Some say opening a new restaurant is very much like giving birth to your first child. You jump into the deep end not fully sure of what you are getting yourself into; a long journey involving months of planning, hard work, and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. But when the moment comes, and you see your baby for the first time, you know without a doubt all the pains of labor were worthwhile.
I can’t claim to have accomplished either feat, but I was undeniably proud when I heard that chef Bryant Ng’s long awaited Spice Table in downtown LA was ready to serve its first customers. You see, I’ve followed Ng like a distant uncle, since hearing his story of leaving the corporate world to pursue his passion and love for food, going to Paris to study at Le Cordon Bleu, and cutting his teeth through an all-star roster of restaurants including Daniel (NY), Campanile (LA), La Folie (SF), and most recently, Pizzeria Mozza (LA). I’ve had the opportunity to sample Ng’s food on a few occasions, both personally and in professional kitchens, and this guy really knows what he’s doing. When a mutual friend told me a little while ago that Bryant left Mozza to finally pursue the dream of opening his own place, I was justifiably excited. After over a year of waiting and getting progress reports along the way, the day had come. Through my good friend from whom I know Ng, we were invited to be one of the first ones to sample the food at the Spice Table.
The restaurant occupies the space that once housed Cuba Central, and though I had never been there before, construction photos document the the complete gutting of interior so that Ng could realize his vision. Stepping into the Spice Table for the first time, you instantly feel an air of sophistication and refinement unexpected for a freshman attempt. The interplay of different elements and styles, and use of rustic materials like brick, wood, and copper is a prelude to Ng’s cuisine; simple and unadorned but with an underlying complexity that exudes a great attention to detail.
As you walk through the restaurant, there are definite touches of the east, like the lanterns fashioned from bamboo birdcages sourced from Vietnam. There’s enough restraint however, to keep it from being too Asian kitschy.
After learning his craft in some fairly upscale restaurants around the country, chef Ng returns home at his own place. The dishes are a nod to Ng’s Singaporean roots, and wife Kim’s Vietnamese heritage. Sambal fried potatoes are crisp, pillowy, thumb-sized nuggets, tossed in a lip-smacking chili sauce and slivered scallions. The pate and baguette is rich and livery, more deconstructed banh mi sandwich than French appetizer. The curry fried chicken wings show off Ng’s deft hand at spice, the curry powder adding just the right amount of unctuousness to the crispy crust. In what I believe to be a play on the salt and pepper calamari dish, Ng lightly batters cauliflower florets and deep fries them; they’re delightfully tender and very, very addicting.
The Spice Table offers a selection of satays, and tonight we sampled the lamb belly and pork varieties. I closed my eyes and the aroma of the charred meat skewers transported me to back southeast Asia. The laksa, a Singaporean favorite of thick round noodles in a rich curry broth, is heady with fragrance of sweet coconut. Slurp down the noodles and the spice builds in a warm and very satisfying mouth-tingling way. We sampled more dishes, each washed down with pints from their handpicked beer selection. If there is one thing evident from our initial experience, it’s that Ng definitely has a mastery of spice right out of the gate. The heat doesn’t slap you in the face, it embraces you like a toasty blanket. The chef assures us however that there will be some items in the near future that will also satisfy the macho, man vs. food types. We’ll have to check back on that.
At this point, there is a limited dessert menu, but don’t let that fool you. The kaffir lime custard looks a bit plain and unassuming but it was the perfect palate cleanser for the night; the creamy, tart custard with pops of lychee swirled throughout helped smolder the flames from our night’s meal.
Congratulations Bryant and Kim, on your new addition. We hope to be able to watch it grow and grow over the years.
Saturday night saw us heading out to the Mission once again, this time to meet a new friend in the bay area at Bar Tartine. An extension of Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson’s ever popular Tartine Bakery, the restaurant is just the type of place you wouldn’t mind having around the corner; it’s lively, cozy, and romantic, though simple and unfussy enough to pop in on a whim to grab a glass of wine and a bite at the bar. Plans are in place to expand the restaurant into the adjoining space, so hopefully the owners and new chef Nick Balla (replacing the just departed Chris Kronner) can keep the same neighborhood feel.
Notables were the luscious and guilt-inducing bone marrow with grilled toast, and the perfectly pan-roasted chicken. Any mention of specific dishes will likely be a moot point however, as Nick Balla is expected to make menu wide changes under his helm.
Though the debate still rages on about who has the best pie in San Francisco, my absolute favorite is still the margherita at Pizzeria Delfina. Man can’t live on pizza alone, and good thing their sides like the tuna conserva and insalata tricolore seldom disappoint. This joint not surprisingly is popular among others in the city, so get there early (preferably before they open) to nab a table. We got a nice one streetside to enjoy the beautiful weather and gorgeous food-friendly light.
Window and people watching in the neighborhood provided a welcomed opportunity to walk off some of the calories consumed…
though it wasn’t long before it was snack time again: a scoop or two from Bi-Rite’s creamy selections.
It’s easy to say that the best meal of the weekend for me was at Incanto, the restaurant of Mark Pastore and that offal guy, Chris Cosentino. For some odd reason I expected dinner to be a Zimmern Bourdain-ish type of experience, with a series of dares on who would be brave enough to eat what, but Incanto was surprisingly not like that at all. Yes, there are a handful of dishes that exemplify the head-to-tail cooking that Cosentino is famous for, but take away the hype and our American unfamiliarity to the less-often used parts and what you are left with is just simple hearty Italian fare, and well executed I might add.
Stand outs? Just about everything we sampled. The pig’s blood pappardelle with pig’s trotters and foie gras was rich, unctuous, and so over the top. The ‘best parts of the chicken’ risotto was studded with chicken hearts and liver, and tiled with crispy shards of skin. The pork belly was as decadent as pork belly usually is, the accompanying salad of shaved Buddha’s hand deftly cutting the richness of the fat. The pomegranate-glazed poussin with cippolini & treviso drew unanimous raves, and had us pulling out our smartphones to find the recipe which was featured on the Martha Stewart show. I could go on and on about the other dishes, but why bother. Go check them out for yourself.
On our last morning we had a down home breakfast at the lovely Brenda’s before checking out exhibits at SFMOMA. “How Wine Became Modern“, “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870“, and “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century” are still showing and definitely worth seeing if you’re in town.
Our last dinner in town was at the nationally-recognized and the much talked about Flour + Water; get this, another Italian meal for us in the Mission. Our stumbling economy and typically slow Monday nights have no bearing on this place. We arrived 30 minutes before opening and a line was already forming; within 20 minutes of opening the doors almost all seats had been accounted for. The place was packed. We secured some seats at the communal table up front and met another new friend for night of good food, wine, and conversation (and surrendered my camera after a few quick shots). After a marathon weekend of consumption my memory, tastebuds, and stomach were a little worse for wear; everything I tasted was delicious but I don’t have much to add beyond that. I think I need another vacation.