Asian cool

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact period in time when Asian became cool.

It definitely wasn’t the 1970s. Asian didn’t even exist back then. The word was “Oriental.” But during the 1980s, a gradual shift occurred. The dominance of the Japanese auto industry in America, the genuflection to Japanese business concepts like keiretsu, cinematic artists like Akira Kurosawa, mainstream movies like The Karate Kid, the rise of high-tech electronics—all of these things were a precursor to the changing perception of all things Asian. By the 1990s, Asian fusion took over California’s restaurants. Asian cool displaced Anglophilic and Francophilic tendencies.

Though Sacramento has no scarcity of Asians and Asian restaurants, Asian cool has eluded the city—until now. Sammy Chu’s, the latest restaurant launched by the Paragary family, is a Pan-Asian endeavor that capitalizes on the coolness of Asian design and culinary flavors.

The interior embodies an East-meets-West sensibility. The East is expressed through the horizontal orientation of wooden slats; the glossy sheen of the fabrics; the opaque screens; the oversized lanterns and vases, the latter of which are filled with tall stalks of stained bamboo; and the clever, garden-style benches around the horseshoe-shaped bar, which serve as bar seats built for two. The West asserts itself through concrete and textured walls; drop-down, miniature, naked light bulbs; and conventional tables and chairs. Despite these splashy design elements, the ambience of the restaurant is controlled by a deified DJ, who produces an incessant house thump from a perch overlooking the bar.

To some, the restaurant might feel like an obnoxious New York or Miami hipster club. For others, it may seem more like West Hollywood circa 1999. (In support of these comparisons, the restaurant does seem to attract its fair share of women flaunting back skin, and men unafraid of facial hair or gel products.) On a bustling night, the pulsating beats of house music add a surreal energy. On a slow night, the thump seems exaggerated and forced. But the patrons—young to middle-aged and predominantly white—don’t seem to mind.

From a bar perspective, the drinks are well-poured and are priced accordingly. An array of tropical cocktails—Singapore slings, tsunamis and lemon-grass kamikazes—fulfill the promise of the Asian theme. If the ginger kamikaze, a vodka-based concoction with “secret ginger syrup,” is any indication, the common denominator among the drinks is that they’re sweet and potent.

The menu offers a selection of small and large plates, soups and salads, noodles and vegetable sides, most of which appear to be inspired by Southeast Asian flavors.

We started with a small plate of crispy tofu in a sweet and spicy cashew sauce. Five tall right triangles of tofu were presented on a rectangular plate. The tofu was slightly crisp, and the interior warm and soft. The fiery sauce speckled with cilantro and cashew bits alternated between sweet and tangy, with either fish sauce or vinegar dancing in and out. It was hard to figure out the source of the tang because of the slow burn that formed on our lips. (Note: At Sammy Chu’s, spicy means spicy.) Though the tofu would have benefited from a clingier sauce, the dish was both unusual and pleasant.

If the crispy tofu left us hot, the papaya salad was deliciously cool and refreshing. A generous portion of shredded green papaya was tossed with cherry tomatoes, Thai chilies, coconut rice and roasted peanuts in a tangy, fish-sauce-based dressing. Coconut rice wrapped in banana leaf—a fantastic, flavorful treat—complemented the flavor and crunch of the shredded papaya. The last ingredient, cross sections of green cabbage, provided an additional neutral crunch but required too much dexterity to use as a wrap.

The next two dishes were less impressive. The caramel-chicken clay pot had a nice flavor. The thin broth offered a complex sweetness, mingling with garlic, ginger, green onion and chilies. By itself or with rice, the broth was overly sweet, but it paired well with the chicken. The drawback of the dish was the lack of anything but chicken to carry the flavors of the broth.

The curried noodles with shrimp, barbecued pork and fresh-water chestnuts was the most ordinary of the dishes we ordered. Vermicelli noodles were dressed in a sauce that tasted more like peanut or tahini than curry. The fresh, pleasing crunch of julienned sugar snap peas didn’t quite make up for the small quantities of barbecued pork and shrimp. The dish’s main flaw, however, was that the curry didn’t really come off as curry.

In the category of Pan-Asian cuisine, Sammy Chu’s clearly outclasses any of its competitors in the region. But the experience left us feeling that the food is not the point. Given the splashy environs and the pulsating music, it seems the point is to see and be seen. For serious foodies, this is an annoyance. But for a city that’s increasingly undergoing a Hollywood-ization of sorts, Sammy Chu’s is simply the next milestone in the makeover. Now that we have Asian cool, what’s next?