With its bare-brick walls and hanging birdcages, the Spice Table had the intimacy of a neighborhood joint, but Bryant Ng’s Southeast Asian cooking created a universe of its own. If I happened to be near Little Tokyo, I’d invariably find myself at a counter spot in the storefront at 1st and Central for some grilled pork tail. As Ng or one of his cooks tended the almond wood embers, I’d tear off the tender flesh, wrapping it in lettuce cups and fresh herbs before sending it for a dip in fish sauce. When I learned that the restaurant would be closing for good on New Year’s Eve 2013 to make way for a Metro 7th Street Connector station, I fretted that I might never get to enjoy Ng’s cooking again.
It was an irrational fear. Ng picks up where he left off with Cassia, the Santa Monica restaurant he and his wife, Kim, have launched with Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan—the couple behind the Westside staples Rustic Canyon, Milo + Olive, and Huckleberry. Spice is even in the name, cassia being a type of cinnamon used in Asian cooking (bundled quills of the fragrant tree bark provide decoration). The heaps of fried cauliflower in crisp Tiger beer batter that he served downtown are as good as ever. But the setting is far larger and the menu more extensive, allowing Ng to deepen his exploration of where influences meet. At the Spice Table he brought together dishes from his Singaporean Chinese roots and Kim’s Vietnamese background. At Cassia he brings together a wider swath of Asia, weaving a Gallic thread through it. The result is what he calls a Southeast Asian brasserie.
That may sound complicated, but in Ng’s hands it isn’t. A salad of spry purslane leaves and spiced candied walnuts gains brightness from ribbons of green papaya. Ng takes broccoli and, instead of wok frying, grills it for a more concentrated herbal punch. Picking up the brasserie theme, he serves short rib pot-au-feu in a slurpable pho broth made from brisket and oxtail. Redolent of star anise and coriander, it’s perfect for dunking the singed wedges of Nathan’s country bread, which have been slathered with green bird’s eye chile sauce. One of our city’s most inspired pastry chefs, Nathan—teaming up here, as ever, with Laurel Almerinda—dials back her flair for homey warmth enough to craft naan-like flatbread for savory treats and desserts such as Vietnamese coffee pudding, a feathery mousse with condensed milk and whipped cream with a fillip of tangy crème frâiche.
We’ve had hybrids before, but I can’t think of any that have started from a baseline of such uncompromising authenticity. Served the traditional way, Ng’s version of bun-cha Hanoi—called grilled pork belly vermicelli—arrives in two bowls: One has a skein of vermicelli with roasted peanuts and stalks of red perilla; the second contains slices of grilled pork belly with slivers of pickled carrot and kohlrabi in a coconut juice broth. Finished with melted pork fat, it has the lustrous sheen of tonkotsu-style ramen. Whether you ladle the broth over the noodles or dump it all in, the different elements sparkle like facets of a disco ball. The sliced lap cheong sausage in the fried rice offers a bouncy, boudinlike counterpoint to the salty flakes of dried fish nestled in the steaming grains. I’m guessing Ng scatters chopped iceberg on top to prove he hasn’t gone totally fancy-pants in such a grand setting.
Sitting on the broad terrace at the foot of an old deco office building, you can sip chilled dry verdelho in the rippling Pacific light or head into a dining room that’s all poured concrete and high ceilings. Copper chandeliers that recall chocolate chips dangle above a space that can get almost as buzzy as a Monterey Park seafood palace; bentwood chairs in one room and bare wood tables add a touch of the brasserie, while the hanging antique birdcage arrangement at the center is a vestige from the Spice Table.
That’s not the only bit of nostalgia. Ng, who has a science degree from UCLA, was raised in the restaurant business. For years his parents ran Wok Way, on Reseda near Cal State Northridge, and Ng would visit Singaporean food bazaars on childhood trips to his dad’s parents. In fact, both the Web site and the check feature a black-and-white image of his grandfather in a suit and tie astride a Norton motorbike as a young man in Singapore. Ng serves a kaya toast that builds on the breakfast special he enjoyed under parasols in the hopping city-state. Rather than white bread, he uses pain de mie (Nathan and Almerinda’s buttery contribution), spreading a seam of coconut jam between two golden slices. It’s somehow more intense when coated with the yolk of the accompanying soft-cooked eggs. He channels Singapore as well with the white pepper crab. (Ng recommends the version served at the alley tables at JB Ah Meng.) Steamed, then wok fried with the shell still on, it is deglazed with its own cooking juices and chicken stock before being set alight with Phu Quoc Island pepper; the finely etched heat showcases the freshness of the flesh and has you licking your fingers as you grab another cracked claw from a thicket of ginger and green onion.
Of course you’ll also find laksa, the noodle soup served throughout the galangal belt of Southeast Asia. Ng makes it his own, using shrimp stock to stretch out a fried paste of lemongrass and chiles before plopping in the noodles and the heap of mussels, fish cake, and half a hard-boiled egg. I like how he sources organic soybean pods and presents them as a delicate puree dusted with pine nuts and shaved pecorino. Ng served a vaguely similar fava bean puree as chef at Pizzeria Mozza, where he worked under Nancy Silverton for the 2007 launch. They’d met at Campanile after a culinary journey that took him to La Folie in San Francisco and Daniel in New York.
Opening the Spice Table in 2011, he melded his family background with the craft he acquired in those kitchens, remaining true to both. The combination of personal and professional is fascinating, but it’s fusion only in the generous way of a Singa-porean hawker’s market, where the belief is that a little cross-pollination always helps. Tossed with pecorino, pepper, and pounded fermented soybeans, wheat mee noodles come close to being cacio e pepe. Ng respects the heritage of salumi even as he sends his platter out in a decidedly non-Italian direction, with slices of Northern Chinese smoked red sausage, bean-thread noodle quiche (he calls it Vietnamese meat loaf), hunks of candied pork jerky, and a few morsels of citron-crusted Sichuan lamb ham.
Is it good? Absolutely, and that seems to be the primary question Ng is concerned about. So he doesn’t get too bogged down with the brasserie idea. While the platters of iced oysters are straightforward, he gives escargots a twist, bathing the snails in melted butter that has both lemongrass and garlic; piled onto flatbread that’s brushed with ghee when peeled from the clay oven, the dish acquires entirely new shades of flavor. He lends a nice kick to his steak frites sauce with a dash of the dark version of Phu Quoc Island pepper. France is in there somewhere, but only as a joyful accent; Nathan inverts the formula in the same way, using lemongrass in the ice cream she slips between the choux pastry halves of the Paris-Brest.
If anything, the most brasserie-like aspect of the restaurant is how it radiates the promise of good times. You can squeeze in at the bar and sip a banana mule in the vapor trail of someone’s Jo Malone perfume. Or you can find the snug counter at the back, where they operate the wood-fired grill. To anybody who’d fallen in love with Cassia’s predecessor, it can be comforting to sit nearby, soaking up the energy of the room as the cooks place another log on the embers.
1314 7th St., Santa Monica, 310-393-6699
Best dishes: Spicy wontons, egg custard with uni, grilled sea bass, Singapore pepper crab, charcuterie fried rice, grilled pork belly vermicelli, clay-oven breads and dips, Vietnamese coffee pudding
Drinks: Exceptional affordable wine list, excellent bar program, craft beers
Atmosphere: Crowded and fun
Noise level: Quieter on the terrace
Kid friendly?: The fries are good
Price range: $3 (jasmine rice) to $130 (family-style seafood platter)
Hours: Tue.-Sat.: 5-11; Sun.: 5-10
Parking: Valet ($7) or street
Credit cards: All major