[Andrea Nguyen, a food writer and teacher who lives in Santa Cruz, is the author of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen and Asian Dumplings. She'll become a regular contributor to markbittman.com while maintaining the invaluable Vietworldkitchen.com. - mb]
Most sophisticated eaters don’t equate mall food and good food. And, despite my teenage love of Orange Julius and hot dogs on a stick, I’m in that crowd. But this spring, my curiosity drew me to the Century City Shopping Center in Los Angeles — not just once but twice — to sample the fare at RockSugar Pan Asian Kitchen. It’s not a food court counter, but a new 7,500-square-foot, 250-seat restaurant – opened by the Cheesecake Factory, of all things.
On both occasions, I chatted with Executive Chef Mohan Ismail, an affable and talented Singaporean who has worked at Tabla, Blue Hill, and Spice Market. Ismail is working on how to deliver honest Asian flavors, mostly Southeast Asian and Indian, on a mass level. What he has accomplished thus far turned my head.
The food, in a word, is great, especially the Singaporean, Malaysian and Indonesian dishes. Some items, like the rich Indian stuffed flatbread and eggplant sambal, are based on recipes by Ismail’s mother. (She visited last year and said his food reminded her of her own.)
Ismail apologetically explained some of the compromises that he has had to make. For example, the Nonya seafood laksa noodle soup broth is thicker here than is traditional, because American diners expect extra creamy coconut milk. (We mostly use canned; in Asia it’s more often fresh.) I didn’t mind the texture change, as the broth contained the requisite shrimp paste and chile heat. I ate it up.
The restaurant is both experimental and chef-driven. With an eye on replicating RockSugar in other parts of the country, Ismail perused the inventory at a San Fernando Valley 99 Ranch market, the leading chain of pan-Asian grocery stores in the nation. His goal was to craft a menu based on a standard offering of Asian ingredients.
“We have to use a major supplier so I turned to 99 Ranch to see what was widely available and doable,” he explained.
What’s he using? Belachan (fermented shrimp paste, also called blachan, terasi), which is stinky and umami-laden. Before the paste is used, it is typically toasted over a flame, a step that has left my house reeking for days. Ismail is using it in a number of dishes: “I sneak it in, just a little bit because certain foods require it to taste right,” he said. “We toast it first thing in the early morning and blast the exhaust system to get it out of the restaurant.”
The fish sauce wasn’t hidden at all. I tasted it right away in the addictive Thai crispy chicken wings. There was also subtle fire in Rock Sugar’s food. Ismail says that at first he toned down the heat, being afraid of customer reactions. However, guests asked for more chiles. He happily obliged.
Whereas many Asian cooks in America rely on convenience products such as imported fried shallots and packaged curry pastes, RockSugar makes their own. According to Ismail, every other day, the staff thinly slices 10 pounds of fresh shallots and slowly deep-fries them into a crisp garnish. The freshness of these house-made ingredients helps the food remain true to its Asian roots.
What surprised me most about RockSugar was its clientele. There were the corporate suits from Century City law offices, young couples on dates, but also groups of Asians, some multigenerational. Some spoke Asian languages; an Indian man discussing a special event with Ismail. Everyone was having a good time.
The décor is also shock-and-awe: The entrance, through heavy wood doors, evoked Indiana Jones in an elegant and cinematic way. There are ornately carved teak panels and beams and more than 40 Buddha statues framed RockSugar’s bar and dining area, which had super dramatically high ceiling. Plasma TV screens flashed arty images and moody music filled the air.
More than an American casual-dining franchise, I felt as if I was in modern Asia, dining in a temple setting. It was a balanced and comfortable combination of old and new that surprisingly did not feel fake.
Finally, at my parents’ Vietnamese home, wet hand towels are used in lieu of dining table napkins. I don’t expect it when eating out. RockSugar presents guests with wet hand-towels after they are seated. (A Rock Sugar employee rolls up about 1,200 towels daily. “If Blanca catches staff misusing the towels for something like wiping their shoes, she gets very angry,” Ismail said.)
If shopping malls are weathervanes for American culture, then RockSugar is on to something that’s very promising, if not groundbreaking.
What does it take to create an authentic Asian restaurant? What is authentic Asian food? Is America ready (or not ready) for it?