Level Up Food & Lounge2431 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95816
I confess to a degree of confusion about the current crop of lounges. What, exactly, does one do in a lounge? When does one go? They offer dinner menus, but turning up at, say, 7 p.m. seems hopelessly uncool. Go later, though, and you’re in a thump-thump world of dancers and drinkers and food service that bogs down in the crowd. Or maybe I’m just kind of old.
Despite that, we headed to Level Up—the lounge above casual Midtown standby Thai Basil, with fusiony Southeast Asian food and cocktails—on a recent Saturday night. There was indeed a thumping beat, plus ornate little chandeliers contrasting with mod, color-changing lit-up bench backs; chairs that looked like orange egg cups; and a swirly central-seating … thing.
The cocktail list is long and works hard to be exotic, mostly succeeding: You’ll find things like a lychee mojito or a Purple Dew (with vodka and ube ice cream). I tried a Moay Thai, which was refreshing, aromatic and delicious: muddled lemongrass and lime leaves with gin.
That is, it was delicious after I’d stirred it up; the top was super watery, the bottom very strong—I think because it was sitting, melting, on the bar, waiting for the overworked server to deliver it to us. If it’s busy, I strongly suggest getting your own drinks at the bar; the service can take a while. My husband’s Pattaya Beach, a strong concoction with young coconut juice and flavored pineapple and coconut rum, was a little harsh and artificial tasting thanks to the flavored alcohols.
The food menu is divided into small plates, “medium plates” and entree-sized portions, most leaning toward being Thai, but with Chinese influences and some general pan-Asian stuff: Korean-style short ribs, lobster potstickers, grilled Asian sausage, chicken satay sandwiched in fluffy buns, curries, even naan.
We ordered up a mess of stuff and waited. And waited some more—so long that my husband was threatening to get up and dance. Then the food all came out in a rush, but with the entrees preceding the smaller plates—something for which the server apologized profusely. The entree we ordered was a yellow-curry-coated Cornish game hen, which was a sunshiny hue and cut into its little parts with an equally bright heap of rice on the side. I liked its peppery flavor, though the seasonings could have gone a little easier on the salt, and both the rice and the chicken flesh were a touch dried out. And I liked the vibrant flavor and texture of the curry-paste rub with its lemongrass bits.
As with some other dishes, this one was lukewarm, which indicated some problems with the kitchen’s pacing—or, maybe, with the service. I hate to criticize our server because she was extremely nice and apologetic, and it’s not her fault that she was the only one working the whole room, but they really need to step it up, wait-staff-wise. We went on a packed Saturday, so perhaps the restaurant was caught off guard by the crowd (I’ve heard it can be pretty dead), but surely Saturday night must be their busiest? An extra server would hardly be amiss.
Among the smaller plates, we tried out the “Not So Satay,” with the tender chicken sandwiched in pillowy, sweet buns; I’d have liked the dish better if the peanut sauce hadn’t also been on the sugary side, but shreds of carrot and other vegetables brought welcome crunch; slices of jalapeño should have cut the sweetness, but they were bizarrely mild. Duck salad rolls, light and cool, were tasty and fresh but too sparing with the duck, which got lost amid the bean sprouts, noodles and other blander ingredients. And the dipping sauce didn’t make much of an impression.
The winner of the night was a Thai-style octopus salad. Much like the seafood salads you find at a lot of Thai places, this one sparked with acidic, spicy and slightly sweet flavors, plus fresh herbs, thin onion crescents and crunchy greens, which all contrasted with the mild octopus.
Less uniformly successful were tiny lamb chops in a sesame-soy marinade. Their meat was tender and they were cooked to perfect pinkness, with plenty of savory marinade on the frenched bones for gnawing, but they also came out of the kitchen cold. The greens they sat on were drowning in a very salty soy dressing.
Also drowning yet oddly enjoyable was the naan, which came smothered in a creamy red-curry sauce. I’d have liked it much better with less of the sauce—or so I thought, but it was hard to stop eating it.
It was so rich that we skipped dessert, and we didn’t have the wherewithal to stick around until after midnight, when Level Up offers a fun-sounding “breakfast” menu of congee and similar things, presumably for soaking up booze. Indeed, a lot of the menu is really dressed-up bar food—salty and designed to be washed down with gulps of cocktails rather than savored. If you’re in the lounge demographic, though, there are some reasonably tasty nibbles here—and I recommend the Moay Thai.