SPICE AND RICE
1172-1178 Cambridge Street
Boston Globe Review
Pan-Asian delights in Inman Square
By Devra First, October 13, 2005
Spice and Rice
When Sweet Chili closed its doors at the end of June, a collective
wail went up in Inman Square. The restaurant was a longtime favorite,
a neighborhood standby for solid Thai fare and excellent sushi.
But would things be the same? Whereas Sweet Chili was a nondescript
cavern of a room that occasionally featured holiday decorations,
Spice & Rice is a carnival of vibrating colors, porthole-shaped
windows, shimmering tiles, and seaweed-esque cutouts that dangle
from the ceiling. Sitting in one of the cushy new booths is like
being inside the Yellow — and Red, Blue, and Green — Submarine.
Perhaps the nautical design is meant to reflect the elevation of raw
fish in the scheme of things: A serious-looking sushi bar has been
incorporated into the main room. And perhaps the drunken hues reflect
the elevation of alcohol, for what used to be a tiny sushi bar has
been converted to a drink-serving bar, and the restaurant now has a
cutesy tagline — "Where Sushi Met Sake."
Despite the watery-themed decor, the kitchen remains on solid ground.
The menu offers the usual suspects — pad Thai, bi bim bap, curries —
but also comes up with new ideas. An appetizer of Spice & Rice wraps
($9) deconstructs the fresh roll. A geometric white plate arrives
heaped with sliced carrots, cabbage, cucumbers, mesclun greens, and
barbecued chicken; next to these fillings is a small pile of
wrappers. Softer and airier than the ones used for fresh rolls,
these are more like rice-flour crepes. After you fold one around
the meat and vegetables, you dip the bundle into spicy red
sweet-and-sour sauce or hoisin-y peanut sauce. Though you might wish
for a slightly larger pile of crepes, and maybe some Thai basil or
cilantro to liven up the mesclun, the wraps are a hit: Light,
flavorful, and fun to eat.
Having had success with an appetizer named for the restaurant, it
seems a good idea to try the Spice & Rice maki ($9), a sushi roll of
salmon, crab, avocado, and cucumber served with "Chef’s spicy sauce."
It’s beautiful, draped in bright salmon, each section adorned with a
different-colored dollop of red, black, or green roe. The spicy
sauce, a chili-mayo concoction, is drizzled in a festive wave along
the side of the plate. The roll tastes as good as it looks. Spicy
tuna maki ($5.50) offers heat without masking the flavor of the tuna.
It’s not drenched in the usual mayonnaise, and the tuna comes in
large chunks rather than mashed like baby food. Yellowtail scallion
maki ($5) is perfectly fresh. Even the wasabi is particularly good.
The sushi at Sweet Chili was always excellent, but the sushi at
Spice & Rice is even better.
But don’t forget about Thailand and Korea. Shrimp in the pot ($15)
arrives in a metal skillet over Sterno; the waitress takes the lid
off to reveal glass noodles, vegetables, and shrimp bubbling in a
brown sauce. As hot as the dish is, the vegetables are still crisp,
and the addictively chewy noodles soak up the sauce. It’s perfect
winter food, the kind of thing you might get for takeout every week
— if it were available for takeout, that is. But you have to eat
this dish in-house, since the hot pot doesn’t travel.
Also good for winter is noodle curry ($9), chicken and yellow curry
served over steaming egg noodles in a big white bowl. It comes with
a spoon and fork, so you can twirl — Thai spaghetti. Tofu bi bim bap
($13) is a fine version, though the time we have it, the stone pot
it’s served in isn’t quite hot enough to form the crusty bits of
rice that are the best part of the dish. Still, the tofu is crisp on
the outside and creamy within, and the red sauce brings a pleasant
heat. Chicken basil ($9) is also satisfying, with plenty of basil
and vegetables that still crunch. The sauce has just the right
amount of spice — not so much that the spicy food wimp at our table
can’t take it, and enough to keep our spicy food addict happy.
Or so we think. Sound doesn’t travel well in aquatic depths, and the
acoustics at Spice & Rice are bad enough that it’s hard to hear what
the friends at your table are saying. (It’s not so hard, though, to
hear the friends several tables over.) So while the spicy food wimp
appears to be miming happiness over the chicken basil, and then
mouthing the words ‘‘They need to put rugs on the ceiling,’’ it’s
hard to say for sure.
But who cares? Spice & Rice has been tarted up, but underneath the
slick decor still beats the heart of a neighborhood restaurant. Even
over the din, you can hear Inman Square breathe a collective sigh of