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LAST WORD: Keep It Simple, Stupid
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alt Recently, I had dinner at Pizza Bianca with my fiancé and two colleagues. One word sums up the experience: “Outstanding.” After dining there, it got me thinking, “Why can’t there be more places like this in Tianjin?” Now, this isn’t a restaurant review per se, (although I’m sure Pizza Bianca will be happy to receive the free press), but more of a commentary about what’s right with this particular venue versus what has gone wrong with other Western restaurants in Tianjin.  
 
What separates an excellent restaurant from a mediocre one? Décor, service, and having a deep wine list all play critical roles; however, I’m not exactly going out on a limb by saying that the food is the most important element. It seems elementary, but serving consistently high-quality food is more elusive than it seems. After all, if it were so simple, why do so many restaurants serve mediocre or blatantly bad food? A restaurant having good food boils down to three points: always using fresh, high quality ingredients, simplicity, and consistency. Bianca meets all three requisites.  
 
In regards to the first point, “fresh, high quality ingredients”, Bianca was a success. For starters we ordered the bruschetta and the arugula salad; our main courses were the t-bone, a rib eye with gorgonzola butter (incredible), an artichoke and onion pizza, and the lasagna. The tomatoes were ripe, the greens crisp, the onions perfectly caramelised, and the steaks were lightly seasoned and cooked to a true medium-rare. Finally, we ordered two servings of tiramisu for dessert. It was decadent, a heap of freshly whipped cream piled high over espresso soaked biscotti. Next time, my fiancé and I won’t share. She’ll have to order her own.
 
Moving on to point two, “simplicity”; the menu was one page and every item on that page was inviting. I don’t recommend you go to Bianca ravenously hungry, because you will inevitably order far more than you could possibly finish.  
 
The third point, “consistency,” was quickly verified just three days later. I returned again and there was no variation from before.  The most successful restaurants in the world thrive on consistency alone. Look at McDonald’s for example: a Big Mac in Seoul is the same as a Big Mac in Atlanta.  The food isn’t great, but at least you know what you’re getting.  Bianca is no different, albeit with much better food.
 
altNow that I’ve sufficiently raved about Bianca, let’s explore what has gone awry with other Western restaurants in Tianjin.  Before we do, I think it’s important to understand the character of the city. Anyone that has traveled a fair amount probably wouldn’t rank Tianjin among other ‘world-class’ cities. Let’s call a spade a spade and appreciate Tianjin for what it is: a city on the rise, developing at breakneck speed, and constantly living in the shadow of its’ more metropolitan cousin to the north.  However, Tianjin boasts a population of over twelve million people. A city this large, with such a diverse international community, ought to have a decent selection of restaurants if it’s going to be regarded as a modern and eclectic place to live or visit.  Many restaurateurs have tried to achieve sustained success in the Tianjin market and almost an equal number have failed. Why?  
 
Without naming names, I can say I’ve seen an unsettling trend with some of the better restaurants in the city. Most start with a specific vision which is usually chef-centric and focuses on a particular regional cuisine. What tends to happen, however, is that after a few months they begin to stray from this vision.  
 
The first sign of trouble is when there is a noticeable, or sometimes very subtle, change to the ingredients. Usually, this is a cost reducing method, but often, its complacency. I remember when the owners of the steakhouse I managed in LA wanted to switch from fresh lobster bisque to a frozen one, the proverbial canary in a coal mine if I ever saw one. Once this problem starts, it will always continue to get worse before it gets better. Next, we were freezing our fish, serving a lower grade of steaks, and so on. If serving food made with the best ingredients is what underpins the success of an establishment, deviating from that concept will be the root cause of their eventual failure.  
 
altThe next problem is when a restaurant overcomplicates things. “Keep it simple, stupid” is an adage to live by in the food service industry. Occasionally, restaurants make this mistake before they serve their first customer, offering foods of varying styles and cuisines. If I walk into an Italian restaurant with fajitas on the menu, my hopes won’t be high that the gnocchi is any good.  Even worse is when a restaurant begins by offering a simple (focused) menu, then expands it in hopes of reaching a wider audience.  There is an analogous phrase from the television industry which is fitting here, known as “jumping the shark”.  If a restaurant tries to do something that is out of character, chances are they are heading rapidly towards the end.
 
The last problem, which in a place like China can be unavoidable at times, is consistency. I’ve seen a few examples where a new restaurant opens in Tianjin to excellent reviews, and within six months is suffering from what we’ll just call “Italian Fajita Syndrome”. Often, the reason is because the chef that the restaurant concept was built around has left and the owners scramble to try to maintain their identity or carve out a new one.  When this happens, the food quality suffers, and customers don’t know what to expect from one visit to the next. (As a side note, I’m sure it’s not easy to lure a chef worth his or her salt to Tianjin)  Consistency can also suffer if ingredients can’t be sourced easily, which again, could be a potential problem for restaurants serving Western fare in China.  
 
Ultimately, great restaurants know their identity. They typically do one thing, and do it really well.  I’ll take my “one trick pony” style restaurant over Cheesecake Factory with its forty-page menu any day.  So to Pizza Bianca and any other restaurant that comes to Tianjin, please take my advice and “Keep it simple, stupid.” The customers will keep coming back if you do.
 

By Christopher Ribeiro

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