Manhattan Beach’s Little Sister: a tasteful trip through Southeast Asian cuisine
I have a friend who lived for years in various parts of Asia, and after years of traveling in exotic lands is glad to be home. As delightful as it was to experience new cultures and new forms of art, Jim’s happy to be back in a place where he’s not a stranger and knows the social rules.
It was a test of sorts to take Jim to Little Sister; after decades of authentic cultural expressions he’s generally skeptical of fusion restaurants of any sort. Most soften the flavors to the point of Americanized anonymity, but I was pretty sure that he would find Chef Tin’s version of modern Asian cuisine different. The fusion here is less between Asian and European than between ancient and modern Asian ideas, and it’s a crucial difference. Explaining details of my previous meals at Little Sister persuaded him to keep an open mind.
The modern art on the walls and industrial setting surprised Jim less than I expected – we were in Manhattan Beach, and he rightly expected a contemporary rather than traditional setting. He asked me to order, since I was more familiar with the restaurant, and that put me on the spot. I had dined here before, but the menu changes frequently so some of the items I had tried were no longer offered. However, what doesn’t change is that the offerings reflect the diaspora of Chef Tin’s family, who left China and were dispersed throughout Southeast Asia before reuniting in California. Despite harrowing adventures, they all apparently learned to cook specialties of whatever countries they passed through, and they transmitted that knowledge to Chef Tin.
We decided to order duck satay, egg noodles in garlic sauce, braised pork belly, flatbread stuffed with chili lamb, and red rice with crab and lamb bacon – dishes based on the cuisines of Indonesia, China, Burma, and Vietnam. We usually would have ordered beer or sake to accompany the food, and both were available, but the very extensive wine list beckoned, and I wanted to see how the pairings worked. Our server Stephanie was very helpful and offered tastes of some vintages – we found the Portuguese Quinta Nova interesting but a bit thin, while the delicately flowery Folk Machine Friulano and Legado del Conte Albarino were more to our liking.
We had asked Stephanie to bring out the dishes in whatever order she thought appropriate, and she began with the noodles, which were topped in a tall pile of crisp shredded fried shallots. The thin chow mein type noodles had been tossed in a mild garlic sauce with shreds of green onion, crispy pork bits, and a little soy and chili oil – not complex cooking, but very satisfying, hitting notes of sweet, spicy, and umami while delivering an array of textures.
The next item to arrive was the kima platha, a Burmese dish with roots in neighboring India. Muslim traders brought the idea of making flaky breads called parathas and stuffing them with meats or vegetables, and the Burmese varied the spicing to fit their own tastes. The Indian version is usually a disc with a thin layer of stuffing, but this was a fat, flattened cylinder – think of this as a particularly exotic chimichanga and you’re not far wrong. The lamb was in a mild spice mix with onion and herbs that was delicious, and the roll was served over a layer of mild coconut-scented curry and served with pieces of raw cherry tomato, a sprinkling of yellow lentils, sprigs of cilantro, and chunks of what appeared to be a tamarind chutney.
The satay arrived under another pile of the fried shallots, this time mixed with caramelized Asian pear – Chef Tin obviously enjoys adding interesting textures to his dishes with these details, and they also add to the visual appeal. The flavors were restrained – rather than coat the duck with assertive spices, the meat was delicately seasoned and the natural flavors shone. Unusually, there was no peanut-based sauce for dipping; instead a mild ginger-tamarind sauce had a subtle sharpness.
Our next dishes were the pork belly and the rice with lamb bacon and crab, so I decided to get a glass of a red wine. Since I had asked about red blends, Stephanie offered tastes of one called “If You See Kay” (apparently winemakers can have juvenile senses of humor too) and one by Rob Murray’s Tooth & Nail winery called The Possessor. The former was pleasant but unimpressive, while the latter was so good that I momentarily interrupted my meal to search for more information on the internet. The Possessor was an outstanding wine, fruity and mild for a Cabernet-based blend, and I would have missed it without guidance.
That wine went very well with the red-braised pork belly, which despite its name wasn’t spicy at all. The spices used in its preparation lent it a red color, but like Chinese char siu it was more sweet than spicy. It was served in a puree of roasted leeks topped with crisped shiitake mushrooms that was so good that I ordered bread just so we could get every bit of the sauce. The final item, Bhutanese red rice with Dungeness crab and lamb bacon, arrived topped with a fried egg, and Stephanie suggested we break the yolk and mix it in before eating. Red rice is an unusual grain that has a flavor different from any other – something about growing at high altitude in mineral-rich water makes it complex, nutty, and earthy all by itself. It would be a shame to cover up that flavor, and they don’t at Little Sister – the rice was an equal partner with the lightly smoked lamb, the flakes of crab that permeated the dish lending a little richness like a sea breeze.
My friend Jim arrived unconvinced but left a believer – he said the flavors reminded him of meals he had enjoyed in private homes rather than restaurant cooking. There’s a unity to the flavors here even though we ordered dishes from several cultures, a rare and wonderful thing. Perhaps the fact that these recipes have a family connection is the reason that the food at Little Sister tastes so authentic even though so many traditions are represented. Add in exceptional service and a fine beverage list and you have a recipe for success. Dinner at Little Sister is reasonably priced by Manhattan Beach standards – dinner for three with three glasses of wine ran $120. It is definitely worth it, since nothing remotely like this cooking from the Far East is served anywhere else on the West Side.
Little Sister is at 1131 Manhattan Avenue in Manhattan Beach – open daily 5 p.m. to midnight. Beer and wine served, street parking or pay lots, corkage $15. Moderately loud. Menu changes regularly – sample at littlesistermb.com. (310) 545-2096.