There are now so many wonderful restaurants in Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades and Malibu that I rarely go east of the 405 Freeway for lunch or dinner.
But when something special calls, I respond. I kept hearing Rock Sugar as being something special, and when I heard the chef was from Singapore I responded and went for lunch. I used to work in Century City, so I had been there before, but I realized I had not tried that many dishes, so it was a new experience for me.
I’ve been to Singapore, and I love the multi-story buildings with dozens of food court stalls on each floor, each with its own family specialty. And since so many of the specialties in Singapore are seafood, that’s what I expected at Rock Sugar. But I was wrong. The menu is more diversified than I expected.
The concept was developed by David Overton, who also developed the Cheesecake Factory. And his love of Asian culture is evident in this restaurant.
I’m a big fan of a little snack while waiting to order, and the snack at Rock Sugar was particularly good: Indonesian crackers with a spicy tomato sauce on the side.
Naturally I had to have a beer with that. And the chef then came over to ask if there was anything I didn’t eat, and of course I said “no.” But I should have told him that there’s a limit to how much I can eat. He agreed to send over his specialties.
Within three minutes out came chicken samosas with mild curry spices, in perfect fried wraps with lots of chicken flavor inside and a smooth cilantro yogurt sauce on the side.
Next was the beef satay made from short ribs; a soft, marinated brochette of beef very rare, with two difference sauces — one a pickled pineapple sauce and one based with peanuts. Now one aspect of the chef’s ideas was becoming clear; he likes to serve a different sauce with each of his creations.
Another of the chef’s thinking became more clear with the next arrival — lacquered barbecue ribs in a chili-caramel-sesame marinade. The chef likes meat more than seafood! And here no sauce on the side was needed because the ribs were well marinated in a chili-caramel glaze. And now I know even more about the chef: he likes strong flavors. These pork ribs were very sweet with crispy edges and a soft, meaty interior.
And now another beef dish arrived — rendang. This dish is also made from short ribs of beef, and was served with curry rice cakes. At the same time we were served ginger fried rice with a fried egg on top, full of ginger flavor.
Finally a seafood dish arrived, and it was spectacular; caramel shrimp with onion and green beans was delicious. Like every other dish, it was coated with a sweet sauce, so either the chef has a real sweet tooth, or he’s living up to the name of the restaurant by using rock sugar in all the dishes.
This was a great tour of Asia. Some of those dishes are Thai, some Vietnamese, some Malaysian, some Indonesian, and some Indian. And chef Ismail has captured the essence of the spices of each area.
I rarely eat dessert, even when my wife and doctor are not around to watch, but I had heard so much about the banana cake that I felt compelled to try it. Oh the indignities I suffer to satisfy my editor! But this time it was worth it. The banana cake was covered with a layer of banana crème brulee, covered in turn with chocolate ice cream (made there) with candied nut crunch on top.
The ambiance at Rock Sugar is as spectacular as the food. There’s a great patio, and inside you sit under 40-foot high ceilings surrounded by Asian art and carvings. There is soft music with no vocals. There are private dining rooms. Everything has the feel of spaciousness and exotic places.
And the prices are reasonable. The average dish is around $20, and the highest priced dish is the sea bass at $32.50. Portions are ample, and can well be shared.
The chef’s tasting menu, similar to what I had, is $38, and probably enough for two. The service is outstanding.
If you go
Rock Sugar Pan Asian Kitchen
10250 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, Calif.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org