Jonathan Gold Reviews Spice Table
by LA Weekly, May 26, 2011
If you wanted to understand the precise state of L.A. cooking at the moment, you could take a look at the roasted marrowbones at Spice Table downtown, a dish that seems to express everything important about local cuisine. You’ve seen bone marrow before. Beverly Hills steak house Cut does a magnificent bone-marrow flan, and the roasted bones show up a lot at meaty places like Lazy Ox, Mozza and Animal. Roasted marrowbones are a signature of Fergus Henderson, whose offal-intensive London restaurant is the lodestar of the Euro-American nose-to-tail movement.
The labor involved in serving them properly — sourcing the bones, sawing them in half, roasting them to just that point before the marrow collapses into grease — indicates a seriousness of intent; dedication to a dish that is usually one of the lowest-priced things on your menu, and which half of your customers would cross the street to avoid.
You don’t actually have to eat bone marrow to be glad that it’s on the menu. It means that somebody in the kitchen cares.
Bryant Ng, the chef at Spice Table, roasts his marrowbones in the wood fire that perfumes his downtown restaurant, and caps the semicylinders with a Southeast Asian paste of fermented shrimp and ground chiles that chars and crisps in the smoky heat. Henderson and his followers tend to flank their bones with tart parsley salads that tame the intense oiliness of the marrow. Ng serves his with a small stack of rau ram leaves, the pungent Vietnamese herb called laksa leaf in Ng’s native Singapore, as well as a tangle of scarlet onions that look like something plucked from a Yucatan taco. And when you spoon the trembling marrow onto a bit of sliced baguette, garnishing it with the rau ram and a sliver of the pickled onion, the taste of the leaf is sharp, almost metallic; the funk of the shrimp paste gives way to a low, throbbing chile heat; and the marrow melts on your tongue, meat yet beyond meat; the mellow, liquid bass line that makes the other flavors dance. You pull at a glass of cool rye beer, and you start in again. In a minute, the bones will look as if piranhas scraped them clean.
Spice Table, a high-ceilinged, candlelit restaurant in a patch of Little Tokyo better known for noodle shops and izakayas, seems to gather half the strands of contemporary cooking into a single, weathered-brick restaurant. You can smell the wood smoke a block or two away, and the roster of craft beers is as long as the wine list. The food comes out on small plates, meant to be shared. Ng haunts the farmers markets. You have to reserve online — nobody picks up the phone during business hours. You will find both a spicy marinated yellowtail dish — is there a new restaurant in town without one? — and a signature cheeseburger, which gives the impression of an In-N-Out burger made with chile sambal instead of secret spread. Lunchtime sees Spice Table’s versions of bánh mì, sandwiches of curried eggplant, fried catfish or liver-rich homemade charcuterie served on baguettes baked each morning in-house.
You might expect a restaurant from Ng, the opening chef of Pizzeria Mozza, to be jammed from the moment it opened, and you wouldn’t be surprised to find quartinos of crisp Italian white wine. Diligent ingredient sourcing would practically be a given, as would be the complex, small-plate vegetable preparations.
What you wouldn’t expect is that Spice Table serves neither regional Italian dishes nor the food of the Mediterranean, but chiefly riffs on the multicultural street food of Singapore, including Hainan chicken rice; thin, bouncy kon lo mee noodles with chashu; crumbles of ground pork and braised choi sum; and crunchy fried chicken wings, crust laced with South Indian curry, that appear in no Singaporean hawker centers, but probably would be a hit if they did.
Crisply fried cauliflower with turmeric? Why not. The laksa, soft noodles in a thick, coconut-based broth, are jolted with strong, fermented shrimp paste belacan, more intense than you usually find in Singapore. And you can’t leave without tasting the curry-dusted fried peanuts and dried anchovies, or the perfect crossover dish of sambal potatoes, basically Mozza’s fried potatoes smeared with spicy chile paste.
If Ng has a specialty, it is his satay, the skewered, marinated meat, grilled over fire. The chile-soaked prawns can be dry, the chicken a little bland, but the lamb belly is magnificent, crusted black and spurting gamy juice. The otah, another Malay dish, is wonderful, bits of mackerel folded into banana-leaf packets with coconut cream, grilled until they collapse into spicy custard.
If Spice Table is running offal as a special — it often does — it is essential, especially the tripe, which becomes pure smoke and chew over the flames, and the soy-brushed sweetbreads skewered with scraps of bacon. The grilled rib-eye, marinated in garlic, palm sugar and a big handful of peppercorns, shares most of the satays’ virtues — it’s not on the menu, but you can usually talk somebody into serving it to you.
After dinner, there is soft-serve ice cream flavored with palm sugar or kumquat, and better yet, industrial-strength Vietnamese filter coffee, brewed at table, mixed with condensed milk and stirred into a glass of ice.