FEAST YOUR EYES

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 February, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 February, 1994, 12:00am

WARNING: this story has about as much to do with food as a Faberge egg has to do with omelettes. 'My God,' exclaimed the Jewish princess from New York. 'I know those doors.' She was standing in front of Cafe Deco's heavy brass doors, about to enter Hong Kong's newest and arguably most spectacular restaurant. Certainly, the doors are unmistakable. They could not have been produced at any other time or place than 1920s New York City.


'Those are the same doors that were at my bank in Manhattan.' She spoke the last word with the nasal whine that only someone from that place can articulate. Over the doors is a bronze canopy, which also dates from that great age between the two world warswhen America, for the first and last time in its history, embraced a truly identifiable original style of interior design. It was called Art Deco.


As it happens the Jewish princess was right, the doors did come from a bank on West 23rd Street. The canopy to which they now belong came from the style's other great centre, Miami's South Beach. It was found in the basement of a disused candy factory in SoHo.


The great doors to the Cafe Deco, which straddles the saddle of Victoria Peak with commanding views of the harbour to the north and Lamma channel to the south, open for business on Saturday, revealing a restaurant with the best display of authentic architectural scavenging since the China Club was established in the old China Bank building three years ago. Designers Bob Bilkey and Oscar Llina, who were responsible for the Grand Hyatt's interior, spent $25 million on building and sourcing artifacts and materials from around the world.


'We came up here one evening a couple of years ago when we had just taken up the lease of this area of The Peak Galleria which hadn't even been built yet,' says Graeme Reading, one of the owners and himself an architect who had worked with the others on the Grand Hyatt.


'What impressed us that night was the changing skyline of Hong Kong below. There seemed to be a new architectural dynamism represented by such buildings as Century Plaza, The Bank, the Bond Centre (later renamed Lippo Centre), Nine Queen's Road. It was asif it was trying to become a modern day Manhattan in its heyday, the 1920s and 1930s.


'Wouldn't it be wonderful, we thought, to do the restaurant in Art Deco as a reflection of what was happening below.' Out of mothballs have come all sorts of wonderful things which will be given a new lease of life.


'These pieces that we have collected are not going to be treated like museum pieces,' says Mr Reading, 'they will be returned to their original functions.' Like the zinc oyster bar. This fine piece of wood and metal is actually going to be put to good use for the third time around. It was first installed in a cafe in Paris in the days before stainless steel. Now it is here and stands proudly in front of the heavy white doors of a large porcelain and nickel ice-box which once kept things cool in a church kitchen during the New York summer. What you see remains exactly as it always was; the interior workings have been completely reworked by a Hong Kong refrigeration company.


'When the ice-box arrived they called us to say it was too old, that things were broken, that it was an impossible task, and why didn't we buy a brand new unit instead,' says Mr Reading. 'Then the boss of the company, K. K. Tang saw it. 'Hey,' he said to the young guys, 'you don't know nothing, I did my apprenticeship on these things'. From then on he personally supervised the restoration and remade missing parts from scratch. I've never seen a man so in love with a refrigerator.' The restaurant concept is to offer a wide range of foods from different stations set apart from one another on two levels totalling 15,000 square feet. And so there are wall ovens last produced in Manchester, England, in 1945 (an engineer had to be flown out to assemble the heavy cast iron parts) which will roast pigeons, ducks and lambs.


At a hot-pot station the crocks will be fired by individual dai pai dong-style gas burners protruding from a wall of baked copper tile in a Deco chevron surround. The tiles which refract the light into subtle spectrum colours, like oil on the surface of water, come from Barcelona, the only place in the world where they are still made.


At the soup station, sculpted Deco terracotta tiles which came from the facade of a Horn and Hardart Cafeteria on 6th Avenue and 45th Street, have been re-assembled just as they were in the days when this chain became the precursor of all fast food, yearsbefore the Big Mac and KFC.


'They called it an automat,' says Mr Reading. 'These were coin operated glass windows with salads, cakes, sandwiches, etc., and on the other side, the kitchen.' 'In a way the place was designed backwards,' says Mr Reading. 'Bob and Oscar went off on a buying spree around architectural salvage companies with names like Lost City Arts and found things which they thought they just had to have. We took photos of it all which a year ago we laid out on the floor of the lobby of the Raleigh Hotel in Miami and planned how we would make it all work in the building.' An Italian bar which comes from the old New York City Terminal built in 1929 has a clock above it which was rescued when the Provident and Loan Society Building on 41st Street was demolished. The bar's showcase will house official plates and cutlery from the New York World's Fair of 1939, teapots from the first round-the-world flights by Qantas, Deco cake stands, cocktail shakers and other food-related paraphernalia of the time.


'We bought the contents of three entire shops in Miami. They were amazed, and they loved us, with this recession going on. No one here has ever seen this kind of stuff, not in this generation anyway. The interesting thing is that those days things were made to last,' says Reading.


The cafe even has the epitome of the Deco age, an original Wurlitzer juke box, restored by an old man who spent a good deal of his working life in the now defunct factory. And it has not had its guts removed to play modern day compact discs like many so-called original machines.


'It plays real records, remember them?' says Reading. 'There's a company in California which still makes records and they are sending us some. Heaven knows what they'll send: Burl Ives, Chubby Checker, Vera Lynn?' And, of course, with a little help from manager Michael Hendler and chef Martin Kniss, both formerly with the Mandarin, you can eat there too. Thai and tandoori, pizza and pasta, noodles and grills. But that's another story.