29 October 2008

Sho & tell. Using your noodle?

Stickyfingers to Pat Churchill: "I wonder whether the Chinese roast meat cabinet (sitting proudly in the exposed kitchen, holding roast duck, barbecued pork and roast pork) will now replace the trendy salumi cabinets as 'the new black' of culinary trends."

As I strode down the long gaming floor between the kilometre of Crown Casino's slot machines, I saw tons of scruffy people mesmerised by the lights, colours and panoply of noises
clustering in the air around them.

There was no smell of money in the perfectly climate controlled air. Elderly r
etirees queued for free deep fried snacks at brightly lit generic dining venues and a large group of Asians were cheering loudly at a table near Sho Noodle Bar. Others seemed linked by an invisible umbilical cord to their favourite poker machine.

I recalled years ago, when working on the launch campaign for 'The World of Entertainment' , that Lloyd Williams - the previous owner of the venue - had been considering enforcing a dress code "To keep the tyre-kickers out". Had he not been talked out of that plan the place would probably have been deserted, not enjoying its current popularity.

It had been a while since I had traversed this path. As a non-gambler there's very little interest for me on the gaming floor of a casino. I find no joy watching others spill away their hard earned plastic chips and coins, and somewhere from the recesses of my mind the statistics on attempted suicides at Packer's Pleasure Palace begin to rise to the surface. But human nature is what it is. I do not judge.

I was there at the invitation of Tara Bishop, a former colleague and now the Media Relations Manager, Food & Beverage and Hotels for Crown. After fielding slickly run PR nights for the mainstream media, ethnic press, travel and food websites, she was encouraged by Ed Charles to entertain a handful of bloggers as part of her media strategy to promote the newly opened Sho Noodle Bar.

I think possibly it was a good move on her part as the bloggers have mostly written glowing reports to a wider audience than the traditional media. A google search pulls up a few of them on the front page which is excellent for the venue. Perhaps this will break some unexplored ground and pave the way for more people to visit Sho, for this particular venue is a PR nightmare.

It was a logical thing. Opening an Asian restaurant that specialised in noodles, dumplings and the kinds of food that Chinese, Malaysians and Singaporeans love to eat at odd hours, right in the midst of where many congregate in Melbourne - especially when a number of them are tourists. Keeping it open until 4am on Saturday and Sunday morning would surely corner the market too.

So it should be an easy task to fill the place - no?

When Crown Casino opened Sho Noodle Bar they were responding to a perceived need on the gaming floor. The venue houses other quality dining venues, but the ones on the gaming floor are generic.
Income is generated in casinos by turning cash over the tables and keeping the slot machines busy, and keeping punters on the gaming floor is vital. So enticing low to mid roller punters, many of whom are Asian, out of the venue onto the promenade to eat Asian food risks the chance of them not returning, of being distracted, and no gaming venue wants that.

So in came Pin Tan, a chef in from Penang - the food obsessed epi-centre of Malaysia - to be supervised by a newly appointed Swiss Culinary Director, Bruno Malzacher, who has worked in hotel catering, from Melbourne to Jordan, to Khazakstan and Japan. And at a cost of $6million, Sho Noodle Bar and Tea Salon was built smack bang in the middle of the gaming floor, with a fitout that borrows heavily from other successful casino dining venues.

Reinforcing the Casino's plan to extend dining options within the entertainment centre, I expect that not only is it hoped that it will service the existing clientele of middle class Asians, but that Sho will become a dining hub for Asiaphiles. Right now though, the place is far from bustling.
While only a handful of diners lurk in the dim light of the dining room, it would seem that much of the revenue is currently coming from dishes delivered to the High-Rollers gambling in the Mahogany Room and to their suites in the hotel.

Curious gamblers wander by and peer in casually. They enjoy the view, the free demonstration of noodle making and the Kung Fu tea spectacular. But by and large they are the people who will - when the tummy rumbles - grab a bowl of congee or rice and roast duck in the food court between gambling, not sit in a chi-chi venue to eat the same type of thing.

And herein lies the challenge, the logical idea is its own worst enemy. The average Asian punters consider it too tjuzzy and pricey for simple hawker fare and the non punters to whom it is more suited, will not wander the avenues of poker machines and gaming tables in order to cross its threshold.

