The Spice Table does not hold back strong flavors
Thereâ€™s a new restaurant spicing up the culinary scene in Little Tokyo.
Just like most of its neighboring restaurants, The Spice Table, a Singaporean- and Vietnamese-inspired eatery opened less than a month ago by former Pizzeria Mozza chef-de-cuisine Bryant Ng, is small, hip and artsy.
Parking is still atrocious. Prices are still high. And yes, itâ€™s another Asian eatery in Little Tokyo.
But you wonâ€™t find the typical sushi or fusion cuisine here, because The Spice Table is one of the few places in Los Angeles that serves traditional Singaporean dishes.
But Ng and his Vietnamese wife Kim are returning to their Southeastern roots, and they are delivering all spices with no mercy.
Ng, a Los Angeles native, travels back to his Singaporean heritage by dishing up local favorites like the famous Hainanese chicken rice and the spicy, coconut-based noodle soup, laksa.
These dishes are a far cry from the Italian dishes in his previous culinary career, in which he worked alongside well-known chefs like Daniel Boulud and Roland Passot.
The Spice Table, as the name might suggest, is not a comfortable place for spice-wimps.
The dishes are packed with flavor, and as you wipe away tears and the sweat from the heat, you find yourself coming close to dining at something like the noisy, non-air-conditioned hawker centers â€” chaotic places to find cheap food, found in Singapore.
Most of the dishes on the Ngâ€™s menu are derived from the mom-and-pop stalls of these ubiquitous, open-air food complexes that are cramped under the high-rise apartment buildings in Singapore.
With its fashionably exposed brick walls, clean wooden tables and bare light bulbs encased in traditional birdcages, The Spice Table hardly stays true to the ambience of hawker centers, but it does stay true to the cuisine.
Grilled, smoky satay? Check. Chunks of chicken in rich, coconut gravy? Check.
Lots and lots of complex, deliriously wonderful spices? Check, check and check.
A must-try is the Otah, a pate of mackerel, coconut milk and various spices, wrapped in banana leaf and then grilled until the fragrance of the crackling leaf infuses into the spicy, fleshy concoction.
Another Singaporean favorite (practically the national dish) is the chicken rice.
Itâ€™s made with minimal spices except for garlic and ginger, leaving the spotlight on the chicken.
Every grain of buttery rice is coated with chicken fat for maximum flavor, and the piece of chicken thigh on top is so perfectly cooked that the tiniest poke of a fork effortlessly peels the tender flesh away from the bone.
Make sure you dip some of the chicken meat into the trio of dipping sauces that come with the dish: a garlic-cilantro sauce, a sweet sticky soy sauce and sambal, Singaporeâ€™s favorite chili paste.
You can even suck on the bone marrow to extract more precious flavor from the dish if nobodyâ€™s watching.
Not all the dishes are of Singaporean origin, such as the fried cauliflower. But it will be a wasted trip if you donâ€™t try the dish.
Fat florets of cauliflower are battered, deep-fried and served hot and crispy with a sprinkle of fried cilantro. On the side is a sweet, salty and garlicky fish sauce.
Itâ€™s the gourmet, slightly healthier version of dipping tater tots in ketchup, except using chopsticks and paying $7 for a plate.
But itâ€™s worth every penny; the dish will make you want to start deep-frying every vegetable you eat.
The Spice Table also offers a modest menu of beer and wine, as well as Vietnamese coffee.
Pop a bottle of Tiger beer (Singaporeâ€™s first locally brewed beer) with a snack dish of fried peanuts and anchovies.
These anchovies are casual, dried and crispy tidbits, a far cry from the fancy Italian ones.
Other snacks include mouth-watering, spice-rubbed morsels of sambal-fried potatoes and crispy fried chicken wings that pack a distinct, spicy punch.
Because The Spice Table takes reservations and is new, expect a crowd.
The place is cramped and loud, and certainly not an ideal place for romantic or intimate conversations.
But at The Spice Table, the food will probably be the prime topic of conversation, and the only thing you want to be intimate with anyway.