By Ted C. Fishman
Working in Jakarta last August, I got a press release saying that Imperial Lamian would be opening a restaurant in Chicago. I travel to Indonesia once or twice a year for long periods and I eat often at the Imperial dim sum restaurants, which are among the Indonesian capital’s handful of small but superb dim sum and Shanghai dumpling chains.
In the past, I’d wondered whether Chicago would ever get dumplings, pulled noodles and fresh Asian vegetables that were as finely plated and brightly seasoned as those that came out of Jakarta kitchens. Chinese food in Southeast Asia, outside of China, is both Chinese and its own thing. It tends to be a tad sweeter, heavier on the vinegar, with tropical chili sauces that have more acid than native Chinese varieties. In Indonesia, Chinese food pulls in the endless variety of vegetables, spices and fruits of the sea that can be harvested from the equatorial soil, trees and still-flush rivers and ocean waters. (China’s coastal areas and rivers are, increasingly, dead zones.) Chinese food the Southeast Asian way is one of the world’s great cuisines. In the past, whenever I returned home to Chicago, I missed it.
When Newcity forwarded me notice of the impending opening of the Imperial restaurant group’s first American venture, I was asked to look into the origins of this hybrid. When I called the United States contact number, I was told the group’s founder could pick me up the following day in Jakarta. We could go eat. I was given a first name, Abigail. I had a meeting with a cabinet minister that same day and I canceled it.
Abigail Djojonegoro, Empire Builder
When a white van with smoky windows pulled up to my door in Jakarta, I climbed in. It was late, of course, because the city’s hellish traffic mandates that everyone is late for everything. The van door opened to piles of kids’ clothes and toys on the back seat. Abigail Djojonegoro apologized in American-accented English. Smiley, hugely energetic and a little frantic while pushing the kids’ stuff to the back, she seemed at first like the Chinese-Indonesian version of a soccer mom, juggling her day between kids and chores, except that her chores involve forty restaurants—from economical fast food to high-end Cantonese—in Indonesia, most in and around Jakarta, none of them more than thirteen years old. Abigail is the originator of the chain, constantly in empire-building mode. She planned to take me to some of the city’s busier outposts at the peak of lunch hour so that I could see the restaurants in action and witness the workflow in impossibly busy kitchens.
In midday traffic—and virtually any other time, too, our roughly six-mile ride required about ninety minutes. I’ve long suspected that one reason I have such good friends in Indonesia is because I often get stuck in the car with them and so have the chance to trade life stories.
Abigail’s “car” version of her story begins at Babson College in Massachusetts. The school draws students to a curriculum designed for budding entrepreneurs, a perfect match for a girl with a business bug and a family that encouraged her to cook up an enterprise they could support. Abigail hails from one of Indonesia’s legendary entrepreneurial ethnic-Chinese clans. Her grandfather bootstrapped a medicinal wine business into a giant consumer conglomerate. Companies affiliated with the family have made batteries, bottled condiments, cookies, packaged soft drinks and more. In developing Asia, even giant businesses are often family owned, and children and grandchildren are often expected—and expect—to take part. Abigail’s father, she says, had another plan. He saw how businesses also tear families apart. Too often in Indonesia, tycoon families command the news only when one member kills another over money, or steals millions from family firms, or gambles everything away. And those are just the worst cases; the ones where everyone just feels like wringing each others’ necks fill the gossip mills, if not the news. Abigail’s father thought it best if his children had their own businesses and made their own marks. One brother took over a moribund cookie business and brought it back to life. Another began a tea business. “My dad wants us to build our own things and not to take anything for granted,” says Abigail. “He’s always telling us to be hard working, consistent and to be a fighter.” Abigail also says he’s a great consultant to have around.
When Abigail returned from the United States after college (she graduated in 2002), she turned her attention to restaurants. “I toyed with a lot of Chinese concepts,” Abigail tells me. Outside the car, which is sitting motionless in the middle of a six-lane thoroughfare, a street vendor carrying bags of fried snacks on a pole knocks on the window. Another carrying about fifty magazines knocks the other window and pushes a National Geographic against the glass. “Our family knew some good Chinese chefs, so I worked with them,” Abigail says, undistracted. The first big attempt was strictly dim sum. Because they used the best ingredients, the food was too expensive for the average Indonesian, so Abigail pared back the menu in those first restaurants to noodles and fried rice.
