Brunch in Southern California is a curious meal. Traditionally, it evokes a mental montage of mimosas, Bloody Marys, predictable breakfast foods, salads and sandwiches haphazardly heaped on a menu to satisfy culinary ambiguity.
Such vacuity, however, would be unbecoming of a chef with stints at Campanile and Restaurant Daniel. When Chef Bryant Ng, the mastermind behind The Spice Table — a popular Southeast Asian restaurant in Little Tokyo — decided to unveil a brunch menu recently, he didn’t just slap together a few generic breakfast foods and call it a day. Instead, the experimental chef put together a taut, concise affair that offers Asian breakfast dishes and Southeast Asian takes on traditional American dishes.
When The Spice Table first opened its doors two years ago, many restaurant goers were intrigued by the prospect of accessible Southeast Asian cuisine. In a city which had long considered noodle dishes and spring rolls monuments (and crudely, catch-all representatives) of the region’s cuisine, the restaurant has unearthed the intensity of Southeast Asian flavor combinations to Angelenos.
Since its opening, many have embraced Ng’s brainchild: Currently, The Spice Table is ranked No. 5 on Los Angeles Magazine’s best new restaurants list and last year, Ng was named one of Food & Wine’s best new chefs.
The Spice Table’s continued success has allowed Ng to get even more creative with his culinary offerings, including branching out into uncharted territory. His first such foray, the new brunch menu, showcases his ability to infuse Southeast Asian flavors into traditionally American dishes.
For visitors entering The Spice Table in the late morning, as opposed to during usual evening hours, they will notice the palpable change in the restaurant’s environment. The dark, industrial theme that had so often been abuzz with the din of patron chatter transforms into a bright, inviting space. Natural light pours in through a large window in the main dining room and illuminates the dark woods set against tan brick-lined walls. Even the chatter seems lighter and dulled down, almost with respect toward the restaurant’s brighter identity.
As far as the food itself, Ng’s sublime chicken livers and vaunted fried cauliflower are substituted for morning-friendly fare such as creamed kale, Nueske bacon and biscuits with lamb-bacon gravy.
The latter comes with two eggs prepared to order, breakfast potatoes and two towering, flaky biscuits slathered in a white gravy which discloses the subtlest hint of gaminess from the lamb. At first bite, the creamed kale has a startling heat of Thai chili; the spice cuts through the otherwise mellowed dish creating an addictive flavor profile. The Nueske bacon, though thoroughly cooked, tastes more like an intensely smoky cut of tender pork. The result is satisfying, but might disappoint those more inclined to the fat-streaked unctuousness of a more traditional rendition.
The kitchen spares no attention to detail; the accompanying eggs are flawlessly prepared — including a fluffy, just-before-fork-tender scramble. Avoid the breakfast potatoes, however. Though it hopefully was just an inconsistency, the dry, uninspired fingerling potatoes were salty enough to destroy the mightiest of morning appetites.
For those inclined to sweeter starts, they can look forward to the Kaya toast, which makes an appearance from the dinner menu. The gently buttered toast with coconut milk-based spread is much more at home on the brunch menu. The Singaporean snack is served with a dipping sauce of slow-cooked egg, white pepper and soy sauce. The true star of the sweets, however, is the Kaya doughnut, an almost ethereal pastry with just the slightest bite of al-dente glazed in a tropical-tasting coconut-egg jam. The finishing touch is a smattering of fleur de sel that neutralizes some of the sweetness of the glaze — it is that small detail that takes a simple guilty pleasure and elevates it to a dish worthy of a cult following.
Ng’s brunch menu is unlike anything offered in Los Angeles at the moment. Though Southeast Asian flavors themselves have been trendy lately among the food-conscious, to incorporate those flavors into well-worn American favorites errs on the deliciously forgivable side of safe. If nothing, the technical execution of the dishes is remarkable in light of the modest prices. The Spice Table might not re-invent brunch with its menu, but there are enough highlights on the menu to warrant a visit.