China Lounge Restaurant and Bar: A Sichuan Cuisine Brand Renowned for Its Authenticity and Top-notch Services
China Lounge Restaurant and Bar 味道成都
4220 Rosewood Dr, Pleasanton, CA 94588
Since it was open for business in 2014, China Lounge Restaurant and Bar has rapidly emerged to be one of the most popular local restaurants in California thanks to its “authentic Sichuan flavors” and “top-class, quality service”. This top-notch, authentic restaurant is a place of many stories, not just because all the restaurant offerings are Sichuan delicates cooked by the entire kitchen team led by Jian Li, a “master chef of Sichuan cuisine”, in the most traditional and authentic way, calibrated with innovated western recipes, but also because its owner Mr. Luke is a legendary man in the Sichuan food circles. If the only standard to evaluate a restaurant is the quality of its dishes, then “China Lounge Restaurant and Bar” will undoubtedly stand the test. Masterly cooking techniques, superb dinning environment, exquisite dishes, high-grade quality and heartfelt services are all elements behind the restaurant’s high recognition and praise among Americans and customers from the local Chinese community, making it an ideal venue to hold the business banquet, group dining, wedding or birthday parties, and family reunions. To understand the secret behind the restaurant’s success, we arranged a special interview with the restaurant’s owner, Mr. Luke.
1. Why did you choose this location to launch your restaurant? Is it a business that was transferred over to you or you have decorated independently? The success of a restaurant is closely related to its site, what do you think are the aspects that you should particularly pay attention to?
Mr. Lu: We originally started to set up this restaurant in early 2013, and it took us more than a year to prepare and decorate it. All the decoration materials, furniture and dishware for the restaurant were shipped from China, which filled two full containers. The restaurant was officially launched in July 2014.
2. Could you talk a little bit about the decoration style of your restaurant? What is so special about it?
Mr. Lu: The decoration of China Lounge Restaurant and Bar features the “chinoiserie” elements and post-modernism.
The decoration project was commissioned to designers from Chinese mainland who are highly experienced in restaurant decoration, after we provided them with the venue sizes on the rented site in the U.S. As you know, restaurant decoration can be very troublesome and costly in the U.S., and there are also some differences in understanding the Chinese and American cultures. So all the modules of decoration were tailor-made in China and later assembled in the U.S. after shipping them here.
Chinese restaurants in the U.S. are prevalent poor in terms of space layout. Therefore, we not only customize our space layout plan in China but also incorporated some modern technological elements in our restaurant based on the outputs of American designers. We have an illuminated wall for the bar which gives rise to a particular magic sensation against the background of patterns of Chinese water and ink paintings. These patterns have scores of variations which are controllable via mobile phones, so every guest of the restaurant may operate his or her cell phone to flip through and select their desired patterns, or draw their own water and ink paintings with various colors. The wall was designed by American designers, along with our joint efforts.
3. Are there many similar restaurants in the neighborhood? Are you facing intense competition? And what would you do to relieve such a situation?
Mr. Lu: To cope with intratype competition as a Chinese restaurant in the U.S., you have to focus on three aspects:
1. Culinary expertise, you have got to be well-versed in cooking great dishes;
2. Quality, the quality of the dishes must be ensured.
3. Marketing, your marketing campaigns must target the intended customers.
4. What dishes (school of cuisine) does the restaurant mainly serve? As a highly recognizable restaurant, you must have some specialty dishes to offer, could you briefly share with us two or three of your signature dishes. (More than three dishes, if possible, please give a brief account of their ingredients, spices, cooking procedure, flavor, health and nutrition, and provide pictures of these dishes).
Mr. Lu: Our main offerings are the Sichuan cuisine, and the signature dishes include:
Boiling Fish (Signature Dish): The very things that make this dish so special in flavor are its fragrance, freshness and tenderness, because its cooking process involves stir-frying with specially-made sesame oil. The boiling fish is covered with what seems like red hot chilis, but in actuality, it tastes neither hot or spicy. The seasoning that gives rise to the spicy-hot sensation is only means of cooking, serving the purpose of bringing out the fragrance of the dish to the extremity, which is the ultimate pursuit of the Kungkuan (residence compound) cuisine school in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province.
