On an early summer night, I'm enjoying sitting at a sidewalk table taking in the street action in front of the Spice Table, a 3-month-old Vietnamese-Singaporean restaurant in Little Tokyo. People are walking by, rushing past on their way inside or to some other spot in the neighborhood. A breeze ruffles the edge of the paper menu. Downtown's skyscrapers light up the sky. The vibe is relaxed and festive. How can it not be when spice, chile and fish sauce are calling?
The server turns up the heat lamps when the wind picks up and brings out an order of fried cauliflower florets so light and crispy we devour the whole thing in a flash. We order a second just because we can't stop eating those finger-scorching, lightly battered florets. This, we soon find out, is a kitchen that knows how to fry and, if the cauliflower's fiery dipping sauce is any indication, one that isn't afraid of cranking up the chile and sambal heat.
The Spice Table weaves elements of cuisines from all over Southeast Asia through the menu like bright threads of silk. Owners Bryant Ng and his wife, Kim, come by these flavors naturally: He's Singaporean; she's Vietnamese. But this is no little mom-and-pop restaurant.
Ng was Pizzeria Mozza's chef de cuisine and also cooked at Daniel in New York, so he knows his way around a professional kitchen. The restaurant opened in March in a weathered brick building with high ceilings and windows framed with riveted steel. Inside, the bar dispenses a well-edited array of craft beers, mostly local. Satay sizzles on a wood grill fired with almond wood. A rib-eye steak is on there too. It's always a good sign when you walk into a restaurant and catch the good scents of food cooking over a wood fire.
After waves of Italian restaurants, French bistros, Mediterranean small-plate concepts and steakhouses, contemporary Asian is on the radar, and the Spice Table gets just about everything right.
The dining room, adorned with antique iron bird cages, is dark and atmospheric by night, cheerful by day. Service from a staff that's genuinely jazzed about the food is warm and professional. And the food — made with top-notch ingredients, cooked with care and redolent of the flavors of Vietnam and Singapore — puts Southeast Asia right on your plate.
The menu's snack category includes some great dishes for beer. You'll want an order of the peanuts and crispy fried anchovies with chiles first, just to nibble on and fire up your taste buds. Then definitely an order of curry fried chicken wings. Before frying, they're rolled in panko and a house-made spice mix, and the wings, served hot and crunchy, are a wonderful match with the Bruery's Tradewinds Tripel, a summery Belgian-style golden ale with the lightest hint of Thai basil. And if you love chicken liver, you have to get the spicy chicken livers and toast. Not a beauty queen of a dish, by any means, but the coarse-textured liver is delicious spread on the toasts that comes with it.
Bone marrow, halved and smeared with shrimp sambal and cooked over the wood fire is brilliant: The fiery paste cuts through the fat, giving it definition and contrast.
Try sampling several beers while you're nibbling, including North Coast Brewing Co.'s Pranqster. The eight or so beers on tap change out from time to time to bring in seasonal specialties. The only bottled beer is Singapore's Tiger beer, which, of course, the restaurant has to have. The wine list is just big enough to fit on the back page of the paper menu, organized from light-bodied to full-bodied, with apt choices for the cuisine — Riesling, Albariño, Txakolina, Pinot Gris for whites; Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Dolcetto for reds.
A number of dishes are vegetarian. That fried cauliflower for one, but also smoky grilled bok choy with shiitake and oyster sauce, or grilled Japanese eggplant napped in a ruddy chile sauce. Order the sambal-fried potatoes at your peril: You won't be able to stop eating them, but the sambal (made in-house) packs so much heat, beer and more beer is required to soothe your inflamed palate. I love them.
Satays are built for an IPA or golden ale, especially the rich, fatty lamb belly satay, crisped at the edges, and the skewer of chile prawns. Catfish claypot isn't what you think — no fish head and scary bones, but a thick cross-cut piece almost dry-roasted in the pot so the fish absorbs the charge of the red chile sauce.
During soft-shell crab season, the Spice Table is getting them in every day. And how do Ng and chef de cuisine Bonnie Jiang (ex-Lucques) cook them? Beer-battered and fried. They're delicately crunchy and served on a salted egg sauce. Just drag those crab legs through the rich, slightly runny sauce, and pop them in your mouth.
I have two more favorite dishes: Hainanese chicken rice and beef rendang. The two couldn't be more different. The rice, with a chicken thigh and leg perched on top, is a gentle, home-style dish that comforts and soothes with each bite; the flavors are simple and pure. Beef rendang, on the other hand, features intricately spiced, slow-braised beef so tender you could practically eat it with a spoon. It's not shy on firepower either, though the heat smolders and comes on slowly.
The one dish that's something of an acquired taste is otah, finely minced spicy mackerel and coconut, cooked inside a banana leaf wrapper. It's the mushy texture that's off-putting.
At lunch, they make their own shrimp chips (you'll never go back to the packaged ones). Except for the curry fried chicken wings, the menu is mostly Vietnamese-style sandwiches, including one stuffed with Vietnamese ham, paté and headcheese, along with pickles, chiles and housemade garlic mayo. Fried catfish is enticing too, perfectly matched with that smoldering housemade sambal, pickled cucumbers, lime and garlic mayonnaise.
To keep it simple, only two desserts are on the menu. One is a soft-serve ice cream made with Strauss organic cream. I love the slightly bitter taste of the one made with four kinds of black tea. The other choice is a kaffir lime custard with an ethereal texture. Either is a lovely note to sign off on a meal.
It's exciting to see a young chef take on the challenge of creating a contemporary take on the cuisines of Vietnam and Singapore, bringing everything he learned working in high-end kitchens to the task. But the Spice Kitchen works not just because of Ng's technical expertise but because of his emotional connection to the food he grew up with.
The Spice Table
Rating: two stars Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent.**: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
LOCATION: 114 S. Central Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 620-1840, http://www.thespicetable.com.
PRICE: Snacks, $6 to $10; satays, $8 to $12; vegetables, $7 to $8; seafood, $12 to $14; meats and poultry, $13 to $16; rice and noodles, $2 to $12; desserts, $5.
DETAILS: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday; dinner, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Monday to Wednesday and 5:30 p.m. to midnight Thursday to Saturday. Corkage fee, $10. Valet parking, $6.50; with validation, you get $3 back if you stay 1½ hours or less, in adjoining lot. Reservations are taken for dinner only, in person or at its website.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times