Chèvre Turns to Curry

The new American bistro is affordable, stylish, ethnic.

When the four Aggarwal brothers decided to open a third Khana Peena in Rockridge, Deepak drove up and down College Avenue until he found a vacancy at a boxy little liquor store on the corner of College and Bryant. Instead of hanging a few Taj Mahal photos and spangled weavings, the Indian-American restaurateurs, who had started off as owners of a convenience store in Berkeley, took a year to transform the space. They instructed their architect, Baywood Development, to turn the parking lot into a covered patio, install a recycled-glass bar in the interior, and hollow out a dramatic domed skylight in the center of the building, ringed on the outside with curved spikes and on the inside with erotic temple reliefs. When the restaurant opened three months ago, the Aggarwals hired Greg Estes to be their wine director, charged with assembling a hundred-bottle list.

Their menu, though, has stuck to the basics: tandoori chicken, chana masala, lamb karahi. Like its equally high-design sisters, Khana Peena 3 has been packed since day one.

In her loving cookbook Bistro Cooking, Patricia Wells describes French bistros as bustling neighborhood restaurants, “an extension of the family living room,” serving simple, lusty fare. In the Bay Area, the boundary between what gastrowonks would consider haute cuisine and bistro cuisine has blurred to the point that most of the restaurants serving the dishes described in Wells’ book — mixed greens with goat cheese, moules marinières, roast chicken — charge anywhere from $40 to $70 a person. Hardly an extension of most people’s living rooms.

Taking the bistro’s place as neighborhood joints where the middle-class can gather to eat are ethnic restaurants, and savvy Asian-American restaurateurs such as the Aggarwals, whose clientele is mostly outsiders of all ethnicities, are responding by creating attractive American bistros. “Asian restaurateurs are more willing to invest more in decor and they know who to hire,” says Betty Xie, content adviser for Asian Restaurant News, a Fremont-based trade magazine. “In the past they would just lease a place that was old. Now they’re thinking of buying a piece of land and paying a designer.” Some take over mainstream bistros and simply reopen them.

No longer do Asian restaurants feel compelled to re-create the home atmosphere or advertise their “authenticity” through their interior design. Asian bistros such as Unicorn in Berkeley, Kirin in Albany, and Three Seasons in Walnut Creek are modernist and stylish — sometimes breathtakingly so — yet meals generally cost between $15 to $25 a person. They’re perfectly targeted to a post-IKEA generation raised on high design and high rents.

This movement isn’t exactly new, but it seems to be picking up steam, aided by firms like Restaurant Equipment Design (or RED), a design and restaurant supply company that has catered to Asian-American restaurateurs. Several years ago, when Kim Huynh decided to expand Huynh, her little lunch spot on 15th Street in Downtown Oakland — a typical Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall — she hired RED. Not only did the firm knock down some walls to move into the space next door, it painted the new, high-ceilinged space in vibrant peaches, ochers, and golds, plating the entrance in high windows so passers-by could see the dramatic new interior. “My food was already good,” Huynh says, “but people like the new decorations. Every day we get new customers.”

Amid the new crop of Asian restaurants, Xie says, many are owned by native-born, second-generation Americans or more highly educated, wealthier immigrants who aren’t content with the “survivor” mentality of simply securing their livelihoods. Typical of this new breed are John Tang and Aslina Abdulla, husband-and-wife owners of the fifteen-month-old Red Kwali in Newark. The two, who both have MBAs, travel frequently to Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, and had long dreamed of opening a Malaysian restaurant. When they spied a new shopping plaza being built around a Lion Market, they secured one of the corner spaces, installed a gleaming open kitchen, and painted the room a harlequinesque yellow, green, and red. “My wife’s design,” Tang explains. “She has a strong liking for beautiful things.” They hope to duplicate the success and the style of Red Kwali in upscale towns such as Palo Alto, Santa Clara, and Walnut Creek.

Vikram Aggarwal sums up his chain-building family’s approach as, “If you want to make money, you’ve got to spend money.” Xie gives it a more noble spin: “Asian-American restaurateurs want to feel proud of their own restaurants, and design is one of the ways they express that pride.”

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