The specially-made sesame oil that we use in cooking the boiling fish in the U.S. is the best in class that you could find in Chengdu. As the Mandarin fish is geographically a native of China, we replaced it with sole fish and managed to retain the original texture after special processing. It is safe to say we are the only restaurant in the U.S. that insists on the most authentic way of making boiling fish! The dish was a huge success instantly after it was introduced, with more than 10,000 portions sold on a yearly basis, generating a sales revenue of more than $200,000, which is a rare achievement for a Chinese restaurant based in the U.S.
California Golden Crab: Featuring a mixed flavor of fragrance, freshness, sweetness and tenderness, Golden California Crabs are fried after being seasoned with secret sauces. It represents a perfect combination of specialty ingredients only found in this part of the U.S. with the unique seasoning techniques of the Sichuan culinary art. Chinese people have long been known as crab lovers, and chefs of Sichuan cuisine are well-versed in seasoning crabs with various techniques. However, the California golden crab can only be found in northern California and northeast of the Pacific Ocean, and is nonexistent in China. Also named the Dungeness Crab, this kind of crab is normally weighed 21b with a huge size and abundant meat, making it an extremely top-class specialty ingredient in North California. The California golden crab is cooked using the Sichuan culinary art in our restaurant, giving it four different savory sensations: first, the crunchy coating on the shell makes a great appetizer; second, the texture of the crab meat is uniquely soft and tender; third, nipper meat is sweet and fragrant as scallops; fourth, the leg meat tastes much like the whitebait. Chinese foodies wouldn’t have the luxury to enjoy this dish. Even the famous Chinese mitten crab cannot rival its sweet and fragrant texture.
Mao Tsai Pot: Mao Tsai Pot is not just rarely known in the world outside of China, but also scarcely consumed by the Chinese people. However, such a traditional Sichuan delicacy is gaining esteem among food lovers. “Mao” is a verb particular to Sichuan cuisine, which means “to dip in hot soup”.
To prepare a pot of top-grade Mao Tsai ingredients may require a chef’s lifetime practice. Therefore, hot pot and Mao Tsai ingredients living up to high standards are rare. That is because the preparation of these ingredients involves the mastery of the chef not only in terms of their basic skills like slicing, heat control, and frying but more importantly, in making various base oil, fried base, sauce, vermicelli and soup. These are the fundamental skills to achieve the 24 or 36 basic flavors of Sichuan cuisine, which in return gives rise to the highly-variant mixed flavors – as one may taste very distinct flavors in different dishes or even in one dish – and even unique dishes and specialty flavors. At China Lounge Restaurant and Bar, we use more than 20 types of base oil. Only master chefs of Sichuan cuisine proficient in making dozens of seasoning ingredients such as the base oil, fried base and sauces can possibly prepare a pot of top-grade Mao Tsai or hot pot ingredients, which cannot be done either without their secret recipes. The Mao Tsai ingredients used in our restaurant are custom-made by us in Chengdu, which is arguably the best of the best. And we welcome food connoisseurs who would like to have a try in this.
5.Has your restaurant been reported by local media? (If so, please kindly provide us with the URLs of these reports)
Mr. Lu: Yes, we have been covered by a number of prominent local media, including the Diablo magazine, the news media China Gate, and newspapers like San Francisco Chronicle and SFGATE.
6. How do you ensure the productivity of your kitchen and the quality of the dishes?
Mr. Lu: A good restaurant is made of many things, including great dishes, environment, services, and guests. Unfortunately, these are also the aspects that overseas Chinese restaurants often fall short of. Our restaurant is not an exception. The only thing we can do is to ensure a decent income and great morale for our employees because these are the fundamental elements to boost the quality of our services. Real good services lie not only in those substantial things like service procedures or norms but also in the professionalism of service staffers, which is more difficult to cultivate than making dishes.
7 . How sanitation management is performed in your restaurant? Do you maintain a regular schedule for cleaning at specific places? Is there any employee responsible for them? (like the front, kitchen, and bathroom)
Mr. Lu: It is not enough to place sanitation considerations in the operating process after a Chinese restaurant, especially one specializing in Sichuan cuisine, is open for business. This requires a systemic arrangement taking account of sanitation in various stages, such as setting up the orientation of the restaurant, determining its operating mode, and decision-making involving restaurant design, purchase of facilities and construction plans.