Since Indonesia is also home to the world’s largest Muslim population, Abigail had to adapt to the rules for halal foods, which includes, among others, a prohibition against pork. A pork-free menu might attract many Indonesians, but it can turn off ethnic Chinese. Eventually, Imperial opened some restaurants that are entirely halal, and, in Jakarta’s upscale malls, others that feature fuller dim sum menus for those who want pork on the menu.
Opening a Restaurant in Jakarta
“The restaurant scene in Jakarta often feels much more dynamic than in the US. Things change much faster,” Abigail says. Jakarta’s mall managers drive the pace. Premium malls are the Magnificent Mile, State Street and Bucktown all rolled into one. The greater metropolis of Jakarta is home to more than twenty-eight million people, but it is a blazingly hot city, devoid of useable sidewalks. For the middle class and affluent, much of social and consumer life has moved indoors into goliath-sized, air-conditioned malls where up to a third of the space is taken up with restaurants big and small.
Malls feel safe for women and the city’s mall boom expanded the personal freedom and social possibilities for them to be out in public and to shop and dine with friends. Packs of laughing women are surprisingly common in the malls and their eateries. In addition, people with meetings and deals to make schedule their whole days hopping from one restaurant to another, and to cafes in between, all in one of the giant malls.Traffic in the city is also a factor. It is the only way to get in more than one or two meetings a day in a city where just entering the streets can mean hours in the car. Because food is such a huge factor in the commercial mix and so vital to drawing customers to the malls, the developers insist that restaurants refresh their look regularly.
“We are forced to renovate every three years and completely tear down our restaurants and rebuild them every five years,” says Abigail. “Otherwise we lose our lease. And we have to do everything fast. Closing a restaurant for more than a month is expensive, so we start to build out the spaces we can expect to finish in between three weeks and three months.”
In a country famous for being bogged down by bribery, corruption, poor infrastructure and ferocious monsoons, the premium malls are miracles of efficiency, speed, Western comfort and innovation. If Indonesia were to be run like Jakarta’s better shopping centers, and businesses everywhere were to comply with the demands placed on mall restaurants, the country would make Switzerland look shabby.
There is a fierce dim sum/Shanghai soup dumpling war in Jakarta. Dishes that were formerly served in small family-run joints in Indonesia’s Chinatown ghettos have now burst onto the mass market. The war is fed in part by the success and proliferation of the usually full Imperial restaurants. But the Imperial chain and others also piggyback on the successful invasion of Taiwan’s fabled soup dumpling chain, Din Tai Fung, which the New York Times once called one of the world’s ten best restaurants. Din Tai Fung took decades to leave its home base and roll out branches in Asia and now in California and Washington State. Once it landed in Jakarta, it showed a genius for adapting to local tastes and quickly grew into a chain of always-mobbed restaurants. Elsewhere, Din Tai Fungs are shrines to pork, but in Indonesia diners are offered halal versions. Chicken, lamb and beef take over in clever recipes that give Muslims all the umami richness of a classic Chinese cuisine. A Din Tai Fung in Jakarta is populated with Chinese families and Indonesian Muslims sitting side-by-side, or together, digging into foods they would have never shared before. The chain found a way to both adapt to local demand and to keep the authenticity of the cuisine intact.
The Imperial restaurants don’t just compete, they seem to be overwhelming the more famous chain with a strategy that adapts to the market by splitting it into economic segments and tastes. Abigail wants places that lure the lunchbox crowd, the limousine riders and everyone in between. She is now building a new fast-food chain, called Yumzaa (an alternate term for dim sum), which takes a select few dim sum recipes and works them into versions that appeal to students and workers who otherwise would buy low-cost street foods.
