I worry for Simbal.
I worry that its location, just out of view from the street, will make it go unnoticed. Tucked into an odd corner of the warren that makes up Little Tokyo Village, it's hidden up some gray stairs and behind a large stone sculpture. The street address is basically useless. Unless you were specifically trying to go there, you'd never see the place, and even if you were seeking it you might give up when there's so much else going on in this vibrant neighborhood to catch your attention.
Simbal's industrial-chic dining room is mostly empty at 7 p.m. on a Friday night, and that makes me anxious, too — as does the fact that the hostess is pushing diners toward the high counter surrounding the open kitchen when the looks on their faces say they'd be happier at tables. And there are tables aplenty.
Chef and owner Shawn Pham would seem to have all the right experience. His resume includes stints at the Bazaar, Sona and the French Laundry, plus four years living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Simbal is supposed to be the crystallization of those experiences: Modern American fine dining meets casual Asian street food.
There's a dim sum cart that roams the room, offering small snacks for newly seated guests. This is a trend that seems as if it's always about to catch on in small-plates restaurants — but never quite does. Unless the restaurant really commits and builds the kitchen around the idea, the end result can be disappointing. Food that must withstand being pushed around for an extended time is rarely as complex or satisfying as food that comes straight from the cook's hands, and that's the case here — the minced meat on small pieces of fruit is fine but not particularly inspired; the mustard-green spring rolls are a little dry and bland.
On the full menu, populated by smallish shared plates, there are some gorgeous little bites of food. The broiled black cod, which comes with a whisper of turmeric and a forest of dill, is delicate and melting and sweet. Fresh tofu with hunks of raw tuna bathes in a tangy ponzu sauce, the silky consistency of the tofu playing against the somewhat firmer but still slippery fish, punctuated by pops of sesame seeds and the crunch of scallions. There's a beef tartare that mimics a Thai larb and is served with a big puff of sesame bread that you tear apart and use to scoop up the deep red meat.
There are a couple of genuine surprises, such as the crispy sweetbreads with a fish-sauce glaze that's searingly spicy, paired with pickled Chinese mustard greens. This is one of those dishes that's both addictive and punishing, the burn on your tongue somehow daring you to come back for more. You'll be glad you did.
But there are also dishes that left me confused, wondering why Pham held back. A short rib pot pie comes in a personal crock, its flaky pastry top falling into a beefy broth. The menu says the stew is made with lemongrass and annatto, but I was left wanting for aromatics. Why not fill this dish with fresh herbs? Why not pile on the brightness? It's such a fun idea, but it felt a little flat in execution.
Caramel braised wild rice with congee also needed something to perk it up, some sort of herbal or textural remedy to enhance the congee, sweet caramel sauce and tasty shrimp. Remember the first time you tried congee and you thought it might be a bland puddle of rice slop, only to be delighted by its savory, meaty, ginger-laden reality? This one is a little more like your original concern.
A marinated duck is beautifully pink but disappointingly chewy. A seasoned rice dish with chili jam, salted duck egg yolk, bonito powder and crispy garlic is pleasingly funky in taste but a little too much like greasy fried rice in quality.
The back portion of the space is taken up by a bar and lounge area that looks as though it's never been used. This is probably due in part to the fact that Simbal only just got its full liquor license. A cocktail list is imminent. The modest wine list, from general manager/wine director Ron Carey, is full of cool and interesting wines that the servers don't really know how to explain, which is especially tough because they're mainly lesser-known styles that could use the explanation. Servers here are affable and enthusiastic, and they will exclaim that they love the wine you're asking about, but that's about where the conversation stops. Most wines are available by the glass, though, and they'll give you a taste happily. But it's a little awkward if the wine they bring is not what you had in mind. They'll stand and smile, and you'll guess again.
There's so much at Simbal with promise, so much that is almost exactly what it needs to be to qualify for all those “hottest new restaurants in town” lists it's been showing up on. The cocktails will help. A few more customers would be great. A little extra attention to making the food truly distinct would go a very, very long way.
SIMBAL | Two stars | 319 E. Second St., Ste. 202, downtown (entrance at 120 San Pedro St.) | (213) 626-0244 | simbalrestaurant.com | Tue.-Sat., 6-10 p.m. | Full bar | Street and lot parking