The Spice is Right

by Angeleno Magazine, June 22, 2011

by Brad A. Johnson

The hostess is leading my party through the bar toward the dining room to our table, but I get sidetracked—mesmerized—by the wood-burning grill. It’s practically a bonfire, flames raging up through the iron grates, the aroma of wood smoke already beginning to infiltrate my cotton sweater. A cook in a white jacket calmly pokes at the logs, egging the flames even higher. He repositions a half-dozen skewers so that they’re just close enough to the blaze that they get nicely charred, but not so close that they go up in smoke.

The bar quickly fills with the musky scent and occasional high-pitched sizzle of lamb fat dripping onto the coals. The cook adds something else to the grill—little green packages wrapped in banana leaves, and within an instant the air is infused with the exotic, tropical scent of scorched chlorophyll. The hostess realizes she’s lost me. She waves from the dining room. The rest of my party is already seated. I inhale another intoxicating whiff of the fireplace, then rush to join them. It’s a beautiful, unpretentious room with a mysterious aura framed by exposed bricks and high ceilings. Bamboo birdcages dangle from electrical cords softly illuminated by the dim bulbs trapped inside each cage. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice chef Nancy Silverton’s head of curly hair. The famous chef/owner of Pizzeria and Osteria Mozza is dining at a corner table, head down, completely immersed in the joy of eating. A waiter comes by to drop off the daily beer specials. He’s excited to tell us about one of the day’s additions, a beer that’s brewed with Thai basil leaves.

The Spice Table is L.A.’s first great Singaporean restaurant. It’s also one of the most exciting eateries to come along this year. Technically it’s not just Singaporean. There’s a bit of Vietnamese in the mix as well. The young chef/owner is Bryant Ng, who was one of Silverton’s opening chefs at Pizzeria Mozza. Ng’s father is Singaporean, his wife’s background is Vietnamese, and this is an ode to the cooking of their heritage; a modern (but thankfully not avant-garde) riff on the comfort food they grew up with.

The restaurant has the look and feel of a place where the owner is hands-on. In a strange way, it’s a lot like Mozza—except a lot younger and much hipper, with chopsticks and chiles. The service is fantastic, very professional, straight out of the gates. It’s a well-oiled machine for such a young team.

The waiter raises his eyebrows. “Those are both super spicy,” he says. “Can you handle it?”

We’ve just ordered the spicy eggplant and the black pepper crab toast. I’m accustomed to waiters warning me about foods they think will be spicy, and they’re usually exaggerating. Not here. He’s right. Both dishes send shockwaves down our throats and into our nostrils. I look around and realize half the room is sniffling. Another of the zestier culprits is the sambal fried potatoes. If you’ve had the twice-fried fingerling potatoes at Osteria Mozza, your eyes will recognize these, although your tongue probably won’t. These are slathered with wildly delicious red chile paste.

Some of the best dishes are the ones that come from the wood-burning grill, like the lamb belly satay, which is about 40 percent fat and covered in char. Or consider the skewers of prawns drenched in red chile marinade—messy but worth the effort. Those fragrant banana leaf packages unfold to reveal long, slender mackerel cakes spiked with hot chile paste.

Not everything is spicy, of course. A special satay offered one night is sweetbreads served with Nueske bacon. Another is a rib-eye steak, cut up and coated with palm sugar, fermented shrimp paste and black peppercorn, then grilled.

Small plates make up most of the menu, which also includes heady, curry-fried chicken wings, pristine yellowtail crudo with green onion and chiles, and crispy fried cauliflower with a light, tempura-like batter. The dessert menu is short—merely two or three items, but they are some of the best desserts in town at the moment: a very simple Kaffir lime custard and a soft-serve ice cream that tastes exactly like Hong Kong milk tea.

The limited handful of large plates typically includes a noodle dish, some sort of braised meat such as beef rendang, a very typical Hainanese chicken rice and a big bowl of laksa, the latter of which is unquestionably Singapore’s most famous dish. The noodles on offer during one visit are blanched egg noodles with ground pork and char sui (Chinese-style barbecue pork), which smell and taste more like Singapore than anything else I’ve ever encountered in L.A.

“Here, taste this and tell me what you think,” I say to my Singaporean friend who’s dining at my table on my second visit. I’ve brought her along to give me her thoughts on the laksa. I’ve sampled it already the first time around, and now I want to see what she thinks. I’ve been to Singapore three times in the past two years, and several times before that, so I’ve learned that there are as many different interpretations of laksa in Singapore as there are versions of tacos al pastor in L.A.

“I don’t have to taste it,” she says, tilting the bowl to get a good look. “I can tell just by looking at this laksa that it’s too thick. That’s not noodle soup. That’s a bowl of gravy that happens to have noodles in it.”

That was precisely my own reaction and the reason why I wanted to come back with my friend. Granted, everyone in Singapore has an opinion about laksa, and rarely does everyone agree. So if I had brought a different Singaporean along, she might very well have loved it. But for the two of us at least, laksa should be brothy, like soup. Plus, this one’s too intensely fishy for my taste. But that doesn’t make it a bad laksa. It simply makes it my least favorite thing on the menu. In fact, it’s the only thing on the menu that I haven’t loved.

The Spice Table
Rating ****