At last, the van pulls up to the mall around 12:30pm. We head to one of the restaurants, Imperial Lamian, Shanxi Flying Noodle Barbeque & Dimsum. The restaurant, designed to evoke an outdoor market, has no front wall so that shoppers can walk unimpeded into the dining room and look straight into the kitchen, which like a street stall, is mostly a vision of steam and smoke. Jakarta always amazes me with the amount of English used everywhere. Awnings extending out from the open kitchen read “Snow Ice,” “Seafood” and “Special Dishes.” Of course, even the name of the restaurant, “Imperial,” is English. It’s as if one walked into a Polish diner in Chicago and all the biggest signs were in French, to give the place a cosmopolitan touch.
There’s one free table, because Abigail called ahead. Dishes appear to be pouring out of the kitchen at a rate of about one every twenty seconds. “I’m going to show you some of the dishes we do here that we want to do in the US,” she says. “We cannot do them all right away, but you’ll get an idea.” First to our table is a small batch of delicately petite, pumpkin-shaped dumplings filled with saucy roast duck. The rice flour skin is a crackly light brown, but the dough has been pulled up on each one to make a stem, which is dyed spring green with vegetable juice. They sit anomalously on a square darkly-glazed, distinctly Japanese platter. The company’s chefs prefer Japanese ceramics, feeling they allow for more dramatic and modern staging. “Presentation is more important now than it has been in traditional Chinese restaurants,” Abigail says. “Our food should have a modern Asian feel. For us that means using Japanese-inspired dishes and utensils.”
Next come the soup dumplings, xiao long bao, a perfect version. When done right, the dumplings are round little faery purses with a thin wheat-flour skin that punctures at the gentlest bite. Inside is a meatball, made variously of pork, crab, lamb or some other protein mixed before cooking with the gelatin of a chilled soup. When heated, the soup returns to liquid. They must be eaten as soon as they’re steamed, or the dumplings collapse into a soggy mess. The method to eating them requires carefully plucking a dumpling from a bamboo steamer basket and placing it in a deep Chinese spoon that’s been filled slightly with black rice vinegar, soy sauce and julienned ginger. The skin ought to be so thin that a first small bite allows the scalding steam that puffs up the dumpling to escape upward and warmly bath your olfactory neurons while the soup inside flows into your spoon and comingles with the ginger, soy and sweet-sour vinegar.
Xiao long bao are an engineered delicacy on which the reputation of a Shanghainese restaurant can stand or sink. In Chicago, xiao long bao have become a cultish food and the measure of the refinement for Chinese restaurants brave enough to serve them. One of the reasons Abigail and her management team thought Chicago might be good for Imperial is that they didn’t find any xiao long bao they admired when they scouted the city’s Chinese restaurants. Not that any survey could fully do justice to the city’s ever-changing Chinese restaurants. I’ve had supreme XLB in several Chinatown places, for instance, but the kitchen staffs change and restaurants close; return trips can be disappointing.
Bringing the Imperial Concept to Chicago
It was Abigail’s ambitious appetite to feed everyone Imperial’s food that prompted her to turn her sights to the United States and Chicago. Here, her team, she reasoned, could experiment with what works in America, building on the hybrid Cantonese/Shanghainese formula in Jakarta. Then, perhaps, they could grow a small chain in the US, too. That may not just be a good business diversification strategy but also,perhaps, a bow to the never certain political fate of Chinese families in Southeast Asia, where pogroms and ethnic nationalism often turn against them.
The project started nearly three years ago. “I want to elevate Chinese food in the US,” she tells me. “In Chicago now, for instance, there is a ramen craze,” she says conflating the Japanese dish with the noodles at Imperial. Ramen, after all, first gained popularity in Japan after World War II, when Chinese street vendors sold lamian to the impoverished residents of Sapporo. Our word “ramen,” in fact, is an English transliteration of a Japanese transliteration for “lamian,” a word that means “stretched noodle” (not to be confused with lo mein, which means “stirred noodles.”)
“Our noodles,“ Abigail says, “are completely hand-pulled.” She means they don’t come from a package nor, as in many ramen restaurants, are they made by automatic noodle machines. At Imperial’s restaurant they could not be more elemental. Chefs literally pull the noodles from scratch. The noodles start as a huge pile of high-gluten flour, some salt and water. The ingredients are kneaded, balled and pulled. For each batch, the process is repeated dozens of times, until the chef is swinging a large skein of noodles midair. What looks like a magical separation of the dough occurs because the repeated pulling lengthens and separates the gluten in the flour, so that the dough eventually separates into dozens of strands seemingly spontaneously.
