There is no way not to make a grand entrance at RockSugar Pan-Asian Kitchen. The restaurant is a temple to Eastern cuisine, and it is through a palatial foyer that might as well be a space-time portal to the mystical Orient of lore that one enters.
The vaulted ceilings are made of ornately hand-carved wooden beams. Nagas, the Hindu snake goddess, guards the dining room, evil spirits are locked in birdcage-like lanterns and columns bearing elephants with trunks raised welcome patrons to the dining hall. Statues of monks with rice bowls adorn the upper reaches of the main room and dim colored globes provide ambient lighting.
The menu draws on executive chef Mohan Ismail's favorite family recipes. Ismail showcases the flavors of coconut, ginger, chili and mint, featuring the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and his native Singapore. The dishes complement each other seamlessly, creating not so much a fusion-style, but rather, a pastiche of tastes that are woven together like a fine tapestry.
To get things started, there are a variety of cold and hot appetizers, but keep in mind that the portions are large enough to share. Some of the dishes are hit-or-miss, so try a few before forming a solid opinion. Consider trying the lacquered bbq ribs -- the meat comes right off the bone and is smothered in a chili-caramel sesame glaze. Or if crispy samosas are more your speed, you'll likely enjoy the cool cilantro yogurt and spicy tamarind chutney dipping sauces that accompany the chicken-stuffed pockets. One safe bet is the beef skewers, which are tender and at their best with the peanut sauce.
There is an array of exotic soups and salads. I tried the spicy Thai beef salad -- it's aromatic and acidic without being hot. Like most items on the menu, it's for the bold and the curious, and like most items on the menu -- it's a rewarding adventure.
As entrees go, you can't go wrong with the roasted Thai Chilean Sea Bass. It's everything you love about Chilean Sea Bass with a zesty splash of spice. It is served in a light sauce that includes pea shoots, chilies, soy, lime juice and sweet rice wine. The Thai basil cashew chicken is a delicious dish for just about any palate. It features Thai chilies, onions and garlic. There are also a variety of other exotic chicken dishes and spiced beef dishes, and a good selection of seafood items, including salmon, cod, shrimp and calamari.
The desserts combine the traditional with the exotic. And you really can't go wrong here. The caramelized banana custard cake is particularly good, as are the sorbets, and the warm coconut doughnuts with passion fruit sauce is a decadent treat. And to reiterate, the portions are hearty. Be prepared to take food home. And when you do, don't worry about asking for a box -- the restaurant will take care of it for you and leave you a number, much like a valet parking service. You simply pick up your bag on the way out.
The wine list is extensive, with a lot of wines available by the glass. There is also a variety nice selection of sake, which is served in a crystalline orb carafe with small matching glasses. The house cocktails employ an array of exotic ingredients, including the signature flavors of coconut, ginger, kaffir lime and mint. And the cocktails are not dainty -- expect a full-size glass rather than a little Champagne flute. It's all part of the sensory-bombarding experience that is at the heart of RockSugar.
Follow Scott Bridges on Twitter: www.twitter.com/EatWriteLA