Thursday, August 30, 2012

Starry Kitchen Nights (Los Angeles, CA)

Starry Kitchen Nights at Tiara Cafe
127 E 9th St, Los Angeles, CA 90015
Thu 08/30/2012, 07:45p-10:20p

Tiara Cafe Exterior

If you're not familiar with the story of Starry Kitchen, here's a quick recap: The fable begins with Chef Thi Tran, born to a Chinese family in Vietnam, but raised in Dallas. She started cooking during her years at the University of Texas at Austin out of necessity, but really began developing her skills after hooking up with SK frontman Nguyen Tran (himself a UT Dallas grad) and moving out to Los Angeles in 2002. Nguyen worked for Cassian Elwes at William Morris, then dabbled in independent film sales, while Thi found employment in advertising, all the while infusing her cooking repertoire with the wide-ranging flavors of LA's culinary landscape. After being together for seven years, the two even got married in late 2008. However, following the advent of the Great Recession, Thi lost her job the next April, and, inspired by the Kogi-fueled food truck/fusion frenzy, decided to give cooking a real shot. The Trans named their start-up Starry Kitchen, after a Hong Kong cooking show that Thi used to watch.

Starry Kitchen debuted in June 2009 inside the couple's North Hollywood apartment, #205, serving lunch only initially. The operation was modest (a mere $5 donation was suggested), more akin to a paladar than the glitzy, polished demeanor of a high-end underground restaurant such as Wolvesmouth. However, word of Thi's cooking spread like wildfire on the Interwebs, and soon enough, the apartment was serving dozens of people at a time. Perhaps not surprisingly, the local health department got wind of SK, and an inspector left a cautionary note on their door. The Trans suspect that a jealous local restaurant owner ratted them out. Not too long after the scare, Nguyen and Thi decided that Starry Kitchen was ready for primetime. A friend of Nguyen's was one of the investors behind 8Fish, a floundering sushi restaurant that had opened in Downtown's California Plaza in 2009. Given that the place was doing so badly, he invited the Trans to bring their concept to the 8Fish space, with no money up front. Starry Kitchen, thus, officially opened its doors for lunch service on February 16, 2010.

The place did pretty well for itself right from the get-go, and limited dinner service commenced in May. Thi wound up cooking a night at Test Kitchen later that year, and SK even took over the Mandoline Grill truck for a day. In early 2011, the Trans met Laurent Quenioux at Vertical Wine Bistro (where he had started consulting) and instantly hit it off. Quenioux ended up shuttering Bistro LQ in March, and was looking for a way to get back in the game. As such, the idea of LQ @ SK, a dinner-only guest cheffing series that kicked off in June, was born. The run brought considerable attention to both parties, and wrapped up this past March, punctuated at the end by two controversial herb/weed dinners.

The Trans were riding high (pun intended) at this point, so it came as a shock to many when Nguyen announced the restaurant's closure at the end of July, ostensibly due to a host of financial woes. He vowed that Starry Kitchen would return, though, and it did, just weeks later. Indeed, Starry Kitchen Nights bowed on August 16th, in a grand opening party replete with free Singha beer for all. This new iteration takes place inside Fred Eric's Tiara Cafe, the former home of Le Comptoir, Gary Menes' well-received pop-up. For now, it's a dinner-only affair, open between 5:00 and 10:00 on Tuesdays through Saturdays and said to be a permanent setup.

Tiara Cafe Interior
The inside of Tiara Cafe remains much as it's always been.

Starry Kitchen Nights Menu Starry Kitchen Nights Drink Menu
The Starry Kitchen Nights menu reads more refined than what the duo was previously offering. Nonetheless, it remains a hodgepodge of pan-Asian panache, a reasonably-priced suite of items meant for family-style sharing. Expect near-constant change, too, as the carte is a definite work in progress (Nguyen even teases a "Roast Pork Belly XO Fried Rice"). To drink, there's a limited selection of wines, beers, sakes, and even interesting non-boozy beverages on offer, and I've heard that lunch service might even be in the works. Click for larger versions.

Eagle Rock Brewery Manifesto
We chose the BYOB route (they're still trying to figure out how corkage is going to work--there was none tonight) and brought along a quartet of beers. The first was the Manifesto witbier from the nearby Eagle Rock Brewery. This was a light, easy-drinking beer, subtly sour and spicy, but it didn't really have much of the witte character that I was hoping for.

