Simbal- Best New Restaurant in LA
It was one of my favorite chefs who told me to head to Simbal; James Beard Award winning Chef David Myers raved about his protegé Shawn Pham. Having long respected Myers’ palate and leadership at various restaurants, I made sure to head straight for Simbal Restaurant on my latest trip to LA.
The first aspect of Simbal that put me in a good mood was the fact that there’s an entire parking structure attached to the restaurant right in the middle of Little Tokyo. That I didn’t have to waste precious time or get stressed out just to find a safe parking spot was a huge plus to the beginning of what would become a memorable and outstanding meal. If you happen to be into Japanese toys, card games or any other knickknacks from Japan, heading to Simbal for dinner will give you the opportunity to indulge in your inner child as there are little stores all around.
The entrance to Simbal is non-descript with a swath of concrete on the exterior and its doors tucked away; you might miss it if you don’t look carefully. Upon entry, you’ll be greeted by hostesses with friendly smiles that are surprisingly genuine in the once fabricated hospitality style of Los Angeles. There’s a large open kitchen right in the middle of the restaurant with seats that span all the way from left to right in an airy space, with the bar all the way to the rear right. Bare concrete everywhere initially gives a modern industrial feel but it’s tempered by the light wood wall accents that match the wooden tables and chairs. The ambiance- fresh, airy and warm with a clear accent on cleanliness.
My party and I were quickly greeted by our wait staff who were all genuinely friendly, knowledgeable about the menu and most impressively, demonstrated a high standard of attention to detail (e.g. when my friend left the table to visit the restroom (which was in pristine condition), one server came by to fold her napkin and a minute later another server came to refold it into a tighter, even neater rectangle). That the staff cares about something as easy to miss as a guest’s napkin at a non-fine-dining restaurant speaks volumes about the leadership of Owner Chef Shawn Pham at this still new Southeast Asian restaurant that in my humble opinion, helps push LA firmly past San Francisco as a true foodie destination. It is with a heavy heart that I admit this about LA given that San Francisco is my hometown but Simbal’s entry into the restaurant scene makes this an undeniable truth.
And the food parade began…
Salted Peanuts & Anchovies with an herb mixture was the first to arrive and is usually found on the charming and adorable “dim sum cart” that circles the restaurant a few times every hour (more on this later). In Asia, this is a dish that is served several ways- sometimes it’s meant to simply whet your appetite with its crunchy, salty blend and other times (like in Indonesia) it is served as one of several side dishes to Nasi Lemak (Coconut Rice dish). The anchovies were perfectly crunchy, adding a touch more saltiness to the herbed nuts.
Demitasse Cold Brew Coffee with Condensed Milk (a.k.a. Vietnamese Coffee)…. was one of the three best Vietnamese coffees I’ve had in the entire United States. The coffee itself was robust enough (having lived in Southeast Asia and Brazil, two areas that produce some of the world’s best coffee, I prefer bold, well rounded coffee) but it was the light touch on the condensed milk that won me over. Overly sweet Vietnamese Coffee is so ubiquitous in America that I’d just about given up on finding a great one that takes me back to my days in Vietnam but here it was at Simbal. Its arrival with the above Salted Peanuts and Anchovies was over the top Asian perfection- salty and crunchy paired with the refreshing and slight sweetness of the coffee brought me straight to the veranda at the Six Senses resort in Halong Bay.
Roasted Eggplant, Scallion Oil, Fish Sauce– as difficult as it was to pick my top three favorite dishes from a menu that feels like Chef Shawn crawled into my head and crafted most of it just for me, this Roasted Eggplant dish is hands down in my top three at Simbal. Reminiscent of Martin Yan’s Cold Shanghai Eggplant at M.Y. China in San Francisco, or more specifically of charred eggplant sambals I’ve had in northern Thailand, Simbal’s version is served at room temperature. The smoky scent and flavor hits immediately, followed closely by a sweet dark caramel intensity and the sharp zing of fish sauce. The eggplant itself melted right on contact with my tongue, a delicious swirl of that unmistakably firm flesh giving way to proper roasting technique, dissipating with just a touch of lingering scallion sharpness. As an eggplant lover, this dish alone would entice me to come to Simbal week after week. It does not get better than this in the world of eggplant.