The resulting noodles have more tooth than machine-made varieties. The practice of making them requires so much skill that the noodle chefs at Imperial must come with years of training. In the restaurants, they work mainly on noodles.
The Imperial restaurants are not the first to bring “authentic” Chinese food to a mainstream clientele in Chicago. In the 1990s, the owners and managers of Szechuan House and sister restaurant House of Hunan recruited chefs in China for their Magnificent Mile restaurants. More recently, Tony Hu, who trained at Chengdu’s famous Sichuan culinary institute, opened the superb Lao Sze Chuan in Chinatown, followed by other restaurants with varying success, along with well-publicized legal problems. In general, the quality and variety of Chinese restaurants in the city has been climbing over the last decade. For Imperial, however, the challenge is to bring a fully authentic version of the Southeast Asian twist that Abigail senses could have special appeal in the US.
The first big practical step was to assemble a team. Abigail turned to Vincent Lawrence, a family friend from Indonesia who had also studied in the United States. Lawrence attended Purdue and was a senior electrical engineer at an auto-parts manufacturer when he traded lines. Describing himself as a life-long foodie who reveled in Chicago’s restaurant scene, he had long talked with Abigail about giving up the factory floors and starting a US outpost for Imperial. Lawrence had no prior professional restaurant experience, so he went about the project in the best way he knew how: like an engineer. Every step needed to be based on data and staged as if building a complex machine. To learn about US consumers, he and Abigail enlisted a Chicago-based restaurant consultant. “I had a stable job and two small kids,” Vincent says. “It was scary leaving my comfort zone. I realized that I’d miss a lot of time with my family. But I always had a passion for food, and would travel to China and Indonesia. I thought about it for six months before I said yes.”
Touring big metros in the US sold Vincent and Abigail on Chicago as the place to start. The city had the density and kind of food scene they felt would work. Chicago real estate was also less expensive than in East and West Coast cities and the market for modern Chinese food here was less mature.
Vincent and Abigail hired a local restaurant consultant to help them adapt to US consumers and to a business environment with different rules. The first big shock from the consultants was that food sales could not be the sole profit center in the US that it was in Jakarta. In Muslim-majority Indonesia, families and friends tend to eat at big tables, drink tea and leave. Tables turn over more than twice as fast as in the US, where diners, usually in groups of two or four, linger over their food.
In addition, in Indonesia, most Muslim families adhere to the Islamic prohibition against liquor, but in the US, alcohol is often the most profitable item on the restaurant’s menu. Consequently, Abigail and Vincent had to learn how to create an exciting and lucrative beverage service. They leaned heavily on the consultants for that. “It took several months for us to reconceive our brand,” says Vincent. “We had to keep the core, our food, which we take a lot of pride in, but add in a bar service,” says Vincent. Dumplings and other dishes may draw people in; survival would depend on booze.
Learning how to serve Americans was another puzzle. “In Indonesia, service is faster and customers do not demand elevated levels of service,” says Vincent. Wait staffs in Asia, for example, rarely have to deal with customers dictating long lists of food allergies and aversions. In Chinese restaurants throughout Asia, you’ll often see a customer ostentatiously hosting his or her other guests. That customer takes charge of ordering, acting as a kind of art director. In the US, the experience is flipped. The waiter is the expert, especially where foods may be unfamiliar to the clientele. Vincent had to devise a way for his American staff to learn and take charge of a menu they didn’t fully understand. Now his waiters train for weeks before serving. He even makes them take quizzes to prove they’ve mastered the menu and the ways the dishes are prepared. Diners in the US connect more with the preparation of their food and they respond to theatrical touches. “Asians don’t care nearly as much about how their food is prepared, but Americans really realize that work and expertise goes into making dim sum; they notice the details.”
At the Chicago restaurant, the prep is also turned inside out. There is no impenetrable wall of steam in the kitchen. Diners can see their dumplings being made and their noodles twirling through the air. That gives the staff some celebrity, too. “Our chef had a field day when a bunch of women came up to him and said how much they admired him. After twenty years of working in Asia and Europe, he had never experienced anything like that. But it’s part of the culture here and it reminds him that the food must be the very best every day,” because customers know him.