To start things off, the Chef presented her version of bo la lot, or grilled beef in betel (lolot) leaves, one of the traditional items in the famed Vietnamese "seven courses of beef." Instead of la lot leaves, Korean sesame was used in its place, and the result was fantastic, with the medicinal, zesty greens playing off of the smoky, succulent logs of minced meat wonderfully. To go along with the course, we were also given a small cup of house-pickled Fresno chilies, carrots, and cucumbers, their tang and crunch much appreciated. A perfect start to the meal.

One of the restaurant's most popular dishes is the chicken wings, a holdover from the Cal Plaza days, and I can see why. The bird displayed a great crispness to it, yet the flesh was still tender and juicy, with a pronounced, but not overbearing sweetness that led to just a touch of creeping spice. Nice.

Without a doubt, this was the most intimidating-looking dish on the menu, and even I was a bit taken aback given that I'm no good at handling fish heads in a graceful manner. We had here the odds and ends of the striped bass used in SK's ca kho to claypot, simply grilled and served with nuoc mam and more of those homemade pickles. Getting past the considerable "work" required to extract the meat from the bones, the bass was actually quite delicious: tender and silky, with a lovely char and smokiness that went swimmingly with the accompanying fish sauce.

The Bruery Orchard White
Up next was another witbier, The Bruery's Orchard White, one of my favorite examples of the style. It was actually discontinued last year, and this increasingly rare bottle was one of only two remaining in my collection (the last time I'd opened a bottle was during a CR8 dinner). Interestingly, the flavors this time around were quite different than I'd experienced before, a result of its age I'm sure. The beer was distinctly less floral, with less of its signature lavender notes coming through. Instead, it was earthier, weightier, but still with the spicy, citrus-y notes that I expected.

Here, Thi paid homage to the Sichuan kitchen with this hong you chaoshou-inspired dish. The dumplings were spot on: meaty and supple, with a satisfying porcine relish. They were deftly augmented by the spicy "red oil" present, while the cilantro added an overarching lightness to the dish that I really appreciated. What I liked the most here, though, was the use of potatoes, which added a gorgeous texture and moderating element to the course. Yum.

Nguyen warned that this dish "almost tastes like Asia itself" and I could definitely see where he was going with that. Complementary flavors of sour, savory, and spicy enveloped the entire dish, creating a heady, aromatic veil that beautifully integrated every element together. Also commendable was the snappy, satisfying texture on the noodles, as well as the minty levity imparted by the various greenery on the plate. Hearty and homey, yet somehow contemporary--a must try.

BrewDog Punk IPA
At this point, we moved on to an IPA, specifically the BrewDog Punk IPA, which I'd quite enjoyed during the last iteration of LudoBites. It was pretty subdued for the style, with an apparent, yet delicate citric bitterness intermixed with some delicious floral and malty notes.

Regular readers will know that I'm not particularly a fan of eggplant, but we still went with this dish at our server's recommendation. I wasn't in love with the course, but it was certainly still quite palatable given my aversion to the main ingredient, with the ginger adding a well-placed counterpoint to the savory, smoky flavors at play.

And here we come to the night's pièce de résistance: the Singaporean chili crab that's quickly becoming Starry Kitchen's signature dish. It lived up to its reputation, with the roughly 3-pound Dungeness showing off its sweet, supple, spongy meat in stellar fashion. It was one of the tastiest preparations of cooked crab that I've eaten in fact. I would've had no trouble consuming it alone, but the accompanying sauce was excellent as well, with a sweet, savory, spicy kick that complemented but didn't overwhelm the delicate crab. Joining the sauce were cuts of bread from the new B1 Breadshop, which opened at the end of July. I even took the remaining liquid home to enjoy over plain white rice.

Brewery Ommegang Seduction
For dessert, we opened a bottle of the Brewery Ommegang Seduction, described by the producer as a "Belgian style porter," basically a dark ale blended with Callebaut chocolate and Liefmans cherries. It was quite something, with a subtly sweet base of malty, creamy cocoa leading to almost ethereal notes of tart, lambic-esque cherry fruit on the finish.

