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    'Humble House' for rich, powerful
JIANG YAN,China Business Weekly staff
2005-01-13 09:38

Don't be fooled by the name: "My Humble House" is not your neighbourhood noodle shop.

Located in Oriental Plaza, a plush office complex on Chang'an Avenue between Wangfujing and Dongdan, which is one of the capital's premier commercial districts, the restaurant is anything but humble.

Heavy, deep-red wooden doors, flanked by floor-to-ceiling glass walls, catch patrons' attention. Inside is sitting room, which is adorned by a pond and patches of bamboo trees.

The furniture, however, is decidedly modern: White leatherette sofa seats and low tables of varnished teakwood.

At the far end of the sitting room is a long bar, with carefully arranged spotlights that shine on different shapes and sizes of glittering glasses.

Long corridors, at the left side of the main hall, lead to private dining rooms, in which, it is said, many deals have been hatched and contracts have been sealed.

The rooms are simple, yet refined. The diners eat under subdued lighting and talk in hushed voices. The rooms appear to have been designed specifically for bankers, lawyers or accountants, for whom subtlety has long been a virtue and discreteness, a way of life.

Of course, there is no shortage of professionals, especially within the disciplines, in the plaza, which is home to branches and offices of some of the world's largest banks and law and accounting firms.

"I want my clients to dine and talk business in a serene atmosphere," says Andrew Tjioe, who founded the restaurant chain, Tung Lok Group.

A Chinese Indonesian, Tjioe has been in the restaurant business for more than 20 years; first in Singapore, where he established Tung Lok, a chain of up-market restaurants associated with super luxury food, including such delicacies as shark's fin soup and braised, dry abalones.

He made his foray into the Chinese mainland last year when he opened his first "My Humble House" in Chengdu, capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province.

The 9-million-yuan (US$1.09-million) Beijing restaurant opened last November.

Wearing a loose-fitting tunic and a pair of light-coloured pants, Tjioe ushers his guests into the most exclusive dining room in his restaurant, the library, where a sizeable collection of books is neatly arranged on lofty bookshelves lining the walls.

"I am a literary man at heart," Tjioe says.

"My father is a scholar-, writer-cum-businessman. Many of his closest friends are writers, poets and artists ... I guess I have inherited his penchant for art."

Expressions of his inherited passion can be found in the menu, which reads like a scrapbook of a budding poet.

Bound between thick hard-paper covers, the menu is weighty and the six-part presentation can be confusing to the uninitiated.

"Prelude" seems easy to decipher. It would be appetizers in a less-exotic menu. But unlocking the hidden meanings behind the titles "gliding in water" and "walking in the air" requires some hints from Tjioe.

"Elementary," says Tjioe, with an understanding smile. "Seafood glides in water and poultry walks in the air."

Got the hint? Then "finale" must be desserts; "encore," coffee or tea. "That's correct," Tjioe nods.

But that is only the first part of the menu's puzzle. Read on and you will be further confounded by the way Tjioe names the various dishes.

"Song of the sea" is actually fried prawns glazed with a special wasabi-mayo sauce, and "red, red hot" is nothing more than chilli prawns, Singapore-style.

"I am just trying to be poetic," Tjioe says. "It's just my humble endeavour to stir up the love of poems in the hearts of my clients."

In his more serious effort to whet his clients' appetites, Tjioe relies on the help of his trusted multiple-award-winning Malaysian chef, Sam Leong, who specializes in "fusion" food, or "Modern Chinese Cuisine," which he defines as the use of global ingredients with traditional Chinese method of cooking.

Much has been written by food critics about this novel cuisine, which has become increasingly fashionable, especially in so-called "east-meets-west" cities, including Hong Kong and Singapore.

"Fusion food is becoming a trend in China, catering to high-income earners' demand for a better dining environment and nutrition," says Bian Jiang, vice-secretary-general of the China Cuisine Association.

To most diners, however, "fusion" food simply means Chinese cooking presented and consumed in western style.

This is certainly the impression one gets from eating at "My Humble House," where the food is served in individual portions to guests at rectangular tables, rather than round tables commonly found in Chinese restaurants.

The fish at Tjioe's Beijing restaurant, for instance, which is flavoured with soy sauce and other typically Chinese condiments, certainly tastes Chinese. Chopsticks are provided, but coming in one big piece, the fish seems more suited for western table ware.

To preserve the Chinese style, each meal consists of many courses, but in small portions.

"Song of the Sea," for example, comes with only two prawns, sharing with a small green salad, an oversized plate which is big enough to hold the entire diner for an average family of four.

"I want to create something different," Tjioe says of his restaurant. "That goes for the decor, the food and the staff's uniforms."

Of course, there are the unmarked toilets for men and women.

"It's a little prank I play on my guests," Tjioe jokes. "But seriously, who would mark the toilets in their own homes?"

After all, he reminds, the restaurant is his "humble home."

But there is nothing "humble" about the price. A meal for two, with a few drinks, can easily set you back 400-600 yuan (US$48.31-72.46). This is serious money in a city where a sumptuous Chinese meal for four can be had at a decent restaurant for less than 200 yuan (US$24.15).

Such comparisons, Tjioe protests, are not exactly fair.

"We cater to a vastly different clientele," he says. "Our customers are mostly business people, expatriates, the nouveau-riche and trendseekers - essentially those who appreciate the finer things in life."

For example, "few local restaurants have as extensive a wine collection as we do," Tjioe says.

True to form, his wine list is classified into four "emotions." If you're "on the wings of swirling beads," you may want to take Tjioe's advice and opt for a bottle of Moet and Chandon Brut Imperial Rose.

But if you're in the mood to "fulfil all of love's ecstatic raptures," by all means, go for the 8,900-yuan (US$1,075) bottle of Chateau Haut-Brion 1990.

Receiving 100-plus customers per day, and more than 10 firms' requests to cater private parties, in the first month, Tjioe says his restaurant remains competitive in a town that is overcrowded with restaurants of all styles, and in all market segments.

"I am confident that this is a formula for success," he says.

He is in fact so confident he is planning to open his fourth "My Humble House," soon, in Tokyo. The first "My Humble House" was opened in Singapore in 2002.

In Beijing, "I am opening a really up-market seafood restaurant under the Tung Lok brand in the fast-growing western district of the city," he says.

"I love the restaurant business."

He opened his first restaurant in 1984, when he was 26. By 32, he had eight. Since then, he has developed a passion for a "new-style" of Chinese cooking.

There is a lot of future for "a lighter version" of Chinese food in the world, Tjioe says.

(Business Weekly 01/13/2005 page24)


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