Banh Mi Salad (or as I like to call it, “Deconstructed Banh Mi”) was the most whimsical and fun dish of the meal, a surprisingly creative twist on the traditional Vietnamese favorite. Take the best Banh Mi you’ve ever had and pull it apart into an easy to eat dish with the paté that is usually smeared on the inside of the bread, rolled into little Chicken Liver Balls lightly breaded and flash fried. Matchsticks of pickled daikon, cucumber and carrots are tossed with Vietnamese pork sausage, headcheese, fresh cilantro and mint sprigs in a light mayo dressing with bite-sized chunks of crunchy bread and sliced jalapenos. To experience the boldness and complexity of this “simple” dish, it’s important to take just a small touch of the fried Chicken Liver Balls in one bite with a little bit of everything else. The swirl of flavors are exactly like that of a properly assembled Banh Mi made by the most awesome grandma on the streets of Hanoi. No one ingredient overpowers the other- it’s simply an elevated Banh Mi without the messiness of precious bits falling out from ends of the bread.
Crispy Sweet Potato arrives in a lattice of thin matchsticks in pancake form with small cuts of sweet, lightly poached shrimp and a generous scattering of fresh cilantro, mint and Vietnamese basil. Fish sauce, lime juice and a touch of sugar blends into a light, vibrant dressing that cuts into the earthiness of fried sweet potato while accenting the tender shrimp like ceviche. The gorgeous fresh herbs on top finished this dish into what can only be described as a harmonious orchestra of layered flavors and textures. Again, another dish that brought me back to the streets of Vietnam.
Ground Pork with Sesame Rice Crackers– like the aforementioned Salted Peanuts and Anchovies, this dish is found on the circulating “dim sum cart.” As part of a well crafted effort to bring that warm, authentic touch of street food in Vietnam to a modern LA restaurant, Chef Shawn and his team created a cart circulated by a jovial line chef (see video above) that delivers small bites that are not on the actual menu. From the ever popular Vietnamese fresh roll to this addictive Ground Pork with Sesame Rice Crackers and slivers of young tangy mango, the cart comes out of the kitchen a few times an hour or whenever guests request. The cart and the chef’s exuberance in explaining the non-menu tidbits lends an extra shade of fun and interest to an otherwise sophisticated space. This Ground Pork dish is once again reminiscent of Thailand, specifically larb (ground meat seasoned with a balance of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and chili), homage to Chef Shawn’s appreciation of Thai cuisine. Using the sesame rice crackers to scoop up a bite of the ground pork with young mango, I decided upon first bite that Chef Shawn was the latest addition to my roster of top chefs that I’d secretly like to kidnap and keep in my home kitchen forever. This ground pork dish encapsulates what Simbal is about- fearless flavoring, bold accents and balance.
Braised Pork Belly– this was the pièce de résistance of the entire meal, a dish that made me close my eyes, fighting back tears as I thought of my mother cooking during my childhood years, as I relived those moments learning from the brightly smiling grandmothers in Saigon and Hanoi on dusty, warm streets. The chunks of pork belly were incredibly tender after its 6 hour braise, falling apart at the touch of my spoon and further melting on my tongue. Simbal uses fresh coconut water (from actual coconuts, not pre-bottled versions) to braise the pork, resulting in a fragrant broth that is refreshingly light with a light-handed touch of salty and sweet. Accompanying boiled eggs featured soft yolks that added that extra touch of decadence to an elegant stew. If only all those grandmothers in Vietnam could taste what Chef Shawn and his team have created at Simbal, they’d be so proud.
Ginger Caramel Jidori Chicken Thighs– for those who love chicken and have a sweet tooth, this is the perfect dish for you. After a few bites of the moist, soft chicken with fresh slivers of ginger and pungent fish sauce caramel glaze, I felt the flavors of Japan, Vietnam and Thailand fusing melodiously into what will likely be one of the most popular dishes on Simbal’s menu.
