Thursday, March 28, 2013

Pop Stars

The phenomenon of pop-up restaurants has been around for a few years now, and, although like food trucks, they appear to be something of a fad, they've also become a way talented young chefs can break into the restaurant business. By pooling resources, or by staying small and flying under the radar as a "supper club", chefs can focus on the food rather than the often frustrating and time-consuming nuts and bolts of opening a brick-and-mortar store.

Starry Kitchen began in 2009 in the North Hollywood apartment of Nguyen and Thi Tran, inspired cooks serving up an Asian/global cuisine to Facebook friends, food bloggers, and lucky Twitter followers. Staying a few steps ahead of the health inspectors, they opened a lunch cafe in an unlikely setting - downtown LA's soaring glass skyscraper complex at 305 Grand Avenue.

Promotion for their signature crispy green tofu balls
Their irreverent approach to the hospitality industry included appearances in a banana suit, and cooking courses for a marijuana-themed dinner with other noted chefs. But keeping a real restaurant in operation takes more than just passion - the Grand Avenue shop closed in summer of 2012. On their website, the Trans admit that "lack of experience led to some VERY expensive learning."

But by August, they were back - serving dinners on Tuesdays through Saturdays in the space occupied by Fred Eric's popular fashion-district lunch spot, Tiara Cafe. Starry Kitchen (Nights) was born.

We made a reservation for Wednesday night, making sure to order ahead of time their signature dish, Singaporean Chili Crab.

That this was going to be a different restaurant experience was immediately apparent when we called the number with a question. There was no answer, but within seconds, they texted us back, asked how they could help, and then gave us our answer - all in the vernacular of, perhaps, a Cal State LA freshman texting from the passenger seat of a souped-up Mitsubishi Eclipse.

We arrived at Tiara and stepped into a quirky yet pleasing space. High ceilinged, with thick concrete columns, the place had blue-vinyl upholstered booths trimmed in lacy wrought iron, with some spare four-tops in the center of the room. There were jewel-toned beveled mirrors on the walls, some weird puffy fake trees higher up, and a sweeping curved wall screening the day-time part of the cafe, which featured Japanese anime and toys.

We already knew we wanted the crab, and the famous crispy green tofu balls, but it was Wednesday, and Starry Kitchen was serving its own unique version of that L.A. classic, chicken and waffles.

Too much food!
Here, it was Southeast Asian sweet chili-brined chicken, Chinese pepper gravy, and Belgian-style waffles flavored with pandan - a green, aromatic herb popular in southeast Asian cooking. A coconut-flavored sauce was served with the waffles. The special came as a prix-fix dinner, with sides of Okinawan sweet potato garlic fries and an Asian slaw.

So we splurged, ordering way too much for three people - a chicken-and-waffle dinner, plus the crab, a dish of pork-belly fried rice everyone raves about on Yelp, and two appetizers - the tofu balls and pork chili-oil wontons. Oh, and because vegetables are healthy we ordered roasted Chinese eggplant in oyster sauce.

So how was it?

The famous crispy green tofu balls were amazing. I have no idea what makes them green, but served with a drizzle of spicy, creamy sauce, they make even tofu-haters swoon.

Pork-stuffed wontons in chili oil were good, but in the company of so much exciting fare, they didn't stand out.

The pork-belly fried rice flavored with XO sauce, was tasty and homey, just like something you'd want after reeling home from a crazy night out. Spice, fat, scrambled eggs and grease - mmmmm! I was already mentally savoring it warmed in the microwave from a take-out container, late at night.

The eggplant was savory and almost meaty, rich with the taste of oyster sauce, and charred on the outside. The kitchen served a plate of plain white steamed rice, saying it was the perfect foil for the dish.

The chicken and waffles arrived, with their accompanying sides.

Asian slaw, and waffles
Okinawan sweet potato garlic fries
Dark purple Okinawan sweet potato fries were almost caramelized, and sprinkled with minced garlic. The waffles were amazing - dipped in a sweet, coconut flavored sauce, they were fluffy and crisp at the same time, light as a feather and totally addictive. I loved them so much I actually forgot to try the chicken, but my son says it was really good, with a great crispy skin and crunchy batter.

Singaporean chili crab with beer-batter beignets
Then the crab arrived.

A pool of thick brown sauce, sludgy with chilis and garlic, flecked with scallions and chopped cilantro, filled the broad flat bowl, where the disjointed crab legs, claws and belly sections of a whole Dungeness crab swam beneath the surface as though sinking in mud, crowned above by the red carapace of the beast. Arrayed around the plate's rim were puffy, fried savory beignets made with beer-batter - the perfect thing, our waitress said, to soak up the incendiary sauce. A three-inch stack of napkins was placed beside the plate.

Fish in with your hands and dredge up a crab leg. A scoop of white rice and a spoonful of sauce. Bite the pre-cracked shell in your teeth, and prise out the meat, dripping with sauce. Then let your tongue hang out and pant with the tingle of the chilis. Take a bite of delicious fried dough to soak up the heat.

Whew! Goes down great with Japanese beer, or a cold crisp sake.

You'd think with all these amazing and adventurous tastes, we'd be sated, but we had one more flavor we wanted to explore.

Starry Kitchen's dessert offerings are as creative and as inspired as their main fare. Here, a delicate panna cotta is served with pears poached in red wine, and perfumed with the scent of osmanthus flowers.

This place is truly the star of pop-ups!

1 comment:

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Looks really good! It's nice to know that young, creative chefs are finding a way around the red tape and high expense of operating a restaurant.