Memory Restaurant’s concept from design to service to menu has become so trendy it almost seems like it could be a package deal from a restaurant development agency. It goes like this: combine bookshelves stocked with sundry items like plants in glass vases with mismatched furniture. Next, install halogen spotlights and vintage lamps. Outfit staff in something whimsical and throwback-y like newsboy caps and plaid pants. Print the menu on flimsy paper and give out pencils so ordering is efficient and interactive. Offer easy pleaser dishes that span the Chinese nation from spicy bullfrog to hongshao rou at accessible prices. Now, wait for the crowds a la The Grandma’s and Green Tea.
At Memory, the formula has worked its magic. The herds have arrived and sit patiently awaiting a table. To keep them happily occupied, there’s free tea, popcorn, oranges and even an old guy in a cap handing out freshly spun cotton candy. Mr Bean plays on a large TV just inside the entrance.
Once you finally make it inside, the retro homey style is comforting and engaging; there’s some little detail to inspect in every direction. Even the waiters are fun to check out, in their stripped navy and white tops and denim overalls. Free pu’er tea is brought to the table in an adorable ceramic teapot with a spigot. It’s the type of thing you want to photograph with your smartphone to upload on WeChat. And undoubtedly Memory Restaurant is hoping you do just that (another reason halogen table spotlights are key). It’s a youth-savvy place, shrewd about its market.
The food is neither brilliant nor bad, and most of it is great value. Deep fried bean curd (15RMB), a dish of golden tofu squares spiced with chili and soy is savoury and appealingly spongy on one visit, but on another, it’s cold and over-salty. The best ingredient in ‘bullfrog in hot chili oil’ (88RMB) is not the bony and surprisingly bland frog, but the soft, sticky taro balls which have absorbed the spicy oil and could be an excellent dish by themselves.
One winner is ‘4 flavour chicken’ (32RMB): four saucers of poached chicken in sauces representing the seasons including a light scallion oil and spicy chilli sauce. Each sauce is distinct, so you get an original taste with each bite.
There are also many weak dishes on this exhaustive menu. ‘Spiced chicken with chili sauce’ (58RMB) is tender but tasteless. Breaded pork chop (32RMB) on a foil-covered pan with a fried egg looks and tastes as unappealing as a school canteen meal. Wasabi shrimp (‘mustard flavor shrimp with sesame’, 59RMB) has unevenly distributed wasabi.
Few restaurants this busy can pull off perfect consistency and Memory is not one of them. But despite the unevenness of the kitchen, there’s a one hour wait at 7pm every weekday. The allures are its vintage theme, value pricing and a youthful crowd which keeps it buzzing.