At the China Lounge Restaurant and Bar, we maintain an open kitchen, a practice rarely seen across the U.S. Given the preparation process of Sichuan dishes, which entails complicated usage of lots of seasonings and base oil, such an open practice means we have to not only make near-perfect dishes, but also keep everything clean and tidy, ensure that we maintain particularly rigorous design and standard in terms of the overall cooking procedures followed by the kitchen team, and make them a day-to-day routine. Despite that this is a very demanding task to maintain such a high level of professionalism, we believe it helps to change the entrenched idea that “Chinese dishes are usually associated with relatively poor hygiene”.
8. How many chefs do you have in the restaurant? It is common knowledge that a well-performing restaurant is inseparable from its employees, how do you deal with your relationship with your employees? How these employees are managed? Do you have any incentive measures?
Mr. Lu: The restaurant has a total of 25 employees. We focus on three elements in our management:
First, a professional management team, which is comprised of three persons. The owner has a profound understanding of the market, dishes and operation; the general manager, Mr. Jian Li, is a renowned master chef of Sichuan cuisine, and highly proficient in cooking techniques and kitchen management; the administration supervisor, who holds a doctoral degree in engineering, is well-versed in financial management and cost control.
Second, attractive salaries. This is the key to stabilizing your employee base and to developing the amateurs into relatively skilled workers. Some of our frying pan workers originally started as workers slicing ingredients; and all the side dish cooks started from this position. However, you’ve got to ensure employees work for a decent pay, because to have a stable and great revenue, the restaurant must maintain superior dishes, which in turn requires stunningly skilled chefs, an owner knowledgeable about the industry, and professional financial management personnel. These are the essentials for establishing a virtuous cycle and managing your team well in a restaurant.
Third, a pleasant atmosphere in the team. Apart from “income”, the most important management element, you also need to be fair and just to avoid any “infighting” among Chinese employees working overseas, set up clear rules for reward and penalties, and establish rules and impersonal touch among the team. These are the key to reducing employee turnover and stabilizing your team.
9. What do you think are the most important features that separate your restaurant from others?
Mr. Lu: First, we have well-established, top-notch expertise in cooking. In terms of cooking techniques for Sichuan cuisine, we have no equal in San Francisco, Los Angeles and even the entire Bay Area. We are the number one across the Bay Area. It is universal knowledge that the most authentic Sichuan cuisine is served at China Lounge Restaurant and Bar.
2.Great quality. We work very hard to maintain the consistency and quality of our dishes. That is to say, we should never do a good job today and then a poor job tomorrow. What we need is keep a constant consistency in maintaining superb quality, which is also what we have always been upholding to in our daily operation.
3. Reasonable prices. For example, we have a dish called Tofu Pockets. Most people would say they know how to cook the dish, or they are well familiar with it. It has a huge reputation and popularity. But in fact, the cooking method of the dish has almost gone distinction because it is molecular gastronomy first appearing more than one hundred years ago. This dish is sold for about two hundred yuan in restaurants based in Chengdu. But in the U.S., the price is only more than a dozen dollars. The effort required to make the dish is tremendous, as it is actually made of chicken, without even a trace of toufu. It takes a very long time to smash and break down the molecular structure of chicken and bring out the toufu flavor. Our pricing policy makes purchase of such dishes like a steal. Why would we bring this dish to the U.S.? Because we want to spread the Chinese food culture, and allow local customers, as well as the American Chinese, to have an opportunity to savor the very taste of this extraordinary traditional Sichuan food, and in the meantime, understand the culture of Sichuan cuisine.
10.When did you come to the U.S.? What industries had you worked in mainland China before coming here? What jobs have you taken after arriving here? And when did you start to work in the restaurant industry.
Mr. Lu: I came to the U.S. in 2010. Upon my arrival, I started to drove from the east to the west of the continent to see what the most advanced post-industrialization country in the world looks like. It was an eye-opening experience. But unfortunately, I hadn’t been able to have any decent Sichuan dishes here. It is just beyond my imagination how Chinese and Sichuan cuisines were laggard in the U.S. As a “super foodie”, I decided to open China Lounge in the Bay Area of San Francisco, a modern authentic restaurant specializing in Sichuan cuisine.
11.Are you satisfied with the current condition of your restaurant? What are your plans for the future?
Mr. Lu: In terms of operational status, China Lounge has been basically maintaining a full seat occupancy rate, and the main job for us is to keep everything stable. There are many difficulties to run a Chinese restaurant in the U.S., so it is hard to say we are satisfied with everything. In the future, if permitted, we will strive to contribute to the promotion of authentic Sichuan cuisine overseas, as it is arguably a noble thing to do.
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