M y friend Myrna was dubious when I invited her to Thai Fusion, which keeps company with a slew of hip boutiques on the third floor of the Brentwood Gardens mall. She's a dyed-in-the- wool traditionalist who thinks "fusion" means undisciplined cooking and bizarre flavor combinations.
She's often right, of course, but I'm always trying to remind her that all cuisines--including Thai, with its acknowledged Indian and Chinese influences--are always changing and evolving anyway.
Thai Fusion's Elle Decor-inspired interior did nothing to reassure her. The walls are covered with paintings of drifting chiles and floating plates of vegetables, throbbing with intense tropical colors: mango, deep coral, red, shimmery ocean blue.
I recommended two appetizers I thought she might approve. The Thai Fusion roll was a glorified satay: smoky grilled chicken chunks wrapped in gossamer sheets of rice-paper with fresh herbs and rice vermicelli, all with a great peanut sauce. Popeye's favorite was a tall, airy heap of spinach-leaf tempura drizzled with sweet-hot sauce and splashed with crushed peanuts. Though it struck me as more style than substance, I found it addictive. Myrna didn't complain.
Tropical trout, boned and butterflied and fried in whisper- thin breading, came with a "salsa"--mangoes and other fruit with diced shallots--gaily strewn over it. Carved carrot roses and a generous mound of fresh vegetables in a light, sweet sauce garnished the platter. Myrna damned it as neither Thai nor anything else, but she admitted to liking it.
Our waitress told us how Thai Fusion was conceived. Owner John Mekpongsatorn's American mother taught school while his immigrant Thai-Chinese father created several of L.A.'s first mainstream Thai restaurants, including Lannathai and Siam, now sold.
In 1991, this bicultural upbringing, together with growing up among L.A.'s mixed-Asian neighborhoods, inspired him to conceive Noodle World, perhaps the first pan-Asian noodle restaurant in the L.A. area. Mekpongsatorn added a larger branch, shortly followed by two equally successful Noodle Planet restaurants in Alhambra and Westwood.
Some time after my dinner with Myrna, I dined at Thai Fusion with her opposites--a group of friends who are ever seeking the new (whether fashion or food). One of them complained that the menu seemed "like regular Thai," so I encouraged them to try the least traditional-sounding dishes.
One of the best turned out to be calamari salad in a black bean-balsamic vinaigrette--non-Thai ingredients that produce the same sort of sweet-salty and hot flavors of Thai food. The mixed lettuces were slightly underdressed but generously heaped with sizzling curls of crisp-fried calamari. I picked smoked salmon roll, another appetizer wrapped in vermicelli and rice-paper. It was refreshing, but its delicacy was unfortunately overwhelmed by the aggressive lemon grass sauce.
One friend insisted on having a tom yum soup and was disappointed by its mildness, just as Myrna and I had found spinach spectacular--spinach and shiitake in a Chinese-style sauce--too bland for an entree, though fine as a side dish.
The Thai shrimp cakes had the familiar chewy texture but were much plumper, with a light, nontraditional bread-crumb coating. They came with a terribly sweet plum sauce. There are a lot of very sweet sauces here, as on the dry, way-overcooked grilled game hen, the eggplant with Thai basil and the fried catfish (a wonderfully large, meaty specimen).
After so much sweetness, dessert seemed excessive, but the fresh coconut-milk ice cream made us glad we'd ordered. The mango pudding was a playful spin on Thai mango pudding--slightly jelled mango puree heaped with fresh-cut fruit in a pool of warm, sweet coconut milk.
The verdict? Interesting, wholesome food (many interesting vegetarian choices), yet hardly as polished as Chinois on Main, say, or Vong in New York. With a few refinements and a lighter hand on the sugar, Thai Fusion might even win over Myrna.
Thai Fusion, Brentwood Gardens, 11677 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood. (310) 820-3200. Open Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Beer and wine. Validated parking under the mall; enter just to the west. Visa and Mastercard. Dinner for two, food only, $22.50 to $60.
What to Get: Thai Fusion rolls, Thai shrimp cakes, Popeye's favorite, tropical trout, calamari salad, mango pudding, fresh coconut ice cream.