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More to Thai dining than copying their cuisine style

IT is unlikely that readers need the Sunday food critic to tell them the world is in recession and restaurateurs are fretting over their prospects of survival.

The problem for many is twofold ?firstly, whether customers will be eating out and spending as they used to. This is the worry that hotels and outlets on the Bund are contemplating at the moment. David Laris, for example, has just delayed The Maverick again to, in his words, evolve the concept to become more accessible and less of a steakhouse. While he was somewhat vague about what this entailed, he made it clear that in dark times like these an element of fun was needed and he fully intends to make light of the situation.

Another playful operator recently opened is Icons, taking the space once known as Maneo. Anyone familiar with Quentin Tarantino's magnum opus "Pulp Fiction?will recognize the concept of Jack Rabbit Slims, the diner style restaurant where all the servers look and dress like stars of yesteryear. The Jing'an District restaurant is barely a few weeks old, so no idea if the chow passes muster yet.


The second problem proprietors may unexpectedly find themselves facing is that of increased competition. This may come as a surprise ?surely an economic downturn is the worst time to open a restaurant? Au contraire. This adage only applies to the luxury fine dining joints with high-cost produce, imported silverware and expensive wine lists. The mid-market tends to be a battleground during such times, as not only are there the usual opportunists lured by the consumer shift in spending but also the recently unemployed, cashed up from their golden handshake and convinced by friends and hangers-on their idea of cheap food in comfortable surrounds is absolutely revolutionary.

Not everyone survives, of course. Good food is usually the first casualty as establishments without the much-needed X-factor struggle to undercut each other, forcing not only themselves but also quality suppliers to the brink.

The curious case of Chiang Mai Thai Cuisine and Qing Mai Heaven Thai Cuisine has already made the rounds among foodies. As it goes, a former Coconut Paradise chef opened Chiang Mai on Kangding Road where he replicated the menu of his former employer; when a supplier visited the premises for lunch one day, however, he was charged all of 38 yuan (US$5.60) for his meal, enough to send him into a rage.

The supplier's response was to open a copycat restaurant ?Qing Mai Heaven Thai Cuisine on the trendy Jinxian Road. Not only are both names the same, the menu is a carbon copy right down to the same typos (glaring at you on the first page). Incredible.

While the two may be similar in content, it is their orientation that sets them apart. Chiang Mai is the much prettier restaurant; an airy room with authentic decorations and framed portraits of the much revered king. The size of the room is decent and the adequate lighting sets diners at ease.


The food, however, just doesn't taste as good as the place looks. Chiang Mai is opting for an expat audience and the food is tweaked as such. As pointed out before, authenticity is vastly overrated and, taken out of context, can be rather amusing. The problem is quality cannot be sacrificed when other nuances are interpreted.

Granted, the spat with his supplier may have led to a boycott from other purveyors, which is the only explanation why the fare was so lackluster. The deep fried pandan chicken (35 yuan) was suitably moist and sparingly marinated and, together with the shriveled fish cakes (35 yuan) which tasted better than it looked, was Chiang Mai's saving grace ?it was all downhill from there.

The sauteed squid with asparagus (45 yuan) was all over the shop, but was chewy seafood that had been left too long and with insipid vegetables. The green chicken curry (42 yuan) had too much flour, while the pad thai was more akin to char kway teow, that ubiquitous Malaysian and Singaporean dish of fried flat noodles, than its Southeast Asian counterpart.

Tom yam goong is always a key indicator of a kitchen's competence, and Chiang Mai's spoke volumes ?lacking any spice or kick, it was sour instead.

Qing Mai, on the other hand, is aimed at locals who don't mind the dingy environment and the tight squeeze in the 20-seater hole-in-the-wall space. In fact they are lapping it up; observe how much food winds up on the table.

This is the market any owner wants and Qing Mai has got it. The fare here is geared more toward this segment, but all the dishes above were better quality. The only let down was the squid and asparagus, which was way too salty, and a question mark remains whether tom yam goong really needs to be made with so much coconut milk.

Choosing between the two is a key indicator of what customers are looking for in a meal. Chiang Mai is more secluded, more comfortable and caters primarily to Westerners; Qing Mai, on the other hand, can be uncomfortable and noisy when packed, caters to the all-important local market and offers good food to those willing to put up with it. This is a decision for the market to make, and it would not surprise me at all if only one made it through the credit crunch.


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