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...
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 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, Calif., test kitchen of Cheesecake Factory, the restaurant chain known for its oversized portions of meatloaf and giant, gooey desserts.
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This is no carbon copy. The chain is opening RockSugar Pan Asian Kitchen in Los Angeles’ Century City mall June 19 with a menu 180 degrees different from the company’s namesake restaurant chain and its Grand Lux Cafes. Unlike the others, it will take reservations.
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 percent in the last quarter.
Cheesecake Factory has three Seattle-area outlets: downtown at 700 Pike St., in Bellevue Square, and at the Westfield Southcenter mall.
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.
Even with Cheesecake’s vast experience, there’s no guarantee RockSugar will be a success, analysts say.
P.F. Chang’s China Bistro 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 Taneko would become a category-defining restaurant but are now trying to unload the tavern.
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, which now has outlets in Las Vegas, Florida, Chicago, the New York City area and Scottsdale, Ariz.
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.
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.
Chief Executive David Overton said the company came up with the idea for RockSugar after seeing the 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.
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 in Chicago.
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.
“When I was growing up in Singapore there was no cheesecake,” Ismail said, “but now just about anything and everything is available.”