So last night ventured to try Rock Sugar, at the Century City Westfield mall, out of curiosity and not expecting anything authentic but maybe a good cocktail. This is the place run by Cheesecake Factory, attempting to do Vietnamese and other areas - Indonesian, approaching Indian, etc.
The interior is a dim, soaring open space with SE Asian decor notes, roaring fireplaces along the entry passageway and really exquisite lighting. It is hard to tell you're not in Vegas in some brand-new and really well-done casino hotel. Not kitschy or Disney, but very clublike and perhaps like sort of a wood-toned movie-set palace with inscribed columns and a larger-than-life feel. Hence the 'temple of mood.' It really is. If I were to have one of those dreams where you wake up and you're in a shopping center that has closed for the evening but you're stuck inside one of the stores, this would be the ideal. There was trance-y, bass-rich but nonobtrusive music that I actually liked, reminiscent most to me of the sounds at the chilled, open-air, harborfront Bar-O-Metro in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. (Which incidentally, I love and which has great waitstaff, food and drinks I thought were really nice and terrific acoustics - so I think does Rock Sugar on the acoustics, although I'm no sound engineer. I suspect given the attention to lighting, they must've brought in some pretty good sound designers too.)
And the food? It was pretty much go for the ambiance, stay for the banana custard cake, for me. Some of what was in between was tasty. But the waiter-extolled banana cake was spectacular - and neither I nor my dining partner actually like banana bread.
First things first. For cocktails, I got the passionfruit cosmo and he got some pear martini. Both were inventive and fine but not must-have-the-recipe-now. Good enough that I would go there for cocktails and cake, though.
We got the tasting menu, $35 apiece for '5 courses, 10 flavors.' Pretty good value all things considered. You choose x-number-of-this-or-that depending on party size.
Here's the overall menu:
We got the crispy vegetable spring rolls, the potstickers and the lacquered beef ribs with a chili-caramel sesame glaze. The latter were very sweet, but really good in that context, cut into small nibbles that fell off the bone - ribs you can actually eat with chopsticks. The 'sweet-hot chili' dipping sauce for the spring rolls was particularly great and I would try to replicate this at home. It tasted of apricot and was sweet, but thin enough with a healthy dose of vinegar to not be cloying but rather a perfect sauce.
They also had served black sesame seed rice puffs ('crackers' that are like styrofoam in texture, but not in a bad way) with a terrific spicy (but not deathly), flavorful sambal. I will now be exploring sambals, as this is the first one I've had that I actually thought tasted yummy.
Then we had the green mango and papaya salad. Edible but nothing like Thai som tam. Couldn't find or taste a single pepper in it. Didn't taste any shrimp or crab paste either. Would always pass on this.
Then came a thick-noodles-and-sesame dish that I don't see on the actual dinner menu. Edible but nothing special. We also had a coconut rice dish that was better, but as an accompaniment to something else (like the meat dishes that followed). It was nowhere near as good as our gold standard for that, Chan Dara West L.A. on Pico.
For meats etc., we got Caramel Shrimp with ginger, chilies, cilantro and onions. This was really good, but like its name suggests, it's sweet so be prepared. They named this place correctly.
We also got the Shaking Beef, which was terrific and if I recall, had plenty of char (beef, onions, garlic, watercress - and sweetness). This was some tender, premium-quality beef, also.
I'm not saying any of the things we had were necessarily authentic at all, but some were nicely done.
For dessert, there were two small pots of creme brulee too sweet for me - one of which was a spiced dark chocolate, but there was also a simply gorgeous triangle of dense banana custard cake with milk-chocolate ice cream. The cake had banana fleks in it and was moist, not banana-bready though. The dense but not overly sweet custard that was its top layer was a beautiful interpretation of banana, and that was caramelized on top. This is now on my short list of figure-out-how-to-make-this-at-home desserts.
Wait staff was friendly and helpful, also sort of in the Vegas tradition.
When I go back (that's definitely a when, not an if), I'll order from the regular menu probably, vs. the tasting menu. Although there are more ways you could mix up the tasting menu to get completely different things from what we ordered.
So while I would not go here with foodie friends intent on tasting the most terrific authentic menu items the whole of Asia has to offer, I'd absolutely go here with a pack of general friends or a dining partner for a relaxing, fun experience and food that tastes good. Perhaps especially when a sweet tooth calls.