We were quite full at this point, but of course, we always save room for dessert (it's like a separate stomach right?). Apple fritters were something special, arriving at the table imbued with the spicy essence of wuxiang fen, a flavor profile that recalled the aroma of Cantonese roasted duck. Indeed, they showed off a wonderfully savory character initially, which then led to the fruity sweetness of apple toward the close. Though the fritters were certainly tasty alone, the paired honey-bourbon cream sauce was a superb complement, its boozy, heavy, unabashed sugariness balancing out the savory spice of the beignets wonderfully.

Interestingly, I'd had a similar dish during the last LQ@SK weed/herb dinner, but this version was much more successful. The panna cotta itself conveyed a delectably fragrant, herbal, tea-like flair, with a subdued sweetness that melded beautifully with the sugary cuts of pear. A humble looking dessert, but one that was definitely more-than-meets-the-eye in terms of finesse and complexity.

It appears as though our beloved Starry Kitchen has grown up. Our dinner here was, in fact, rather great, and it's clear to me that the Trans have upped their game considerably. Flavors were on point: bold, lusty, and eminently satisfying, really respecting and representing their Asian roots but still conveying a decidedly modern, of-the-moment twist. It was a deeper, more mature exploration of the Kitchen Ninja's culinary talents, and the outcome was very, very promising. As for what's next for Thi and Nguyen, they're hoping to stay put at Tiara for a while, but have already put in an application for a new space at California Plaza--stay tuned.

Nguyen Tran, Thi Tran


Blogger Charlie Fu said...

What was corkage? Also $60s for dungeness crab might be the largest mark up I've ever seen.

Sunday, September 02, 2012 6:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

$60 for 3lb of crab. holy motherfucker.

Sunday, September 02, 2012 6:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't see that they've upped their game. They are a 'pop-up' (and when did we replace 'temporary' with that word?), open for two weeks at time of review and haven't figured out corkage(?!), charging $60 for one Dungeness?

Thanks for gorging though, but I'll give it a pass. Sorry SK!

Monday, September 03, 2012 12:15:00 PM  
Blogger Starry Kitchen said...

@Charlie -corkage for wine is $15, Kevin was the first to test a "Beer Corkage". I have to review w/ Fred of Tiara, but I would estimate $5 for Beer. As far as the Dungeness Crab "mark up", that seems to be all commenter's BIGGEST concern thus far so I'll address that answer to everyone below but I'll basically say this (and you may not believe it until you read my details below): we're probably still under pricing them by general restaurant industry standards.

@Anon2 -before I jump into the crab economics, I'm sorry you don't think we've upped our game (which we dun care so much as long as we're making food we're happy with and enjoy ourselves ^_^). As far as the "pop-up", by definition we are BUT this is meant to be a permanent endeavor where we've taken control of dinner at Tiara PERIOD! And as I mentioned, but the "beer corkage" was/is something that's NOT very common (vs. wine) so we didn't have that figured out yet at the time and I'll have to see how many people choose that (but it'll probably be about $5 I suspect)


Nguyen Tran

Monday, September 03, 2012 5:51:00 PM  
Blogger Starry Kitchen said...

@Charlie + @Anon1 + @Anon2 -trust me when I say we don't price it so lightly, but I might as well explain the economics to you to shed a little bit of light (whether you accept it or not is a different story, but humor me):

-Dungeness Crab is NOT in season until the winter (which will drive prices and the market price down)

-we actually have to get them airlifted everyday from the Pacific Northwest because we luckily have sold out of them 11 out of the 13 days SK Nights has been open, and almost NO ONE is stocking crab as quickly as we need it (and even our supplier is surprised how many we're moving)

-wholesale Dungeness Crab is currently $14-16/lb actually.

-While you may see it for $7-8/lb at an Asian grocery store they: a) have varying quality including fairly OLD/BLACK crabs once you clean/gut them out (we know, we've eaten those too!) b) don't always have both claws (and when you're paying you want the WHOLE crab, right??) c) might be VERY old and have held on to them in their tanks for a WHILE hence the "black" crabs too. We pay more for the daily shipping AND guaranteed quality (because unfresh seafood, at least to us, is UNACCEPTABLE)

-most of the Asian wholesellers are actually OUT and are selling them at $12/lb (when they have them, but they're coming up short and replenishing on a bi-weekly basis right now)

-at 3 lbs, that means just the cost of crab (not taking into account labor to clean, kill and prep ingredients incl. housemade chicken stock + mire poix (= garlic, scallions, thai chilis) is $48

-general industry mark-up is about 3x to cover ALL labor, operational costs, food costs and if lucky will generate about 10% profit (if at all).. which we obviously haven't exercised in this case in order to be able to serve it to as many people as possible

-comparatively, a "white/upscale place" called Watergrill which (probably) JUST steams the crab with no real flavor, fixins and probably just surrounded by more fresh seafood is $150 for a 2lb Dungeness!!

