns.) The scale is more personal and the cultural references are more specific at Wayan than at Spice Market and its kind. The menu is far from encyclopedic, but it is clear that Indonesia’s cuisine has been given more than the quick glance that informs a lot of Asian fusion.
Ochi Vongerichten works in the dining room, stopping by tables to offer explanations of the menu and how the cooking differs from that at some other Indonesian restaurants in New York, which she cheerfully calls “more authentic.” More than any other factor, she helps keep Wayan from turning into a junior version of one of her father-in-law’s restaurants — Young Vongerichtenstein.
Servers will tell you to start with a stick or two of satay. You can, although the skewers are cooked on a flat-top instead of a grill, and inconsistency is an issue. The pork skewers that are so appealingly juicy and savoury with sweet soy one week can be scorched and bitter the next time you see them, and just ordinary the following week. (The pickled watermelon radishes on the side, though, are always terrific; they’re brined with lime leaf.) The peanut sauce on chicken satay may hum with red curry and chiles or may present as a sweet, inert blob.
A more promising opening move and one that will help place Cédric and Ochi Vongerichten’s mental map of Indonesia in perspective would be the Jimbaran-style clams. This is not a dish that is likely to have been stirred by generations of sainted grandmothers since the dawn of time. It is, in fact, a speciality of the seafood vendors who sprang upon a stretch of Balinese beach where resorts first began to appear sometime around the birth of Taylor Swift. Littlenecks, flavoured with soy sauce and garlic paste, are grilled under flakes of coconut, which form the golden crust that would be provided by breadcrumbs if these were clams oreganata. A slice of pickled red chile sits on each one, waiting. If you were on vacation, you would order a tray after tray of these.
Here on Spring Street, other things will keep you distracted. In the hearts-of-palm salad, sweet and sour are carefully pitted against each other by means of a mango vinaigrette, a lime-and-fish-sauce dressing and a neon coat of passion-fruit pulp. The crabcake is, despite its sweet chilli sauce, about as Indonesian as Betty White, but it is fresh and fluffy and not worth arguing about. Wayan’s rendition of the street snack bakwan jagung is a golden agglomeration of corn kernels and shallots fried into a flat, crunchy disc.
There had better be nasi goreng at any restaurant that is even playing at being Indonesian. There is, the rice fried just until it crackles a bit between your teeth. It has a gentle but genuine spice undercurrent that would be welcome in more of the cooking. Of course, there is a gado gado, and this being 2019, of course, the main ingredient is avocado; the hard-cooked eggs belong to quail. This time the peanut dressing isn’t cloying or clumpy.
As the plates get larger, few dishes really come forward as the kind of knockout that everybody will talk about later. The closest contender must be the lobster and basil with wavy noodles in a sauce containing, among other things, sweet soy and melted butter — a combination that the senior Vongerichten has used so successfully that it may be his son’s inheritance.
Should the calamansi vinaigrette poured over the steamed black sea bass be more sour and spicy? Probably. But if there are few stars on the table, the contrast of flavours, colours, textures and techniques makes the meal into a memorable ensemble piece. The drumsticks in the yellow chicken are crunchy, and the thighs are tender; both are mellow with a yellow curry seasoned by lemongrass and ginger. The tomato-chile sambal pressed into the surface of cod “bilindango” is potent enough to carry over to the spears of asparagus and fiddlehead ferns sprawled alongside.
All of this looks very come-hither in the dining room, where the Rockwell Group has abandoned stadium-size props, building atmospheric effects instead out of contrasting textures and light values and the movement of shadows. This is the visual language of expensive tropical resorts, and Wayan seems to give people the feeling they’re on vacation. It is not necessarily a loud restaurant, but New Yorkers are loud people, and around 10 the noise can start to press down.
It is a good time to call for dessert. The purple-yam ice cream with banana cake and caramelized bananas is good if sundaes are your thing. The pandan custard under passion-fruit pulp gets a lot of mileage from just a few flavours. But the one that sounds too boring to bother with (“assorted exotic fruit?”) is worth a second look. Lychee, mango, pineapple and dragon fruit may not be particularly exotic, but a dip or a dunk into a dark, spicy syrup of tamarind and palm sugar will wake them right up.