The Spice of Life, Located Inside Fortune Teller Bar, Shows Great Promise

The Spice of Life serves a variety of hand pies, wraps and nachos -- and a terrific cheesecake.
The Spice of Life serves a variety of hand pies, wraps and nachos -- and a terrific cheesecake. MABEL SUEN

The Spice of Life

2635 Cherokee Street (inside the Fortune Teller Bar). Mon. 4-9 p.m.; Wed.-Thurs. 4-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 4 p.m.-midnight; Sun. 4-9 p.m. (Closed Tuesdays.) Pepperoni hand pie $4; Nachos with chicken $8; Cheesecake $4.

If you find yourself at the Spice of Life, the new food counter inside the Fortune Teller Bar, you may want to start with dessert. That's not simply because the signature cheesecake is utterly delicious but because it's why the place exists in the first place.

"The cheesecake is the catalyst," says co-owner Lily Sparen of partner Daniel Spicer's culinary calling card.

Unlike most versions of the sweet treat, Spicer's eschews a graham cracker crust in favor of crushed hazelnuts accented with almond and whole wheat flours, local honey, turbinado sugar and ghee. It's a subtly sweet, wonderfully textured base for a cloud-like cheesecake filling that is crowned with a crème fraiche-like concoction of double-strained yogurt, kirschwasser and almond extract. A little bit tart from the yogurt and cherry brandy, the topping cuts through the decadent cream cheese and ties all the flavors together in beautiful balance.

click to enlarge The cheesecake will knock your socks off. - MABEL SUEN
The cheesecake will knock your socks off.

Like many of his recipes, the cheesecake is something Spicer had been perfecting for years, developing a small but passionate fan base for the dessert that includes his friend Chris McKenzie. The two formed a fast friendship a few years ago when Spicer was the lead line cook at BEAST Craft BBQ. When Spicer heard that McKenzie was opening Mac's Local Eats in early 2017, he went in with samples of his magnificent dessert and asked if McKenzie would be interested in selling them. One bite was all it took for "Mac" to agree.

McKenzie was so impressed with Spicer's cheesecake that he urged him to take an even bigger step. He'd heard that the Fortune Teller Bar was looking for someone to take over its food counter after Ari Ellis closed the Cut to open a restaurant of her own. McKenzie suggested Sparen and Spicer use the space as a home base for their small catering company, Spice of Life, or SöL.

click to enlarge Co-owners Lily Sparen and Daniel Spicer. - MABEL SUEN
Co-owners Lily Sparen and Daniel Spicer.

Sparen and Spicer did not hesitate, not only because they suspected it would be a good fit, but because they were more than ready to take the next step in their business. After meeting a few years back while working together at Balance Coffee & Tea in Belleville, Illinois, the pair bonded over a shared passion for food and the hospitality industry. For Sparen, it began when she was a little kid, helping her stepmom at a coffee house, and it grew into a successful front-of-house career. For Spicer, his love for the business developed through a combination of gigs in the back of the house and playing around with recipes in his home kitchen.

The pair dreamt of opening a restaurant together, and eventually founded SöL as a catering company. However, after a few small gigs, they knew that in order to take their business to the next level, they needed a dedicated space. Talking to Fortune Teller's owner, Matt Thenhaus, they realized his kitchen was exactly what they were looking for. After a trial run helping out with the Fortune Teller's anniversary party, they sealed the deal to take over the bar's food counter, developing a menu that married their favorite foods with the needs of the bar's patrons. Spice of Life opened last November.

click to enlarge Spice of Life's tiny window offers amazing treats. - MABEL SUEN
Spice of Life's tiny window offers amazing treats.

Like its predecessor, the Cut, SöL is no more than a tiny window with an almost-as-tiny kitchen at the back of the Fortune Teller — more concession stand than actual restaurant. And, like the Cut, it's an absolute delight.

Sparen and Spicer intentionally named their business to reflect their insistence on offering a variety of dishes without being pinned down to one particular genre. However, there is a cohesion to their small menu, which reads like a marriage of thoughtful bar food and barbecue. Baba ganoush, for instance, may be a Middle Eastern staple, but the deep wood smoke on the eggplant and liberal sprinkle of paprika give the creamy dip the type of earthy flavor you'd find at a smokehouse. Sliced Kalamata olives imbue the eggplant puree with a pleasant brininess that brightens the dish, and the accompanying crisped naan is so laden with garlic it's wonderful even on its own.

click to enlarge Nachos are topped with sautéed Brussels sprouts, green onion, jalapeños, cilantro and cheese sauce. - MABEL SUEN
Nachos are topped with sautéed Brussels sprouts, green onion, jalapeños, cilantro and cheese sauce.

SöL's nachos are a significant upgrade from standard bar nachos, starting with the chips themselves. Paper thin, crisp and perfectly salted, they are so delicate, you'd think they would buckle under the heft of the toppings. They don't, instead providing a crunchy base for sliced and sautéed Brussels sprouts, fresh jalapeño slices (none of that canned nonsense), cilantro and positively luxurious, housemade beer cheese sauce. Spicer typically offers a smoked meat as an add-on; on my visit, it was succulent pulled chicken, kissed with smoke and just a hint of spice rub.

click to enlarge The Chicken wrap stuffs garlic naan with smoked chicken, barbecue sauce, cheese, pickles and sautéed Brussels sprouts. - MABEL SUEN
The Chicken wrap stuffs garlic naan with smoked chicken, barbecue sauce, cheese, pickles and sautéed Brussels sprouts.

That wonderful chicken also made an appearance on a simple, but successful, chicken wrap. The juicy meat was wrapped in garlic naan, slathered in cheese sauce and sprinkled with verdant cilantro. The chicken's rub mingled with the cheese, forming an almost creamy barbecue sauce that made the dish.

The only dish that was a bit flat was the "Fun Guys," mushrooms stuffed with beer cheese and tapenade. The mushrooms were over-baked, making them chewy, and a drizzle of Italian dressing over the top, while welcome in the sense that it balanced the rich cheese filling, diluted the cheese sauce and made it too thin. I still ate them all, but compared to some of the other dishes, they were lackluster.

click to enlarge Hand pies come in a few different options: broccoli cheddar, pizza and steak 'n' tater. - MABEL SUEN
Hand pies come in a few different options: broccoli cheddar, pizza and steak 'n' tater.

You'd be better off saving room for SöL's savory hand pies, a housemade riff on a hot pocket that is destined to become the restaurant's signature dish. Sparen and Spicer vary their selection every day, offering everything from rich broccoli and cheddar and tender braised beef and onion to an outstanding pepperoni-pizza-inspired version that pairs the piquant salami with cheese and sweet marinara sauce. No matter which variety they serve on a particular day, the common theme is their terrific crust, a flaky, buttery shell, baked golden brown, that melts in the mouth like shortbread. At $4 a piece, these pies are an absolute steal.

Between that hand pie crust and the cheesecake, it's clear that Spicer has a knack for baking, and it will be exciting to watch what he and Sparen can achieve as they continue to get their footing. The fun thing about their concept is that it allows them to play around with different dishes and get their food in front of people with minimal investment. Like the Cut before them, the Fortune Teller arrangement could be a good launching pad for Spicer and Sparen to hone their business and develop a following.

Then again, if they do nothing more than open a cheesecake shop, we've all won.

About The Author

Cheryl Baehr

Cheryl Baehr is the restaurant critic for the Riverfront Times and an international woman of mystery. Follow her on the socials at @cherylabaehr
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