Perhaps the biggest culture shocks, however, were the costs and stretched-out times it took to build in Chicago. In Indonesia, a whole restaurant could be designed, built and filled with custom-made furniture from China in less than the time it takes to get building permits in Chicago. Installing a marred industrial-chic column in a Jakarta restaurant required a team of workers with hand tools and a willingness to whack away. It cost next to nothing. In the US. a similar column had to meet code, be manufactured in a plant and installed by a union contractor. The bill: $20,000. Because the restaurant’s designers were from Indonesia, they had to acquaint themselves with how to deal with Chicagoans’ outerwear. No one wears big coats in Indonesia. No one in Jakarta thinks about handicap access either; in Chicago it’s a central consideration in design.
The team felt that the restrictions helped explain why the restaurants in the US, which they expected to be edgier, were often more conservative in their design. “Asian design is often more progressive in the way it looks. There, we don’t need to worry as much about fireproofing and meeting A.D.A. rules.” But, Vincent acknowledges, perhaps grudgingly, the quality of the construction in Chicago is far superior to Jakarta.
Despite the local standards, much of what’s on view at Imperial Lamian came to Chicago in shipping containers from Indonesia and China. The interior is the first US project of a Jakarta design team, which worked to reconcile American casual dining with Asian cool. The Chinese-style wooden tables and chairs were made in Central Java near the traditional center for woodcarving. The trellised details that define the interior space were all carved in Indonesia, too. The plates that come to the table were selected during a weeklong trip to a ceramics center in Guangdong (Canton) China where Vincent and one of the Imperial chefs went from factory to factory while the chef meticulously arranged ninety of the restaurant’s recipes on hundreds of possible plates. They carried 300 plates back to Jakarta to see them in the restaurants and ultimately picked ten for Chicago. “I learned that plates are really valuable,” says Vincent. “There’s lots of photos and video on social media, which adds another factor to how people experience the presentation.”
Enter the Chef, Andy Foo
Andy Foo, the chef who traveled to China to pick out tableware with Vincent, also grew up in an ethnic-Chinese family in Southeast Asia. Foo is one of three chefs Imperial picked to run the kitchen in Chicago. As executive chef, he handles the entrées. Foo’s family ran a small restaurant that served breakfast noodles in the Malaysian city of Ipoh. About half of Ipoh’s population is ethnic Chinese, and the rest a mix of Malays and ethnic Indians. The diversity is one factor that makes the city a street-food paradise. The noodle business is particularly intense, fought out in the city’s vast open-air hawker markets, where the smell of smoke and stewing, pungent fish-sauces fill whole blocks.
“When I was small, all I would see was my mother coming home tired. The food business looked like a lot of work and didn’t interest me,” Foo tells me, sitting with a translator at the new restaurant one afternoon while the kitchen staff worked at a purposeful pace to prepare for the evening open. The lean, smiley-eyed Foo began nervously as he tried to talk and keep an eye on the kitchen at the same time. Once into the conversation, his rare take on food, informed by a kind of Candide-like journey through far-flung Chinese kitchens, emerged. “As I grew up, I would talk to my mom, see how happy the customers were and the work became more interesting.”
Following grade school, Foo began as an apprentice in a bigger Ipoh restaurant. He arrived before dawn and worked through the early evening, mostly cutting and chopping. But Foo wanted more than a local career. He went to the capital city, Kuala Lumpur, for a few years and then on to Singapore, a city Condé Nast named the world’s eighth-best place to eat. There he worked under a master chef, saying “I really saw how happy people could be over their food.” He joined the Imperial Group early on. The chain had only two restaurants then and Foo worked prep. Foo headed back to Singapore after nine months, but stayed in touch with Abigail. When his skills improved, he came back to Jakarta as a head chef. He didn’t stay long. He was recruited to work at London’s Hakkasan Mayfair, the first Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant in England. Then Foo did another stint in St. Petersburg, Russia, and then in Dublin. Foo was also part of a group that opened the first Chinese restaurant in Bulgaria.
