The Spice Table: A fusion of street and technique

by Brand X, March 30, 2011

Seeking salvation from yet another stormy evening in Los Angeles, I ducked into Bryant Ng’s new Little Tokyo restaurant, the Spice Table. Dim Edison bulbs cast a soft glow on the exposed red brick walls and the scent of satays crackling over an open flame filled the entryway. Chilled to the bone, I was looking for comfort. I found it in a plate of crispy, spicy, curry-fried chicken wings.

The Southeast Asian small plates at the Spice Table are a far cry from what fanatic foodies might recognize as Ng’s cooking. The young chef has spent time in the kitchen at Daniel in New York as well as Campanile, and most recently served as the opening chef de cuisine at Pizzeria Mozza. His new solo project is a tribute to both he and his wife Kim Luu-Ng’s heritage.

Once married, the two decided to start both a new life and a new business, one whose cuisine draws on both of their lineages. (Bryant is Singaporean/Chinese, Kim is Vietnamese.) Having met in an izakaya in New York City, it seemed natural for them to pick Little Tokyo as the location of their joint venture.

Formerly the home of a Cuban restaurant, the building itself is more than 100 years old; according to Bryant, it’s been a warehouse for Weiland Brewery and a Japanese speakeasy in its time. The space’s rich history drew in the couple, and the concept of free parking and good foot traffic made them stay.

The revamped restaurant’s focal point is a collection of large birdcage chandeliers brought back from Vietnam by Kim’s sister and cousin. Another simple but eye-catching detail is the wood-burning hearth situated behind the bar. Bryant says that it’s an extension of his childhood memories, captured when he used to visit Singapore’s satay clubs.

“I remember the smell of the charcoal burning,” he says. “There was Indian, Chinese, Malaysian; and having all those flavors and scents at once was one of my first sensory memories.”

Bryant burns almond wood and lump coal on the grill, which is primarily used to prepare the Southeast Asian skewers called satays. Lamb belly satay — an earthier incarnation of the pork belly that is seen on every menu these days — is just one of the speared treasures that comes off the smoking grill. It’s served alongside a sweet and savory peanut sauce.

Other hits were the otah — spicy pulverized mackerel that’s mixed with chili, coconut and lemongrass and steamed in a banana leaf over an open flame — and light and airy fried cauliflower florets served with a mellow fish sauce.

The chicken curry, which takes three days to prepare, is more mellow than Thai or Indian versions, but its flavors are round, developed and complex. Rather than socking you in the face and scurrying away, the spices hang around to do a little tap dance on your palate.

The Spice Table’s well-edited craft beer list complements the cuisine and features some interesting options, local and otherwise. Beers like the Bruery’s Orchard White and Rugbrød come in tasters (4 oz/$1.75-$2), 12 oz ($5-7) and pints ($6-$9). They also serve Singaporean Tiger Beer ($5.50/ bottle) — a good match for the beer-battered cauliflower. Wines are also available for $13-$16/glass.

For now, the restaurant is dinner service only, but within the next few weeks, the Spice Table will start serving lunch. Ngoc Biu, a third generation Vietnamese baker, will be rolling out baguettes for their selection of Southeast Asian-inspired sandwiches, including one made with Vietnamese ham, pâté and house-made headcheese.

It’s this fusion of street and technique that makes Singaporean cuisine, and the Spice Table, so unique.

–Krista Simmons