Foreign flavors

Spice Creek Café mixes culinary cultures

A VIEW OF CHICO <br> Greg Haling and Carolyn Bignami enjoy a meal by the window.

Greg Haling and Carolyn Bignami enjoy a meal by the window.

Photo By meredith j. cooper

Spice Creek Café
230 W. Third St. 891-9951
Open Wed.-Sat., 6 p.m.-close.

Spice Creek Cafe

230 W. Third St.
Chico, CA 95928

(530) 891-9951

There is nothing new under the sun, or so they say. But that’s just a glass-half-empty way of stating the obvious: that creativity is recombining stuff that already exists.

In modern times, this creative combining has increasingly relied on cultural “mixing and matching”; that is, creativity through the anthropological mash-up. Just look at the average hipster’s outfit: a Palestinian scarf, Polynesian tattoos, a neck-inclusive beard from the peoples of Paleolithic France.

How could this culture-vulture smorgasbordism fail to find its way into the culinary currents? It hasn’t, of course, and it flows freely and unabashedly through Spice Creek Café, an upscale, mostly delectable New American Cuisine restaurant located in downtown Chico. Spice Creek is not “Fusion,” that restaurateur subhead cliché too often tacked to the end of multi-hyphenated atlas entries, as in “Adrìatökpâh: Pan-Latin-Sub-Saharan-East-Asian Fusion,” a perfectly possible restaurant name I just made up. Ingredients are not forced together; they are creatively combined with flavor, not newness, as their muse.

Results vary. But, first, a word on the overall experience of dining here.

Being ushered to one of the coveted window seats, one feels at first that he or she is the recipient of VIP treatment—here one is treated to a view of the urban-esque goings-ons, the envious passersby, the atmospheric auburn light of late afternoon. This commingles with the first glass of Sonoma Valley sauvignon blanc, and the magic of a night of dining finely begins to take form.

And then Biffy (in mini-shorts) and Brad (in “Tapout” shirt) lurch by, garishly gesticulating, elaborately expectorating, eyes glossy and void. (The setting sun’s “magic hour,” as photographers call it, also marks the sporting bar’s “happy hour”—and in college towns, stunning luminosity incongruously washes over stumbling figures bedecked in wing-sauce-stained getups, creating a tableau part Abercrombie, part Hiroshima.) Maybe it’s impossible to do “fancy” and “windows” in downtown Chico. A table in the back, perhaps?

Still, the overall ambiance of Spice Creek, with its glitzy ’80s/’70s/I-don’t-know-the-hell-when-era décor is fairly lovely. The service is attentive yet unobtrusive; the acoustics are such that neighbors’ conversations don’t protrude, but rather create a soft din that acts as a veil of aural privacy; the lighting is softly dimmed, creating a visual version thereof. And all of this combines into an aura of enveloping intimacy that allows one’s full attention to rest where it ought to, on one’s dining companion, and on the food.

A recent visit (of gorging) for two, found the Madagascar Prawns ($16.95) an inventive, tasty, not-too-rich combination of tropical fruits, peppers and Thai curry—rimmed with slices of fresh banana and bok choy leaves.

The special—a plate of halibut entombed in two radical redefinitions of mole—was good, but the delicious moles were just as good on the rice as they were on the fish, which was somewhat lost (though not lost on the dish’s $22.95 price tag).

The star of the night was the oh-so-tender rack of lamb ($26.95). It includes both an olive tapenade and a tomato-based Moroccan sauce assembled from apricots, almonds and chickpeas. The grilled vegetable side was somewhat flaccid; otherwise this dish might have induced one of those end-of-Ratatouille-revelatory childhood flashbacks. A flourless chocolate cake-type thing was surprisingly unsurprising.

At Spice Creek, then, the whole conservative vs. liberal thing plays out in menu microcosm—the wisdom of tradition vs. the endless possibilities of an inventive, untrammeled Generation Next.

One wonders how far the desire for the new and creative can go in the culinary world. Envision, if you will, a diner’s expression at a cutting-edge, extremely expensive, talk-of-the-town-type bistro when the silver salver’s lid is raised and it unveils … absolutely nothing—a victuals version of John Cage’s 4’33”, the controversial musical piece wherein the musicians make no sounds.

It’s not surprising that these reconnaissance missions into the future of flavor would bring back news both great and so-so. One day, like with art, it will indeed be difficult to find anything new under the culinary sun. Until that day, “Bon provecho, and êáëü appetite.”