Altogether he worked in Europe for eight years. Foo traveled back and forth to China, too, including a stay in Chengdu in the Southwest, to learn the art of fiery Sichuan cooking, which he describes as an “entirely different experience” from making the Cantonese fare he was used to. “What was important were the experiences of the spiciness and numbness” that come from blazing hot chilies and the faintly narcotic-feeling effects of Sichuan peppercorns.
For Foo, however, Hong Kong today is the source of the world’s best and most creative Chinese food. “I try,” says Foo, “to travel there every year or so to learn new ideas. When Abigail and Vincent wanted to open a restaurant in Chicago, they knew I was accustomed to working in foreign countries. In Bulgaria, they didn’t even know how to handle a wok. It took a whole month of continuous teaching to get them to make good fried rice. In Russia, the staff wanted to rinse the rice after they cooked it. It took months of training, morning to night, to teach the Russians how to make a Chinese dumpling.” Russians have their own, apparently rigid, dumpling culture, which was hard to displace. Foo also learned how to adapt favorite European ingredients to his dishes. Now his menus regularly feature dumplings with truffle oil. He also learned to make salads, which are strange to Chinese diners. He learned to cook with ocean fish such as salmon and tuna, which Chinese traditionally avoid, but Europeans like. In the US, Foo says he’s come to admire “beautiful American meats,” which he believes are far superior to those in Europe and Asia. But, he says, he’s just beginning to explore the meats’ possibilities.
Foo, who early in life was pushed out of formal schooling and into working kitchens, says it has been important for him to absorb as much of the cultures as he can. In his off hours, he hits the streets of the cities he lives in with a camera, which lets him savor the spirit of a place in a way that gets him beyond his taste buds.
Walking through the kitchen of the River North restaurant with Foo, you get the sense that Foo’s pioneering forays in Europe left him with the belief that his restaurant had to be highly self-sufficient. There’s a station where the Imperial staff roasts its own Chinese-style barbeque pork. Hundreds of pounds of it glisten red as it emerges from the cookers. Man-sized stockpots simmer with the bones of the Chinese kitchen menagerie: beef, chicken, pork. The dough for the dumpling skins arises out of four-foot stand mixers and moves to the assembly line where a staff of mostly-non-Chinese prep cooks fold the dumplings with the fast-fingered dexterity of Cantonese grandmothers. Compared to the slow-learning in St. Petersburg, the American cooks are dumpling prodigies. Foo likes working with them.
As in Indonesia, much of the staff is not Chinese; rather it reflects the full local ethnic mix. That may make the staff less likely to be poached by Chinese restaurants accustomed to all-Chinese staffs. It may also make the Imperial model scalable if it blooms into a chain.
Imperial Lamian may have opened six months later than Abigail or Vincent planned, but the delay gave the restaurant’s publicists extra time to spread the word. On opening night, the restaurant is packed with press, foodies and the trendsetters who tip the tipping points. Abigail is back from Jakarta for the opening. Her parents and the rest of her immediate family have come to cheer her along.
“Do you believe it?” she says. “It’s finally happening.” She’s nearly trembling, but she offers to take my coat, worried perhaps that it might get lost in the heap of jackets. A small corridor at the back of the restaurant is jammed with them, but it’s also the staging area for the lion dancers who will weave through the main rooms. The men who don the dragon outfit struggle to get dressed without tipping over too many coats. They finally make it out. They get some attention, but most eyes are transfixed instead on Wang Hong Jun, the chef pulling and twirling the lamian. It’s a kind of high-wire act and impossible to watch without imagining that the whole bundle of noodles won’t somehow leave the chef’s undulating arms and entwine the kitchen. That doesn’t happen. Jun is from the city of Lanzhou in Northwest China, which is also one of the homes of hand-pulled noodles.
The noodles come out on Japanese-style platters. No one seems contemplative enough to acknowledge the miracle that moves toward their mouths. But when the xiao long bao makes the rounds, attention is paid. It’s not just that they are delicious. Head dim sum chef Lim Kee Tiong, who comes from Malaysia, has catered to the exalted expectations of the cognoscenti to whom the dumplings are also a kind of fashion item. Imperial is dishing them up in colored noodle wrappers, too. Orange for crab, black for truffle, blue for duck and red for ones filled with the heat of Szechuan.
