The chefs from Imperial Lamian "hate fusion." These are the words of Imperial CEO Vincent Lawrence, on the day that the long-awaited Chinese restaurant finally announces a March 4 opening date inside the former Centro Ristorante space at 6 W. Hubbard Street. It's the Indonesia-based chain's first U.S. location.
Why the hatred for fusion? Lawrence said it's a commitment to authenticity that comes from years of experience in Hong Kong and China, preparing duck, making noodles by hand and steaming xiao long bao (soup dumplings). They're serious about showing Chicagoans a different kind of Chinese cuisine, a food sometimes unfairly maligned.
"These are their lives, they've been perfecting their skills over a period of years," Lawrence said of his chefs and their hefty resumes. "They've been cooking in many different kitchens in many different countries."
Lawrence, a Jakarta native, promised the most-complete Chinese soup dumpling program in Chicago with Sichuan peppercorns and pork varieties. There's also dishes like jasmine tea-smoked baby back ribs and Rare Tea Cellars will provide teas for infused cocktails. While the menu in Chicago won't be exactly like the menu in Jakarta, the Midwest is still more ripe than ever for some of the items that Imperial Lamian will offer, Lawrence said. Items like pork cheeks and ears are now in the mainstream, no longer considered exotic.
Lawrence has made several trips to Southeast Asia, and particularly singled out the sophistication at Hong Kong restaurants that humbled him and gave him a something to strive for. He consented many American-Chinese restaurants aren't as comfortable, but said Imperial Lamian will shatter expectations when it comes presentation and comfort.
Chicago beat out cities like New York, L.A. and San Francisco for Imperial Lamian's first U.S. location. Unlike those other cities, which are more known for Southeast Asian food, Lawrence, a Purdue graduate, sees a bigger opportunity in Chicago for his restaurant to help redefine Chinese food. He drew a parallel with the glut of ramen shops that have opened around town, showing there's a void for other types of Asian cuisine in Chicago.
But bringing a chain from a foreign country has been difficult. Many landlords were unfamiliar with their concept, and a few asked if Lawrence planned to "bring Chinatown to this beautiful area." Others assumed the concept was similar to Big Bowl or P.F. Chang's.
"That's kind of what motivates us, to change people's minds," Lawrence said. "That's not who we are, that's not what we're trying to do here in Chicago."
The interiors will mix steel, wood, brass and Oriental touches. Look for a mural of a woman in a Chinese wedding dress and some abacus-patterned ones. Lawrence stressed his restaurant will have an identity through an industrial approach.
"We're not a steakhouse, it's not Italian," he said. "We have elements that pronounce, that really bring out our identity as a Chinese restaurant."