Seasoned Rice with Chili Jam was the most familiar, comforting dish of the evening. It tasted like every one of the best fried rice dishes I’ve had across Southeast Asia all in one. For those of you familiar with my recipes and proclivities, you know that I am obsessed with shrimp paste in all its forms, especially as part of a sambal (Southeast Asian chili paste). Simbal makes their own chili paste with shrimp paste which is used as the base in several of the dishes, including this Seasoned Rice. It’s an incredibly simple dish in appearance, like your standard Southeast Asian fried rice, but with each successive bite, the layers of shrimp paste, sweetness, spiciness begin to open up rapidly and steadily like the smoothest of smooth sports cars on an open road. Diced tangy mango and fresh cucumber liven up a robust dish where “back home,” whole cuts of mango and cucumber are often served as an accoutrement to fried rice. This Seasoned Rice with Chili Jam is a deceptively smart interpretation of a classic Southeast Asian favorite. Along with the Roasted Eggplant and Braised Pork Belly, these three dishes have turned me into one of Chef Shawn’s most loyal fans and every time I’m in LA, you’ll likely find me firmly planted at Simbal for dinner.
While I’m not much of a dessert girl, my friends are, so I indulged with them in Simbal’s interesting array of sweets. Banana Cake with Whipped Coconut Cream was my personal favorite; I admit sentimental attachment to this dessert as it was my very first recipe that I made in culinary school when I was 12 years old. It was in fact, the dessert that allowed me entry into what was then Indonesia’s premier culinary school for adults only. (I had to convince the principle that I was technically skilled enough to study and cook with adults). Simbal’s Banana Cake is moist and not overly sweet (a huge plus for me), served with macerated banana chunks and a thick whipped coconut cream topped with thin slivers of fresh Kafir lime leaves, the latter a startling but vibrant accent to a rich dessert.
From fun beginning to satiating end, a meal at Simbal is everything I look for when going out for dinner. The entire staff from servers to bartender are earnestly professional and genuinely friendly. The plateware itself is reminiscent of going to eat at Grandma’s house without the garishness that that image usually elicits. They’re homey and familiar with florals on the perimeters but instead of making me cringe, they made me smile, reminiscing about my childhood, a seemingly constant theme throughout the meal.
Every single dish out of Chef Shawn’s kitchen is intensely bold yet harmoniously restrained, the best of Grandma’s cooking meets modern chef’s techniques. With an illustrious past that includes noteworthy stints at world class restaurants like French Laundry, Sona and The Bazaar by Jose Andres, Chef Shawn straddles his classic training with his profound passion for his Vietnamese roots, expressing these mammoth flavors and precise skills at Simbal. If like me, you thought Simbal was a play on Sambal (Southeast Asian chili), you’d be incorrect. Simbal is a blend word that brings together Simple and Balanced, principles that Chef Shawn lives by steadfastly.
It is within these principles that Grandma’s spirit lives on, smiling over each dish, approving the familiar and simple presentations and the balance of striking flavors. Dining at Simbal is a welcome assault on the senses- an artful clash of traditional and modern, a lovemaking of the palate and a lulling into the most precious of childhood and travel memories.
On any given night, you’ll witness Chef Shawn at the pass, working together with his team with a hard focus. Don’t mistake his sharp expression for unfriendliness; stop by and say hello and you’ll find a humble, friendly and warm chef who takes his craft very seriously and wants to make sure that every dish arrives to you in perfect condition.
I only wish Chef Shawn would open a San Francisco location but no doubt, we will be witnessing an explosive growth of his career as Simbal transitions from newcomer to one of the best restaurants in LA that has me grudgingly admit my hometown of San Francisco now takes a backseat as a true foodie destination. Now, if only I could somehow get Shawn Pham, Gary Danko, Jiro, Ferran Adria, Daniel Boulud, Paul Bocuse, Srijith Gopithinan, Vikas Khanna, Dominique Crenn and Edward Kwon to all live in my home…well, a girl can dream.