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“In my country children get to play with fire,” shared Executive Chef Mohan Ismail born and raised in Singapore. “My mom worked nights, so when I was five or six years old I cooked a lot of egg dishes.” His mother was his inspiration to becoming a chef. “The way I cook and manage people, is a lot like my mom,” Mohan said. “I guess as I get older, I am becoming more like her,” he says with a laugh.
I met Chef Mohan at his Pan Asian Kitchen, RockSugar in Century City. Walking into the entrance, I was awed by the visually stunning décor. The design was inspired by a hotel in the Maldives. It offers a Southeast Asian feel like a royal temple, with colors of gold, plum, saffron, blues and vermilion. Burmese Buddha and monk statues stand proudly in balconies holding flickering candles. Hand carved wood beams from Indonesia, and pale blue soaring columns with gold flowers, vines, and painted elephants are eye candy.
Open for two years now, it was the brainchild of restaurateur, David Overton, creator of The Cheesecake Factory and Grand Lux. David found New-York-trained Chef Mohan (Tabla and Blue Hill) and lured him to California to help create RockSugar. Mohan found a place to live a few blocks from the restaurant and enjoys walking to work daily. “I don’t consider what I do a job or work,” Mohan shared with me, “I love waking up in the morning and coming to RockSugar.”
The menu offers traditional dishes from Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Vietnam, with a twist of creativity in their presentation.
A fun way to sample many items is to order from the Chef’s prix fixe lunch menu. A two-course meal is $12.95. Three-courses is only two dollars more and includes a dessert.
We started our dining adventure with sweet Thai ice teas and a lime mint squash (tastes like a virgin mojito) while looking over the menu. A basket of black sesame rice crackers was delivered to our table with a red tomato chili oil. It had a kick, but wasn’t too spicy. We each ordered different items and shared them family-style. The chicken, shitake mushroom, and green onion pot stickers in a citrus-soy sauce were divine, however my favorite was the crispy vegetable spring rolls filled with shitake mushrooms, chayote (a squash), tofu, glass noodles and a sweet-hot chili sauce. Chef Mohan recommended we take the hot spring roll and roll it with a cool lettuce leaf dabbed with the chili sauce. It created an amazing flavor sensation and was delicious.
Another first course was the green mango and papaya salad with tomatoes, carrots, crushed peanuts, green beans and crispy shallots. For entrees, we ordered one of the new menu items, Thai basil cashew chicken with Thai chili, onions and garlic. It is a must-order. Served with jasmine or brown rice, it is a delectable combination of sweet and spicy. The Thai noodles with chicken or shrimp served with tofu, crushed peanuts and egg tasted just like the Pad Thai I used to eat for lunch while in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Last, the Singapore Hainan pork with sweet onions, peas and spicy chili sauce was devoured quickly by one of my guests.
If you ask the servers what is their favorite dessert, most will reply the caramelized banana custard cake with milk chocolate ice cream and malted crème anglaise with pistachio brittle. The banana cake was delicious, however I would have been perfectly content with a big bowl of the milk chocolate ice cream and the pistachio brittle on top. Another dessert favorite is the small ramekin dishes of mango, chocolate spice and sweet corn crème brulee.
Now that I have discovered this wonderful lunch spot, I must come back for a romantic dinner. The candles softly flicker due to the brightness of the day, yet, when the sun goes down and the moon rises, the inside is transformed into a breathtaking visual masterpiece – just like the food Chef Mohan prepares for his guests.
Rocksugar 10250 Santa Monica Blvd, (310)552-9988.
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