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Harmonic convergence at the beach

Chakra mixes it up, with a playful Orientalist look and an appealing Pan-Asian menu.

October 19, 2005|Susan LaTempa | Times Staff Writer

LOUNGE on the embroidered cushions in Chakra's carved, fabric-draped booth, grab a table under a cluster of jewel-toned silk lanterns or gather with a group along a low table in the harem-meets-opium-den party room. Then, relax. Chakra is not a scene -- it's a setting.

The 5-month-old Pan-Asian restaurant in Manhattan Beach is a good spot for dining with friends you really want to talk to or catching up with a spouse you don't get to see enough of. It's fun with no strings attached. You'll feel right at home as you order a cocktail from a cheongsam-shirted waitress, nibble from a dim sum tasting tower and dig into a Singaporean- or Malaysian-inspired entree.

Chakra's tongue-in-cheek Orientalist decor signals that the restaurant wears the Pan-Asian label proudly. The menu is highly personal and well executed by Colin Sako -- the Hawaiian-born chef is a veteran of Regency Club, Patina Group and Zenzero -- and his colleague, Thailand-born Lisa Elliot.

There's a sure-handed mix of traditional dishes (such as satays, summer rolls and pad Thai), cross-cultural creations (lemon grass ceviche, Asian ratatouille) and Cal cuisine with a twist (guava sake mahi mahi, lamb shanks braised in Thai mussamam curry). There's a bar that's lively on the weekends, but never really crowded.

Open for dinner and recently, for Sunday brunch, Chakra gives a nod to its blocks-from-the-beach location with an emphasis on tropical Asian flavors, offering an appealing and harmonious selection of Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, Singaporean and Vietnamese-influenced dishes.

Because each person at your table probably will be ordering an entree with culinary roots in a different country, the multiculti dim sum tasting tower is a good place to start. A three-level epergne comes to the table laden with a couple of superb summer rolls, rich crab Rangoon with kaffir lime leaf chili dip (very '50s), chicken satay with a tangy hot-sweet peanut sauce, some hot, soft barbecue pork buns and crisp, fragrant samosas. It's a cocktail party on a plate.

The summer rolls, freshly made with shrimp or tofu, fresh basil and mint, and julienned vegetables in a tender rice paper wrapping, are so good we order them separately on another occasion. And there are other good appetizers too, like the lettuce cups filled not with the usual chicken and vegetables, but with a sweet and gingery combination of Israeli couscous, almonds and raisins.

Some of the entrees are pretty mainstream -- sesame-crusted ahi, poached salmon, filet mignon -- but they're beautifully cooked and presented with Asian-influenced sides and sauces. But the real pleasure of discovery is in the specials or the less-common offerings. Javanese coconut chicken comes with a delicious and unusual candlenut and coconut sauce -- not sweet, but rich and silky. It's served with boiled rice cakes, smooth, chewy-firm squares that are as addictive as French fries.

Nonya Sambal prawns with onions and tomatoes are tasty and toothsome, served with fragrant coconut rice.

Guava sake mahi mahi tastes of pineapple, and although the sauce is too sweet, the lovely piece of fish is nicely cooked. It's served with spicy guava-pineapple-papaya chutney and chilled, green tea soba that's deftly prepared -- al dente, lightly dressed and garnished with crisp-tender carrot and green onion slivers.

The rice cakes and the soba are among a family of side dishes (which also include Japanese potato croquettes, plantains and coconut rice) and sundries (miso aioli, mint-lemon grass glaze) that add to the everyday yet exotic feel of the place. The structure of a plate may be Western -- entree, starch, vegetable -- but the particulars are Asian.


Updated favorites

AMERICANIZED Asian dishes aren't scorned here but updated and acknowledged as favorites. If you have a hankering for that '80s standard, the Chinese chicken salad, it's colorful and crunchy with mixed greens, red cabbage, raw sprouts, peanuts and crisp noodles. Sizzling Mongolian beef (or tofu) is spicy with chiles and comes sputtering on its iron plate with shiitakes, onions and peppers.

Desserts aren't Chakra's strong suit and the wine list's rudimentary, but after-dinner green tea is fragrant and full-bodied and the full bar means you can finish with a brandy or liqueur, if you're so inclined.

In recent weeks, Chakra has begun serving Sunday brunch, and the Pan-Asian theme is just as much fun at brunch as at dinner. The menu's a something-for-everyone hoot. Fans of congee (Chinese rice porridge) will be thrilled with the big steaming bowl of the easy-to-love stuff, served with an array of Chinese pickles, salted egg and spun-pork threads. Meanwhile, waffle and pancake lovers can order their usual -- but enjoy them with a marvelous ginger-lemon grass syrup instead of maple.

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