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Dollhouse diner more than just mere blonde ambition

IT is often good sport to slam theme restaurants, but not all of them are soulless money-grabbing engines of greedy capitalists. While the likes of Trader Vic's and TGI Friday's are now but a footnote in the city's culinary history (and for good reason, too), there was once a time when people made it a point - I'm sure I wasn't the only one - to visit the local Hard Rock Cafe in every city they came to.

Granted, one is never going to gain any meaningful insight to a city's shared gastronomy visiting a restaurant chain, but international brands like Hard Rock Cafe, or Planet Hollywood, or, more likely these days, a Gordon Ramsey's, a Jean-Georges or an Alan Ducasse, suggest that a city is eagerly plugged into international trade.

They announce a place has arrived on the global scene, and we as citizens of the world can make a pit stop en route to further discovery of a country's native cuisine.

Still, I harbored similar skepticism toward the Barbie building that has since been written to death in every publication.

The first thought that came to mind was how on earth Mattel stole a march on the Japanese and opened a mega store for its blonde bimbo before Sanrio could unleash its damn cat upon us.

Stay relevant

The whole project stinks of a desperate last throw of the dice to stay relevant, and in all fairness it has done a good job so far.

It wouldn't have been complete without a dining outlet, however, and Mattel needed to be 100 percent sure it got this right, so it turned to chef du jour David Laris and his fledgling consultancy, David Laris Creates.

The cafe gets the job done, but somehow feels neither here nor there. It's a chic, stylish diner in its own regard, but it's also not kitschy enough.

Sure, Laris doesn't do kitsch (his recently opened Fat Olive is pretty cool in that stark, minimalist way), but one can't help but wonder what if the gloves were off and the whole nine yards were traversed.

Imagine this: model-esque wait staff in tiny pink outfits wearing plastic fantastic smiles as they brought you pink drinks that didn't taste like Sprite or rose bubbly (real Champagne, not the three sparkling wines listed as Champagne).

Instead, all we get is just sharp, slick service, which is a godsend but one cannot help but feel a little disappointed.

Ok, the target audience probably has far purer, less kinky ideas about the place, but I still think this was down to budget as much as anything. Case in point: the menus are already looking well-worn and tatty. A respectable global brand like Mattel should care more.

Anyhow, the decor is glossy black and white check with pink booths and shiny cake display shelves. There's even a leaf taken out of Robuchon's book with one case for brightly-colored produce; I wonder whose duty it is to dust them.

The food is fine, although there are still nits to be picked. The Barbie burger (60 yuan/US$8.80), for example, doesn't make sense. Why would Barbie eat a burger? Sure, the meat is lean, but that defeats the purpose of a burger.

While the debate rages over what constitutes the best burger, a decent patty should be thick, made of high-quality off cuts and with a certain percentage of fat for moisture. At least this one is thick. The fries are also a little too McDonald's for my liking, but the greens that come with the burger and on the bun are fairly fresh.

Crispy wontons

The seared tuna on crispy wontons (60 yuan) are a great way to play with the pink theme, and while the fish is superb, with proper bite and laden with protein, the wontons seemed to have been fried in slightly-off oil, and while still packing crunch, tasted a little soggy. Great red cabbage slaw though, full of zest and tang while retaining a freshness on the palate.

The citrus grilled chicken breast (60 yuan) encapsulates what the cafe is aiming for. I'm not usually a breast man as it is often dull and too dry when cooked traditionally.

It doesn't exactly drip with moisture here either, but the citrus glaze takes care of that. I initially complained about the portions but this is just the right amount one should be eating anyway. We don't need a whole chicken for lunch or a snack.

The dish was listed to come with coconut rice, but the nasi was not even the slightest bit lemak; this is only a concern if that sentence means anything to you.

The homemade gelato deserves considerable praise, not least of all the Dream House (40 yuan) sundae - a menage a trios of strawberry, chocolate and yam ice cream, the last of which was actually a pleasant surprise.

That sums up the place perfectly. Go with an open mind and you will find the experience quite pleasant indeed.


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