As a somewhat jaded New Yorker, rarely do I find myself in an establishment that begs me to ask the question: where the hell am I?? SPiN, however, has bested me.
Located on 23rd street and Park Avenue South is SPiN, a rather unconventional business venture backed by Susan Sarandon. The name is kind of vague so I'll spell it out for you: imagine a 13,000 square foot billiards club, but instead of pool tables and old smokers in plaid shirts everywhere, it's ping pong tables and investment bankers in collared shirts (mostly, but all pong lovers are welcome). It's on the lower level of the building, which already adds to the "underground" vibe, and upon entering, you certainly feel like you're in some sort of exclusive club, which is essentially what it is anyway: a "ping pong social club." Who knew? I will admit that it looks like a fun place to entertain though. You have to give it to us New Yorkers – we embrace change (and eccentricity) very well.
Normally, a table tennis social club isn't something I would go running to, but when I found out there was a new restaurant opening inside of it, I was suddenly intrigued. Opening this Saturday (1/23), Ducks at SPiN is a casual little dining area (with full bar) just a few feet away from the masses of ping pong tables. To that end, be on the lookout for stray ping pong balls flying your way during your meal; it's not bad, in fact it adds an element of authenticity to the experience. Anyway, we were there for the soft opening, and the menu is a good mix of classic bar food with a twist, and creative sandwiches.
Ducks claims to make the best grilled cheese, so that was obviously one of my choices for the evening. The rest was a tough decision because everything sounded really good, but we opted for some wings, lettuce wraps with jumbo lump crab meat, "The Saigon" sandwich, and some gourmet popcorn with chocolate, coconut and powdered sugar. I'm eating chocolate popcorn at a table tennis club…my mind was spinning (no pun intended, I swear).
All the food was really good, but I definitely favored some things. First off, the grilled cheese brought me back to grade school: it was really thin and cheesy on sourdough bread. It wasn't the BEST I've ever had, but I have to say I never had a grilled cheese on sourdough bread before, and that definitely gave it that extra bite; it was good, but not my favorite of the night. The wings were probably the best, followed by the popcorn and the lettuce wraps, believe it or not. The lettuce wraps were filled with jumbo lump crab meat, cashews, green curry, green mango slaw, and pork rousong, aka pork floss, which isn't as gross as it sounds…in the slightest. They were little bundles of light, fluffy crab goodness with a slight tang from the curry. Loved it. The popcorn might have been laced with some habit-forming drug too, because even though I was full, I couldn't stop eating it. Anything that has that salty/sweet mixture in a bite size shape is dangerous to me, but this was strange, in a delicious way.
The Saigon sandwich was a close runner up for my favorite of the night – it was both meaty and cooly refreshing at the same time (and once again, that mountain of cilantro follows me to every sandwich I eat now – damn you, cilantro!). The sweet and savory five-spice pork with chili aioli was so tender, then topped off with cool pickled daikon, cucumber, cracklings and lemongrass pate made it a bevy of textures and kept me surprised with each bite. I love a good sandwich. In case you can't tell.
The wings definitely deserve some special attention as well. And this was actually a game-time decision. Not on our original order, the girls next to us ordered them and I took one glance and said "ok, I think we have to get those." Good call by me. They were so messy, but so good. Executive chef Will Horowitz aka "Papa Duck" came by for a moment to chat with us, and he explained how much he loves wings and how the sauce is the baby of many, many years of wing-tasting. He says it has the best of both worlds: the vinegary kick like North Carolina bbq sauce, and the thick, Texas-style spicy glaze. He would be correct on that; the sauce is not too spicy, not too sweet, and had just enough of a coating - not to mention the wings themselves were meaty and crispy. Just…perfection. He said the recipe for the sauce comprises of so many ingredients, it would take too long to list them. Well, whatever the secret is, it's working.
The only thing I missed out on was dessert. After my menu sampling and 2 (or 3?) Kazmanian Devils (vodka, prosecco, sage infusion – yum), I considered the sweet popcorn my dessert. According to Will, the Ducks vision was initially to be a simple grilled cheese and tomato soup kind of restaurant (both still on the menu), but as he and his talented team started putting their heads together, they just decided to have fun with it and keep evolving the food. For instance, he said there might be pork buns on this weekend's menu. And next week, who knows? "We have fun here…we cook, we play ping pong, what more could you ask for?" In my case, I should have asked for dessert.