This week's restaurant review considers Little Sister, the Manhattan Beach Southeast Asian small-plates restaurant. While I have mainly glowing things to say about the food, there are a couple of problems with the restaurant as well. And one of the problems, which I wasn't able to address in the review, is the difficulty of eating at Little Sister as a vegetarian.
It's not that surprising, really. One of the other problems with the place -- some would call it a strength, and in many ways they'd be right -- is the uncompromising attitude about what it's doing and serving. There's a real "we do what we want" vibe about the place, from the waitstaff's insistence that food will come out whenever the kitchen wants to send it, to the boldly flavorful nature of that food. And, probably because of that attitude, no consideration has been made on the menu for people who don't eat meat.
There are a couple of dishes that appear to be vegetarian, like the delicious Myanmar okra curry, but it's made with fish sauce. The pea tendrils, also on the "vegetable" portion of the menu, has "scallop shards," and you can't get the dish without the scallop. There are two kinds of rice, and one is vegetarian -- the other is made with chicken stock. It was even a problem trying to order the cheese plate meat-free, as one of the cheeses came with a bacon accompaniment, which the kitchen refused to leave off the plate.
There is a portion of the menu that is basically a collection of small condiments and sides, and from that you can order a tiny dish of fried okra, which usually is cooked with fish sauce, although I was able to get it without. Also, a ramekin of intensely spicy green mango salad was deemed to be meat-free. But really that's it: A selection of a few condiments and a bowl of rice is as good as it's going to get.
It seems short-sighted for a restaurant with such a broad menu to neglect to have one or two larger dishes that can be at least modified for vegetarian needs. But it isn't in Little Sister's nature to accommodate needs outside of its own tastes.
That quest to serve food with a purity of intention has been important in the last decade -- chefs serving exactly what they want is the main factor in the quantum leap in American cooking over the last 10 years. But, at least on the vegetarian issue, the best chefs are realizing that serving great meat-free food is a creative challenge that's worth rising to. For now at least, it's a weak spot on Little Sister's otherwise fantastic menu.
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