Thai-Japanese sushi? It sounds unreal, yet it exists at what could be the city's most unusual sushi bar.
King Garden Restaurant occupies an unremarkable corner on Wilshire Boulevard at the eastern end of the Miracle Mile. When the restaurant opened, the menu was primarily Japanese, offering inexpensive sukiyaki dinners and other combinations. Now those dishes have vanished. The food, except for the sushi, is Thai-Chinese. And Ristar Khournso, who is from Bangkok, works the sushi bar.
Khournso trained neither in Bangkok nor in Tokyo but in Paris, where he went to study French and fell in with a couple of Japanese sushi chefs. Khournso can make regulation sushi--the things shown on that card of photographs that restaurants provide to initiate the novice. But ask for something special, and you'll come away with taste buds reeling from a typically Thai assault of complex flavors and screechingly hot chiles.
The other night, Khournso outdid himself with a parade of intriguing creations, several of them fired with tiny, splintery Thai style chiles grown by his grandmother. Plump raw oysters came in a little dish with indentations to hold the runoff from their topping of tomato, onion, chiles and a bright dash of lemon juice. What a perfect complement to seafood, including chewy Japanese clams placed on rice, nigiri- sushi style.
The same sauce, minus the lemon juice, seasoned raw tuna and rice snugly wrapped in a dark cone of nori (seaweed). With torrid sushi like this, my pretty little mound of wasabi sat on its wooden block to the end of the meal, its pungent heat as unwelcome as a hot water bottle in a heat wave.
Wasabi did have its moment. Khournso added it to another seaweed-wrapped handroll, along with a Chinese herb, name unknown, that he said combats colds. This one focused on a rich blend of flavors--crab, tuna, avocado, tomato, onion and cucumber--plus rice, punctuated by an occasional jolt up the nose from the wasabi.
For sheer beauty, nothing that evening surpassed the gorgeous, kaleidoscopic patterns of a cucumber-wrapped roll, sliced to reveal a mosaic of rice and seafood--tuna, scallops, crab and crab roe--embellished with avocado and what Khournso calls his "special sauce."
His most unusual sushi is no doubt the special roll. This rather blank name does not begin to indicate its singularity. Instead of seaweed, the wrapping is a thin, almost translucent, Thai-style noodle that is as much a feat to make as sushi. Khournso practiced in Bangkok until he mastered the technique, which involves cooking the noodle mixture on a cloth stretched over a container of steaming water. He wraps this delicate substance around various combinations of ingredients to produce an extraordinary bundle of flavors and textures. For me, the filling was chopped scallop, crab, tiny golden smelt roe, avocado and rice.
A customer has to demonstrate a strong palate before Khournso will turn out his spiciest sushi. But there are intermediate choices too. One night, he had acquired soft-shell crabs from Japan, which he fried and presented on a plate of lettuce. The chiles and the wasabi were safely on the side, in a dipping sauce of vinegar, sugar and shrimp sauce. "Orgasmic," exclaimed one enthusiast.
Khournso has worked at King Garden slightly more than a year. To allow its habitues a respite from raw fish, the restaurant has added a cook from Bangkok who prepares a large variety of Thai and Chinese dishes. It now may be the only place where you can start lunch with a California roll, then go on to Thai noodles and Thai-style kung pao chicken, washed down with chilled sake. The cold sake, by the way, is an excellent accompaniment to spicy food.
Some of the Thai dishes, like garlic shrimp and beef satay, are quite good. Some need improvement and one, the mee krob, was horrendous. That makes the sushi bar the best bet here. Sushi is never cheap, but two can sample a good assortment together with miso soup, tea and pickles for $30 or so, food only.
King Garden Restaurant, 5100 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Call (213) 936-2061. Open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Accepts Visa, MasterCard and Diner's Club. Reservations taken but usually not necessary. Park on the street or in the lot in back.