May is Grilling Month at Tasting Table.
Eudoxus posed a question to the L.A. Chowhound community very late one night last September.
"Does anyone else miss The Spice Table?" the commenter asked. "What is Bryant Ng doing now?"
Still wide-awake, Chowhounders responded with a flurry of opinions, laksa-induced nostalgia and theories about his next step.
"The only thing I've heard is that it *won't* be Spice Table 2.0," paranoidgarliclover claimed, "it" being a rumored collaboration with Santa Monica restaurant royalty Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan of Huckleberry and Rustic Canyon fame.
"What kind of food????" kevin furiously typed.
When I tell Ng this, he chuckles.
"My head is buried in the sand, and when that's happening, I just bury it even deeper," he confesses.
Ng's grilled prawns get much of their flavor from Fresno chiles and a squeeze of lime.
Nearly two years after opening The Spice Table in L.A.'s Little Tokyo, one year after winning Food & Wine's Best New Chef award for his fiery Southeast Asian-leaning fare and nine months after shutting it all down to make way for a demolition team and a new subway system, that's exactly where Ng was last September.
Buried. Deep into testing and retesting and dreaming up new dishes for Cassia, his new restaurant opening in Santa Monica in a few weeks and with, yes, Loeb and Nathan.
"It was devastating. We had just gotten going," Ng says. "But I'm one of those people who believes things happen in life for a reason. All I can do is move forward and look back at The Spice Table and say, 'Wasn't that great?'"
Now only stray bricks remain of his first restaurant, but Ng managed to haul back his custom-made grill hood to remind him of his first love letter to live fire and to suck up billowing smoke from Cassia's wood-fired grill. Though he bills this airy, boisterous new space as a Southeast Asian brasserie—complete with a raw bar and house-made Asian charcuterie, as well as his beloved noodles—the grill is center stage here, as it was at The Spice Table.
"It's fun to cook with live fire and wood. It's the exact opposite of using equipment where you push a button," Ng says. "It fits my personality. It's very elemental."
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He's been hush-hush with details regarding Cassia, but he managed to give us a small taste of what's to come with his Vietnamese sunbathing prawns (see the recipe).
"It's my take on peel-and-eat shrimp," Ng shares.
However, most of the peeling is done beforehand, leaving only the tail and head on—"where most of the flavor lives," Ng explains. Languishing in Fresno chiles and fish sauce overnight, they get a "red burnished hue," he adds, hence the name.
"The Vietnamese translation is even better," Ng says with a laugh. "Nude sunbathing prawns."
Once thrown on the grill and turned over until barely cooked, he stashes them in the fridge until cooled and then serves the prawns with lime wedges and herbal laksa leaves (or cilantro, in a pinch).
"Grilling the shrimp gets some of that smoky flavor and caramelization," Ng says. "But chilling it makes the texture a bit bouncier and mutes the flavors when it first hits your tongue. It's an unraveling of flavors as you eat it."
But you won't find the restaurant's namesake spice perfuming this shrimp. Cassia is Vietnamese-style cinnamon, and Ng chose it for a specific reason.
"There's a story to Cassia," he says. "In Chinese mythology, there is this tree, and this man tries to chop it down with an ax, but every time he tries to, it keeps growing. It represents everlasting life, not holding a grudge. Forgiveness as well."
I researched this well-known legend and asked friends (and their parents), and most interpret it as a Sisyphean-esque cautionary tale. Ng sees it as one of redemption.
Seems fitting for the chef who's given his grill hood a new life; Southern Californians a new Southeast Asian sanctuary at Cassia; and regular old shrimp a spicy, fishy, flavorful tan, all just in time for summer.
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