Saturday, January 5, 2013

Starry Kitchen Nights at Tiara Cafe: Singaporean Chili Crab in DTLA

One of my most memorable meals of 2012 was at a restaurant that wasn't really a restaurant (I know you've lost count by now of the number of times this year you've read that on any given LA food blog).

I had long read of the underground kitchen turned legit operation serving interesting pan-Asian fare (with a side of bold, quirky, costume-loving personality via owner Nguyen) - and had been mad at myself for missing it while it was at its original location, just a block from the courthouse in downtown LA where I spent three weeks in jury duty

So when they opened up a not-a-pop-up-pop-up at Tiara Cafe, and started serving Singaporean style Chili Crab (I had just fallen in love with the dish during a visit to Singapore the previous holiday), I knew I had to pay a long overdue visit. I cruelly convinced miffyeats to go with me even though she is allergic to crab (which I had forgotten until the very last minute...bad, bad, bad friend...) - being an amazing friend, she rallied a group together so that we can try more different dishes. In more poor form, knowing that the chili crab has been selling out like crazy, my type A self had to tweet Starry Kitchen to ask them to reserve two crabs for us...because if I was going to venture to DTLA at night (which usually freaks me out due to a past bad experience), I'm making damn sure I'm getting that crab, dammit.

We started with a comped plate of their signature Crispy Tofu Balls ($6.50), which I'd sampled at The Gold Standard previously - and like the last time, it was more tasty than a vegetable-hater would expect (and yes, despite the innuendos in the marketing of this dish so bold as to be against the very nature of innuendos). Crispy with puffed glutinous rice on the outside...    

...with the texture of the tofu inside like a firm cream cheese. The balls themselves are very mild in flavor, it's the sriracha mayo dipping sauce that gives it a nice and necessary kick.

Then came the Double-Fried Sweet Ginger Chicken Waaaaaaaaangs ($7.50) - which were "finger-lickin' good" and seriously addictive. Super crispy from the double fry, juicy dark meat inside, sweet with a bite from the ginger - these were a great way to whet our appetites for the meal ahead.

We knew we had to get the Grilled Fish "Heads+Tails" with Viet Fish Sauce ($11) as soon as we saw it on the menu - as expected, it was a show stopper - a very dramatic presentation of alternating fish heads and fish tails, with a crisp and lovely char, with that amazing sweet/tangy fish sauce.

Then there was the Pork Chili Oil Wonton + Szechuan Style Shredded Potatoes ($7) - the shredded potatoes were an interesting twist on the usual accompaniment for wontons: noodles.  

My favorite dish of the night, before the much-anticipated crustaceans ever hit the table - was the Claypot Caramelized Striped Bass+Pancetta (aka "Ca Kho To") ($22.95).  This was a perfect melding of two of my favorite styles of Cantonese cooking: steaming (of fish) and claypot stewing.  The fresh, skin-on striped bass (and broth) were delicate and light, tender and evenly infused with perfectly balanced sweet/savory flavors, punctuated by juicy cubes of pancetta (the western kind isn't an ingredient you see much in Cantonese cooking, but its distant umami inducing cousin, yunan ham is).  I loved this preparation - its flavors and presentation brought me home, if only temporarily.
Almost as a reprieve from all the stimulation, we had just before the crab, Japanese Garlic Noodles w/ Confit Garlic ($9).

And then...what we came for: Singaporean Chili Crab (Market Price) - whole crabs in all their glory, bowl piled high with french bread. So the moment of truth: was it what I tasted in Singapore?  I've only had it once, at one location in Singapore, so I don't have any real sample base for comparison, and I'm not sure that Starry Kitchen intended theirs to be an exact replica of however Singaporeans typically prepare theirs. The 1.5kg-er I inhaled in Singapore was a Sri Lankan crab in a very creamy, smooth thick orange colored sauce that was sweet and spicy, seamlessly blended together; the one at Starry Kitchen was a Dungeness crab in a more liquidy red sauce with chunks of tomato, that was primarily tart with strong garlic notes. In consistency only, if compared to pasta sauces I would say the difference was like vodka sauce vs marinara. And at LB Seafood I had loved sopping up the leftover sauce with fried mantou, which went perfectly with the sauce, with its slightly sweet pillowy doughiness offset by the crispy exterior that allowed it to hold up even with the sauce. But all I knew was that everyone at the Starry Kitchen table dug in with abandon - even with its differences, Starry Kitchen's version of chili crab is not something you can easily find in LA (if it can be found at all?), tasty and well worth a trip downtown to check out.

Nguyen was kind enough to comp us a plate of desserts: Osthmanthus Panna Cotta with Poached Pears ($5) Salted Plum Lychee Panna Cotta ($5) 5-Spiced Apple Fritters with Honey Bourbon Cream Sauce ($6) - I'd had the salted plum lychee panna cotta at another food fest, and still loved its unique blend of flavors every bit as much as the first time.

Hats off to chef Thi (aka "Kitchen Ninja" and wife of Nguyen) and of course Nguyen for a fantastically fun dinner!  Not sure how long the pair will be at Tiara Cafe, but try to catch them if you can - check their Facebook or Twitter for updates on their latest R&D creations, and make reservations in advance for their chili crab which sells out quickly!

[Deal alert: And oh, coincidentally, you can get $20 off dinner at Starry Kitchen Nights with the $20 for $40 worth of food & drink deal running at Bloomspot right now til around Saturday 1/12 - click here for details.]

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 

Starry Kitchen at Tiara Cafe 

127 E 9th St., Los Angeles, CA 90079

Ph: 213.623.3663

Starry Kitchen Nights @ Tiara Cafe on Urbanspoon

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