The restaurant had been described as a “game changer” for Auckland’s Chinese food scene, but barely 18 months later it was game over for Red Wall 1939.
A Massey University marketing expert says New Zealanders are not ready for any Chinese cuisine that steers them beyond what they are familiar with.
Red Wall, opened by Jian Liu, grandson of Chairman Mao’s executive chef of 20 years, offered dishes cooked when the founding father of the People’s Republic of China hosted western leaders.
The restaurant closed when New Zealand went into a level 4 lockdown in March, and hasn’t reopened.
The Parnell restaurant used Chinese ingredients in dishes which Liu were served tovisiting royalty, heads of governments and foreign dignitaries at state banquets hosted by Mao.
The dishes served at the restaurant used mainly Chinese ingredients, but were presented in a “western style” as was interpreted in the Mao era.
“The Chinese in China may understand this, but this cuisine concept is totally alien to Kiwis,” said Massey University Associate Professor Henry Chung, a marketing and communications expert.
“The result was total confusion for diners who were served food that was neither Chinese or western, and not even fusion food as they understand it.”
Food reviewer Jesse Mulligan rated his experience of dining there as “disappointing” and also drew attention to the cost of the tasting menu at $179 a head.
“They are part of a restaurant concept I’m not sure they really understand. I don’t understand it,” Mulligan wrote in Viva in December 2018.
Chung said the restaurant’s branding, linked to Chairman Mao at a time when some people viewed China as being the source country of Covid-19, was also “unfortunate”.
“When it comes to Chinese eateries here, my advice is for businesses is to stick to the tried and tested,” he said.
“Stick to traditional menus but ensure high quality and good hygiene, but if it goes down the fusion track, then the dishes must be presented in a way that they are pretty enough for people to want to share on social media.”
Chung thinks a new cafe, Luxerose, that has opened in the Parnell homestead where the Red Wall 1939 fine dining restaurant once occupied, stands a better chance of success.
Luxerose offers mainly cafe food, with a fusion menu offering dishes and beverages designed for social media.
Nic Zeng, co-owner of the new cafe, said she chose the Parnell Rose Garden historical homestead because of its location, but she was didn’t want customers to link the new business to the previous restaurant.
“We are totally different, from the business owners, concept, to the people running it,” she said.
The new 70-seater cafe is a sub-brand of Luxerose cocktail, helmed by head chef Antoni Liem, orginially from Indonesia, who spent six years working at restaurants around the world, including Europe.
“Our menus are formulated with a twist of flavours from around the world and combinations of local produce,” Zeng said.
“Some of our dishes have Asian influences, mostly fusion with a modern twist.”
Signature dishes include the “black angel” squid ink noodles with dashi, plated with squid, pickled ginger, bean sprout and bonito; and the lemon and thyme chicken with quinoa, baba ganoush and burnt onion.
Zeng said the lavender hotcakes, colourfully plated with mascarpone, meringue, hokey pokey, fruit and topped with bright pink candy floss, were one of the most popular dishes.
Zeng said the menus and interior had been re-designed with social media and instagram in mind, and the target market was millennials.
“We have not had our official opening yet, but our cafe has been really busy every day because people have come to know it through posts in Chinese social media,” Zeng said.
Chinese social media influencer Grace Xu, who has 93,000 followers on Douyin, also believes Luxerose has a lot more potential than Red Wall 1939.
“Nowadays, people judge food by how good a photo looks, and the bright colours and unique combinations of the dishes at Luxerose makes it perfect for social media sharing,” Xu said.
“Red Wall was different. The dishes were grand but not really for social media, and many also thought the menu was too expensive.”
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