-in conclusion, we probably don't make any profit OR much at all really on our now signature Singporean Chili (DUNGENESS) Crab

You could think that's all a rouse w/ funny math, but that's the ACTUAL math and unfortunately.. I do have to make sure to run a business AND make sure my employees can have job security too. Losing money and trying to make good food would be all in vein if I can't make it a sustainable business. I hope that sheds some light. Trust when I say I USED to think like you guys, until I finally jumped into the restaurant game. I will say that I think Asian places also UNDER PRICE for our/their food when I think Italian+other foods are not nearly as complex as much of our cuisine, but yet we only charge a third if not a 4th of the cost (which is a bummer because our cuisine deserves that respect)

Thank you and good night ;)

Nguyen Tran
Team SK

Monday, September 03, 2012 5:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Water Grill does not charge $150 for a 2lb Dungeness crab. They probably charge close to your $60. But regardless I appreciate the explanation. At the end of the day just probably a better idea to not serve it at all if it's not in season and has such a high markup. Lobster is cheaper right now. Serve Singapore Chili Lobster...

Monday, September 03, 2012 11:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So chili crab replaces foie gras for those with deep pockets who don't have the good sense to wait until it is crab season.

Or to be blunt: just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012 5:59:00 PM  
Blogger Starry Kitchen said...

@Anon3 -haha that's a good suggestion, but I can safely say a Singaporean Chili Lobster is definitely not the same as a Chili Crab. And honestly we started serving the Singporean Chili Crab thinking only a FEW people would order it. We had no idea it would be our "Signature Item" from the get go. If it helps, about 4 people can chow down on a Singporean Chili Crab and be VERY happy (and full) because of the nature of the sauce and dipping (and eating over rice! ^_^). If we're still playing the economics game, that will probably help you understand how we work it out

@Anon4 -ach, hopefully you read my last point for @Anon3. It's nowhere near the expense or extravagance of Foie Gras because you can share it with (at least) 3 other people. I see people share between 2, but I've seen a party of 6 share it too. We ARE a family-style joint ya know. We want you to have a lot of people with you so you can try, share and not break the bank ultimately. Hope that helps. When it's crab season, prices will go down, but right now there seems to be a decent demand and as a restaurateur we have to try to feed that demand. It's not always about margins (and if you read my breakdown above, it really isn't the case). Thanks ^_^

Tuesday, September 04, 2012 6:34:00 PM  
Blogger Rodzilla said...

Great review as always Kevin.

For the price haters: remember it's not mandatory to order the Chili Crab ;)

Everything looks great, and the rest of the dishes are at a generous price point.

I'm hoping to make one of these events soon enough.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012 1:31:00 PM  
Blogger HealthyBites said...

do you have space for a tank?

Friday, September 07, 2012 12:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Marian said...

Absolutely LOVE SK Nights and need to get back there ASAP! The Singaporean Chili Crab is TO DIE FOR and that sauce alone is like crack. Perfect for noodles, pasta, rice, etc. I don't know any other place that makes Singaporean Chili Crab.

Plus you don't need to order it if you don't want to or the price isn't to your liking. Their other dishes are very affordable and delicious!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Wow, this is one of those rare times where the comments basically address themselves for the most part. Nguyen did a much better job 'splaining things than I ever could have.

As for the rest of you guys:

Roddy: Thanks man. No real complaints about the portions; in fact, some of the dishes were way bigger than I'd expected.

HB: Huh?

Marian: Yeah, definitely agree about the sauce; it was great over rice the next day. How much was the controversial crab the evening you went?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012 6:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems like water grill charges 38 dollars for a 2 lb crab northwest dungeness crab chilled.

25 / lb for it steamed w/ coleslaw and butter.

So steamed a 3 lb crab there would in fact be 75 dollars.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012 8:19:00 PM  

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