Mala Tang in Arlington will be a departure from Liu’s bare-bones suburban eateries; the new restaurant specializing in Sichuan hot pots and street food will, for the first time in the chef’s career, drop Liu in the middle of the upscale-casual dining market.
“It’s not a knock on his other restaurants,” says Tomer Molovinsky, general manager for Mala Tang. But the new place will be “more upscale than his other restaurants.”
“The cuisine isn’t changing,” Molovinsky adds. “It’s sort of about rebranding and putting a different wrapping around it and making it more accessible to the regular diner.”
If the Molovinsky name sounds familiar, it is. The general manager’s brother, Oren Molovinsky, is the managing partner of the company that owns the small Harry’s Tap Room chain; he was previously the long-time general manager of Mie N Yu , where Molovinsky helped blend Asian, Middle Eastern and American cultures into something safely exotic for the conservative Georgetown market.
Molovinsky and Liu met while working on the Terra Cotta Warriors project; they soon became friends and later took a trip to Shanghai and Chengdu, where they began to hatch a plan to introduce the Sichuan chef to a wider (perhaps whiter) audience. “He wanted to partner with someone who had success introducing ethnic food…to an American audience,” Tomer Molovinsky says of Liu and Oren Molovinsky’s collaboration.
Tomer Molovinsky will handle the front-of-the-house operations and the promotion of Mala Tang; his brother is a partner in the business. Liu, however, is the president of the company that operates the restaurant and has final say; he is also, of course, in charge of the kitchen and the menu. Together, the partners have sunk more than $500,000 to transform the old Mei’s Asian Bistro space into something resembling Jinli Street in Chengdu, Liu’s hometown, where the streets are clogged with people looking for places to stop, indulge in various bites and chat for hours over food and beer.
The decor will set the scene for the cuisine. Liu will be serving up xiao chi, otherwise known as “little eats,” as appetizers. Liu’s small plates, six hot and six cold, are based on the street eats throughout Sichuan province, including dan dan noodles, mapo tofu, green onion pancakes, spicy cold noodles, spicy dried beef and mung bean noodles.
The main course will be all individual-sized hot pots, rather than the communal ones at Uncle Liu’s. Diners will be able to order their own custom plates of meat, seafood, mushrooms, root vegetables and other veggies to dip into the boiling hot broth, whether traditional and vegetarian-style. The broth will be served Sichuan-style, promises Molovinsky, unless otherwise requested. For the uninitiated, that means the broth will tantalize the tongue with the numbing and spicy sensations of “mala” cooking.
But Mala Tang has a whole other side to it: The place will also feature an informal “street food counter,” where customers can order from a menu board of xiao chi items and quick hot pots (known as mala tang), which they can eat on the patio, bar or communal table — or take away. The quick hot pots have less broth and have your chosen proteins and vegetables already mixed into them. “There will be no dipping,” Molovinsky says.
Liu has moved his kitchen manager at Hong Kong Palace, Liu Fei, over to Mala Tang to lead the kitchen there. He has also hired a chef de cuisine from New York. “Obviously, he has three other restaurants,” Molovinsky says of Liu Chaosheng. “He can’t be here all the time.”
The 150-seat Mala Tang will have a soft opening on Wednesday, April 27, and then celebrate its grand opening on Monday, May 2. Welcome to the big time, Chef Liu.