Haute and Heavy

On weekend nights, Sutra is a typical club scene of hot bods rubbing to thumping beats, bathed in strobe lights and soaked in booze. With its Moroccan/Hindu theme, the place looks like a PG-13 version of Disney's Aladdin.

But there's another face to the restaurant—a quieter, intimate side, for those more interested in cuddling up with their honey and less interested in picking up a new one. To discover this Sutra, go on a Thursday.

Eerie as it might seem to see a dance club with no one in sight, it's the perfect setting for an evening of romance. You'll have the place all to yourself, and you can pick from different areas to sit. Prefer a curvy private booth? How about a comfy couch with frilly cushions, or a table dressed in linen? Maybe a seductive, hidden alcove draped in sheer fabric? Sutra's got 'em all.

As for the food, ignore their gimmicky claims that it incorporates aphrodisiacs; the grub is just plain good, prepared with surprising care and creativity.

Start with the barbecue shrimp. Four are huddled together on a long plate striped with sauce and served with onion salsa and sliced avocado. Each prawn is as plump as a sausage and lacquered in a sweet glaze that clings like caramel.

Continue with the spicy salmon tempura. It's a vaguely Japanese creation of raw salmon, Sriracha-spiked mayo, sushi rice and asparagus, all rolled into a tempura-coated cylinder of nori that's cut into wheels and plated with drizzles of plum sauce. Though sushi purists may scoff, Sutra does the dish so capably it actually feels reverential.

French onion soup comes in an ornate vessel filled with enough for two. Blow on it before spoon-feeding your date—the savory brew arrives lava-hot from the oven, topped with floating rafts of toast and gooey cheese. The onions in the soup are melted to a sugary mush. As such, it spares your breath for later smooching.

But if your evening already began hot and heavy, maybe the cooling caprese salad is more appropriate. Fresh mozzarella is layered between thickly cut red and yellow tomatoes, while reduced balsamic vinegar zigzags the top and a lush arugula sauce pools below. The dish recalls springtime in Tuscany, even if you've never been.

By this time, your date will compliment your restaurant choice. “Just wait until the entrées,” you'll purr in reply. They're hugely portioned and a bit quirky—in a good way. The seared halibut is paired with pasta pearls the size of BBs. The salmon is blackened, then plopped on top of a black-bean hummus darker than tar and smoother than suede. But its accompaniment of raw corn kernels and pickled jalapeño aioli jolts the tongue like popping, fizzing firecrackers.

As great as those dishes are, Sutra's pork chops should only be ordered if you're prepared to show off your eating prowess. It's as thick as a dictionary, as wide as a flask and completely wrapped in crispy, salty prosciutto. Cut into it, and you discover that the meat is moist, pink-hued and eats like ham. Hidden in the center is a well of melted Swiss cheese that bleeds out like a built-in sauce. It's both a tribute to the pig and a challenge for you to eat like one.

For dessert, there's the molten chocolate cake served with ice cream. But if you want something really special, ditch the cake for the apple tart. Thinly sliced apples are immaculately arranged in a spiral, baked on a flaky disk of puff pastry, and placed on a puddle of caramel sauce. Yes, there's also a scoop of vanilla on top, which melts quickly—but take your time. Feed each other. Clink glasses. Thank me later.

Sutra Lounge at Triangle Square, 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 722-7103; www.sutrabar.com. Open for dinner Mon. N Wed.-Sat., 6-11 P.M.; Lounge open Mon. N Wed.-Sat., 11 P.M.-2 A.M. Dinner for two, $80-$120, food only. Full bar.

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