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Feeding a growing taste for exotic, Asian cuisine

Times Staff Writer

Mohan Ismail seared thinly sliced beef tenderloin as he dodged flames shooting from the side of a red-hot wok ring.

The Singapore-raised chef was working on a recipe that reminded him of the flavors his mother once created. Ismail mixed the meat with red onions, fish sauce and lemon grass. Seconds later, he placed the almost scorched, crispy meat on a bed of watercress.

The concoction, called Shaking Beef, is part of a much larger creation being cooked up in the Calabasas test kitchen of Cheesecake Factory Inc., the restaurant chain known for its oversized portions of meat loaf and giant, gooey desserts.

This is no carbon copy. The chain is opening RockSugar Pan Asian Kitchen in the Century City mall June 19 with a menu that is 180 degrees different from what the company sells at its namesake restaurant chain and Grand Lux Cafes. And unlike the others, it will take reservations.

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Ismail, whose culinary expertise was honed working for New York eateries such as Spice Market and Blue Hill, plans entrees like this beef dish and a seared salmon dressed with Indonesian chilies.

“These flavors are memories of Singapore,” Ismail said.

Three years in the making, the new concept for Cheesecake opens at a less than opportune time for the restaurant industry. Sales at established Cheesecake Factory restaurants dipped almost 2% in the last quarter.

Fancy steakhouses such as Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris Steak House also are attracting fewer customers. Some chains are closing restaurants, convinced that they overbuilt in recent years.

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Even with Cheesecake’s vast experience opening restaurants and winning customers, there’s no guarantee that RockSugar will be a success, analysts say.

P.F. Chang’s China Bistro Inc. failed to create a chain out of its Taneko Japanese Tavern, which opened in Scottsdale, Ariz., two years ago with high expectations. Company executives claimed that Taneko would become a category-defining restaurant but are now trying to unload the tavern.

Cheesecake’s chief executive, David Overton, said he was confident that Southern California’s cultural comfort with Asian food, combined with the bustling Century City location, would attract a strong lunch and dinner business at RockSugar.

This is the first new concept for Cheesecake Factory since 1999, when it launched Grand Lux, an amped version of the company’s founding chain.

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RockSugar will showcase cuisines including those of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and India with dishes such as green curry chicken with a green mango and papaya salad, a spicy sambal eggplant and a pungent chicken tikka. In developing the fare, Ismail is relying on ingredients many Americans are unfamiliar with: Thai basil, lemon grass, rau ram -- a Vietnamese mint akin to coriander -- and calamansi, a Southeast Asian lime.

“We want to give people more exposure to Southeast Asian food without narrowing it down to just one region or location,” Ismail said.

Customers will enter the restaurant through massive wooden doors framed by gold leaf-overlaid columns. Once inside the 7,500-square-foot restaurant -- about 75% of a standard Cheesecake Factory -- they will see Burmese Buddha statues, a golden dragon sculpture and intricately carved teak panels and beams.

Appetizers will be in the $7 to $12 range. Dishes will sell from the low teens to the mid $20s. Desserts will be $7 to $8. Portions won’t be as large as the oversized dishes at Cheesecake Factory.

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Notwithstanding its smaller portions, RockSugar is priced to collect more money per dinner than Overton’s other chains. He expects the average RockSugar check to be well into the $20 range compared with the average $18 diners spend at Cheesecake Factory.

Overton said the company came up with the idea for RockSugar after observing the increasing popularity of Asian foods, especially Chinese cuisine and Japanese sushi and watching the emergence of successful Chinese food chains such as P.F. Chang’s and Panda Express.

Other restaurateurs have witnessed these same trends and have jumped into the market with fine-dining establishments.

With its focus on fresh and local ingredients, for example, Charles Phan’s Vietnamese eatery, the Slanted Door, has become one of San Francisco’s most popular restaurants. On the East Coast, Jean-Georges Vongerichten has had success with his reinterpretation of Southeast Asian street food at Spice Market in New York.

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Still, Overton doesn’t expect to open dozens of RockSugars soon. “It will take us a while to make sure people like it and to hone the restaurant,” Overton said.

A second destination would likely be Las Vegas. Overton’s not willing to name other potential locations or predict a growth path.

Analysts say that Cheesecake was clever to pick an Asian concept that shows the influences of Chinese cuisine but targets the flavors of other nations. “There’s a wonderful opportunity for somebody to take advantage of the lack of chain stores in this category,” said Darren Tristano, a restaurant industry analyst at Technomic Inc. in Chicago.

Tristano and other restaurant consultants said that operating Asian eateries isn’t much of a leap from what Cheesecake Factory already does.

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“What they have done well is popularize contemporary dining through their large portions and Americanized cuisine with international influences,” Tristano said.

The inventory of ingredients used at Cheesecake Factory restaurants “is not all that big but the menu is because they know how to combine them in a lot of different ways. That’s really similar to Asian food,” said Clark Wolf, a restaurant and food consultant in New York.

Perhaps mindful of its past success, Cheesecake Factory will offer one trademark dish at its new restaurant -- but with a twist.

Along with a caramelized banana custard cake and kulfi, a dense Indian-style ice cream, RockSugar will offer tofu cheesecake. It’s authentic, Ismail said.

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“When I was growing up in Singapore there was no cheesecake,” Ismail said, “but now just about anything and everything is available.”

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com


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