When asked about the best way to enjoy Imperial Lamian, Foo leans in. He says that he hopes diners will put themselves in his hands. That way he can design a meal with the balance and contrasts Chinese diners expect. “I like it when I can tailor a meal to an event. If customers call ahead and say the meal is for a birthday, or for a get-together with a group of friends, then I can decide what to do for them. We will do different garnishes for a birthday party, we’ll make sure there’s something surprising. If it’s for friends, we can be creative so that you can give your friends an adventure they don’t expect.”
On a subsequent lunch visit, I went with eleven people hoping to keep their lunch bill under $17, but all also hoping to get a taste of several dishes. We ordered four different dumplings, all delicious, for everyone to try. We picked three noodle entrees and two others. Some had soft drinks. We were satisfied, these were measured portions by Chicago pub or Chinatown standards, and we didn’t overeat. The bill came to $35 per person, $385 in all, basically for a light appetizer and half an entree. It will be a challenge getting a regular lunch crowd in at those prices, even if the food stays excellent. If everyone ordered an entree, a drink and dessert, the price would have teased $60 or $65 a person. I don’t begrudge the prices. The quality, prep, service and location put Imperial Lamian in league with swank restaurants around it. But Chicagoans will have to learn to see noodles and dumplings as primo fare, and appreciate the touches that move Imperial Lamian up-market. The nearby water taxi to Chinatown may literally pull away some diners who can have a bigger selection of stuff nearly as delicious for half the price.
A couple of weeks later I return to the restaurant with five friends from Jakarta. One is ethnic Chinese and the others are Muslims. Even with their halal preferences, they find the menu rich in options. We order pork, too. It’s not unusual for Indonesians to sit comfortably at tables with diners who eat foods they avoid. Though our waiter doesn’t know the dietary rules for Muslims, even in an Indonesian-owned restaurant, he listens carefully and makes several trips to the kitchen to find dishes that comply. The dumplings were predictably delicious. A dish of diced crispy duck is unlike any I’d had in my years in East and Southeast Asia, but it shows off the skills of the kitchen. The salty skin snaps, the meat is succulent, the spices, mostly salt and black pepper, have a brilliant bite. The pumpkin puff I tried in Jakarta appears on the table like an old friend, an exact duplicate of the one I tried with Abigail months ago. We work our way through fried rice, which is authentically light on fat and heavy on aromatic vegetables, and sublime har gao, the pearl-like shrimp dumplings wrapped with ginger in a translucent tapioca skin.
Two dishes that fell short in their cultural translation were the wok-seared salmon, which was over-cooked (the waiter offered to bring another) and the Kung Pao chicken, which seemed designed to please Americans with white meat chicken, though the dish was somewhat dry. Vincent came to our table, giddy to find his countrymen. He listened intently to their appreciation and critique, too. He promised adjustments.
Abigail was far away in Jakarta that night, but her father returned to Chicago to check up on the restaurant. It was Wednesday at 8:30pm, the dining room was nearly full, and bamboo steamer baskets with xiao long bao were piling up on the tables. Papa must have been pleased; the gamble half a world away has promise. As for me, as someone who misses the Chinese foods of Southeast Asia, Imperial Lamian fills a big gap. I could thank Abigail’s ambitions for that. But unexpectedly, eating familiar foods at the restaurant also made me miss my favorite places in Indonesia more. I was reminded of a sausage restaurant in a smallish Jakarta mall. A friend brought me there because he saw the menu featured a “Chicago-Style Hot Dog.” And like the dumplings at Imperial Lamian, the sausage place made its foreign foods from scratch. The hot dog was expertly seasoned and perhaps even more deliciously garlicky than a Vienna Red Hot. It had a fresh pickle (made by the owner), onion and tomato and yellow mustard. It was a find. I loved it. It took me part of the way home, but as with the savory soup dumplings now at Hubbard and State, a much-missed food can make you miss the home and people you’d shared them with all the more.
Imperial Lamian, 6 West Hubbard.