The Spice Table – Los Angeles, CA
You’d be hard-pressed to find a country more obsessed with food than Singapore. Eating is the national pastime and working there in 2006 gave birth to some of my fondest food memories. Lunch breaks were spent gorging on bowls of laksa, hokkien mee, and char kway teow. I developed an unhealthy obsession over Hainan Chicken Rice and tried every notable joint in the city-state (Tian Tian emerged victorious). One memorable afternoon was spent hunched over Muthu’s spicy fish head curry, slurping up all the fiddly gelatinous bits. And I still long for the Heng “carrot cake” at the Newton Food Centre, which interestingly contains no carrot at all—just shredded radish fried with egg, garlic, and ketjap manis, a thick sweet soy sauce.
Years later, I’m still not exactly sure why Singaporean food tickled my stomach and pulled at my heartstrings. Was it how the local cuisine’s Chinese, Indian, and Malay influence spoke volumes about the country’s culture? Or maybe it was because food was the country’s great equalizer. No matter how famous or popular, dishes were affordable and everyone had to stand in line.
Or perhaps it was simply because the best Singaporean food was cheap, ubiquitous, and delicious beyond description.
So it was with cautious optimism that I entered The Spice Table, Bryant Ng’s Vietnamese-Singaporean restaurant in Little Tokyo. Given Ng was Pizzeria Mozza’s chef de cuisine and also cooked at Daniel in New York, I figured the food wouldn’t be a flop; but would it inspire the same joy I experienced back in Singapore years ago? Would it be authentic? I was scared it would be Westernized beyond recognition.
Turns out I had nothing to worry about. Bryant is Singaporean, and his cooking -bold, polished, and vigorous- isn’t an attempt to intensely recreate classic Asian dishes; rather, they’re redefined through his eyes, marrying the intense flavors of his heritage with the finesse gained from his years at Michelin-starred restaurants.
Order Ng’s Crab Pepper Toast and you’ll find the grunt work of eating crab –cracking the shells and fishing out the meat- has been already done. Slices of toast accompany a hefty mound of crab meat (thoughtfully kept in large chunky portions instead of tiny bits and pieces) held together by black pepper sauce. Load your toast up, squirt on some lime, and take a bite: what first hits you is that familiar punchy peppercorn flavor that seems to get spicier with each bite. You’ll then notice a mellow sweetness (oyster sauce? hoisin?) followed by hints of ginger while the initial blast of peppercorn lingers on. It’s complex and deeply satisfying, lighter than the pepper crab I’ve had in Asia, and shows the kitchen is not afraid of turning up the heat.
A plate of fried cauliflower florets is the most popular appetizer at The Spice Table and for good reason: it veers closer to junk food than vegetable, with a light, airy batter that reminds me of the best fish & chips.
And I suspect Ng’s spicy chicken liver dish is a nod to Pizzeria Mozza’s sublime chicken liver and guanciale bruschetta; same deal with the sambal fried potatoes. Thankfully, both are just as good as their Batali-Silverton counterparts.
Not all appetizers wow though. Grilled bok choy with mushrooms and oysters sauce doesn’t inspire; yellowtail, served raw with scallions, green onions, and chili, is forgettable and reminiscent of similar preparations around town.
While the appetizers section may be a hit or miss, The Spice Table’s wood burning grill, practically a bonfire on steroids, can do no wrong. Loose embers swirl about and flames rage, covering everything in a wonderful smoky char. Go ahead and order some satay, the Malaysian equivalent of grilled meat on a stick. Skip the pedestrian chicken, beef, and pork offerings and head straight for the lamb belly and tripe. The belly is a flavor bomb, exploding with so much meaty greasy goodness you’ll instinctively reach for a big tall glass of beer to wash it all down. The tripe, crisp and charred ink-black on the edges but soft and chewy on the insides, is the perfect vehicle to carry that savory-smoky-woody aroma.
The slab of rib-eye that emerges from the flames is just as good. Ng marinates it in palm sugar and pepper then grills it to a perfect medium rare, redolent of char, spice, and caramel.
You won’t find Ng’s bone marrow in Singapore’s hawker stalls but who cares? It’s phenomenal. Smeared with shrimp paste and house-made sambal, then stuck on the wood burning grill until just on the edge of collapse, it’s served with some rau ram, pickled onions, and maldon salt. Our server told us to spread the marrow onto the toast, but I prefer to load it in large scoops— a big blob instead of a shallow smear. It’s pungent, spicy, and deliciously rich.
As heavenly as the marrow is, the grilled pig’s tail is the best thing on the menu. Period. The tail is my favorite part of the pig– a place where fat, flesh, and bone magically coalesce, rewarding your lips with layers of sticky collagen and moist meat. Here they are boiled, grilled over flames, and served with lettuce, mint, perilla leaves, and rau ram. If you’re anything like me, you’ll instinctively wrap it up with veggies, dunk it in the spicy fish sauce, and shove it in your mouth. It’s at once salty, smoky, sour, lean, and gooey—a spectacular contrast of flavor and texture and certainly one of the best things I’ve had all year.
If you’re still hungry, skip the mediocre Hainan chicken rice and get the beef rendang, laksa, and kon loh mee. All three are great. Sure, the laksa noodles are oddly udon-like, but the coconut milk-laced curry broth is the best in town. And make sure to leave room for dessert! After all that gluttony, a refreshing kaffir lime custard is the perfect ending.