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Good citizens with style keep the heat in the kitchen

THE Citizen Cafe has won loyalty with its customers for years with good food and comfortable surroundings. Now its cousin, Sichuan Citizen, opens with style and a bit of spice. Aubrey Buckingham pulls up a chair

Hitting on a winning cafe formula has proven quite elusive here, but there are some who have managed to find success in this fickle market. The Citizen Cafe for one, has been at the top of its game, keeping customers happy for nearly three years with good food in comfortable surroundings. The Jinxian Road bistro has kept customers coming back in throngs with an attention to detail most places are more likely to overlook, and it was only a matter of time before they expanded their business.

The newly opened Sichuan Citizen may look nothing like its cafe cousin but shares the same quaint design that made the original such a hit.

The primarily red interior of the double-story, 130-seat restaurant and bar is a modern take on the traditional Chinese teahouses of old. Wood panels and trimmings line the wall, while large wooden tables are both practical and accommodating for large groups.

Upstairs, the non-smoking area has a single private room and two other sections which can also be cordoned off for guests looking for more privacy. Up here, Chinese fans run from the ceiling and stylish lanterns adorn the walls.

While incorporating Chinese elements these days is all the rage among Western designers, owner cum designer Mike Chiang laments the lack of quality in local restaurant designs.

"It's really too bad that I've not seen any high-quality designed Chinese restaurants here," says the Hong Kong-born California resident. "I know there are a lot of creative young designers here, but you need more capital. Younger people don't have the capital to open restaurants and cafes."

Even replicating what the next guy did, a complaint many make of the Shanghai dining scene, isn't something local restaurant designers manage to do to good effect. "Copying is a skill too; you have to do it well but a lot of people aren't. I think the next generation will do something more interesting when they get the capital, because you already see interesting designs in small fashion boutiques."

Chiang, who ran a number of restaurants in San Francisco, is one half of the dynamic duo behind Citizen. His business partner, Daisy Fei, is a Shanghai native with restaurant experience in the United States where she ran a Sichuan restaurant in Oregon for close to a decade. Coupled with Chiang's desire to run a Sichuan place and voila - Sichuan Citizen was born.

The place took four months to go from planning to completion - the fastest Chiang has managed in his career. During this time he was on site three times a week, working closely with carpenters and sub-contractors to make sure every strip of wood, every finish, was exactly to specification.

While his concepts tend to start with the design, it is not lost on him that the quality of food served ultimately makes or breaks an establishment.

"I'm an idealist - I like to design. For other restaurant owners and most people, the food is the most important part and I realize that. For that, we had to bring in a chef that can serve food that matches the design."

Chiang and Fei (which has the makings of a modern musical) flew to Chengdu, Sichuan Province, to interview three chefs shortlisted for the position before settling on 34-year-old Mao Yong.

According to Chiang, most modern Sichuan chefs prefer a more avant-garde style, similar to the noveau Shanghainese fare that has been all the rage over the years.

Sichuan Citizen, however, went back to basics and took the cuisine back to its roots, tweaking it to suit local palates as well as an expatriate clientele.

Sichuan food, like Indian, is often misconstrued. While neither can be tackled without making a substantial dent in the Scoville scale, it is often only poor quality ingredients or insufficient skill that has the food smothered in an excess of spice. True Sichuan should be nuanced and layered, and if your mouth is simply numb from the abundance of the famed Sichuan peppercorn, then it really hasn't done itself justice.

The fare at Sichuan Citizen gets this formula right, even if it does take the safety first approach. The grilled fish (68 yuan/US$10) is recommended, while the ubiquitous kung pow offerings are mild enough for anyone. The dry sauteed cauliflower with Sichuan bacon (20 yuan) was another dish with universal appeal.

Sichuan Citizen builds on the success of the original, and while it also looks to be an after-work bar, the unimaginative wine and cocktail list (11 different wines and just three choices of beer; the cocktails are slightly better but are of the bog standard Asian ingredient variety) mean punters will largely come for the food. It may not be the most exquisite in town, but diners looking for an accessible, inoffensive meal will find it up their alley.

Address: 30 Donghu Rd

Tel: 5404-1235


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