What I see here
is symptomatic of many Asian venues run by Occidentals. Not enough understanding of the target market is employed in the planning of the venue. When you have an intimate knowledge of your clientele you can pre-empt what they desire. If your supposition is based on your own tatses, you'll miss the mark and no amount of marketing and PR will save the concept.

To me, Sho is another Gingerboy, be it with a pedigreed Asian chef at the helm. These places offer westerners the chance to eat as Asians do without going out of their comfort zone in terms of accoutrements.

But mention Gingerboy to your average Asian punter and you'll hear the words pretentious, over-priced and 'gwei-lo' fodder. In short it is a venue that appeals to those who would never dare set foot in a brightly lit, Laminex table clad, suburban Malaysian restaurant serving excellent food.
And although the Gingerboy style clientele have no qualms about paying twice as much as an Asian for the same meal, they're not particularly likely to wander into the belly of the casino to eat Pin Tan's Hawker Food, no matter how authentic it may be.

To explain the Asian mindset in relation to food one needs to delve into the culture. In Asian society, food plays a different role to that of Anglo culture. It's an obsession, but not in the reverential way that occidentals leave to 'Foodies'. It is a grass roots enjoyment of good ingredients, technique and heritage, that spans everyone. More like the French in its passion, though less parochially driven.

In this vein of appreciation, the majority of Orientals could care less what a venue looks like as long as it is well lit and the food is cooked with care and attention to detail. Even the wealthiest of Asians are as happy to sit at a Laminex table to eat off melamine dishes as they are to dine at linen clad tables with ivory chopsticks resting on silver holders.

Food is also very much tied into Asian celebrations, whether as a traditional banquet or corporate entertainment. At this level it is more about expense, show and ritual, one upmanship and showing off. Decorous dining establishments are favoured on these occasions and dishes served usually ring with auspicious names to bring good fortune to the occasion.

In between that you have a notion of value. Hawker food is grazing food and although unlike South East Asia, it is impossible to find a $3 noodle dish in Australia, the perception of how much one is willing to pay for grazing food is fixed in the Oriental mind as being cheap fare.

Sho Noodle Bar offers grazing food at prices above that which the average Asian punter is accustomed to paying for the same dishes. It serves them in surrounds that rip off other flashier venues overseas - which although attractive are not quite in the league of a traditional banquet venue - and that is confusing to the target market.

For the place to be populated by significantly more Asians, the decor would have to change radically and the prices would need to drop a little.
And in order to attract the non gambling food crowd, Tara needs to hype to the point where Sho is the hottest ticket in town. Unlike the restaurants on the promenade with their 'rockstar cum celebrity' chefs, this is no easy feat.

Perhaps if the fitout was an ultra modern industrial look decked out with large, bright decorative motifs, or instead of channelling
Atelier Robuchon they chose Momofuku Ko as their inspiration, you could have a hybrid venue that would entice all types, or may be not? In marketing you have to stick to your principle target market and with that will come others. I think in this case, sadly Crown tailored Sho to the wrong crowd.

In terms of the food, they're onto a good thing. Technically it was sound, included lard and a whisper of charcoal to the relevant dishes. You can eat the same sort of thing in the burbs, but if you're in the vicinity of the casino it's worth giving a try. I will return to try the Hainan Chicken Rice.

The roast meats on offer were average. I prefer the ones at Linx, and there was was some dissent during our tasting of the Beef Rendang which was essentially the Cantonese dish 'Ngau Larm' - braised gravy beef with a rich star anise and cassia bark gravy, into which had been added a fiery rempah. Sadly the elements of lemongrass and galangal were overpowered by the non-traditional elements and the chilli left us unable to taste the next course.

For a blow by blow account of the dining see my fellow bloggers accounts of the evening:

Pat, Thanh, Mellie & Dan, Jon, Neil, Elliot and Ed's video.

Perhaps for me it will be the kind of place where, as a local, I will drag friends post-theatre or even after an occasional flick at the cinema there.

I certainly hope others will entertain the idea of entering the dragon's lair of gambling to sample the offering, because Sho with its solid menu of Hawker Food favourites, a 38 seat dining counter, a range of 24 excellent Chinese teas on offer in the salon and spacious dining room, certainly has great potential to be the 'new black' of Melbourne's Asian dining scene.
And perhaps even a few gwei lo's palates will be educated in the process?

SHO Noodle Bar and Tea Salon
Located on the gaming floor next to the Maple Room

Crown Entertainment Complex,

8 Whiteman Street, Southbank, Melbourne