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Shopping Secrets of the East

A design team searched stores in five Asian cities to find everything from Buddhas to chopsticks for a new Washington, D.C., restaurant.

When the three partners of the Washington, D.C., seafood restaurant DC Coast--owners Gus DiMillo and David Wizenberg and executive chef Jeff Tunks--decided to create a great Asian restaurant, they knew that a trip to the Far East was essential. Not only did they want to sample dishes to get inspiration for the menu but they also thought they could find one-of-a-kind decorative items at bargain prices--all without knowing a word of any language other than English. "We figured everyone would understand 'I'll take it' very well," DiMillo jokes.

They gave themselves three weeks abroad to find ideas, tableware, furniture and antiques. Armed with a checkbook and escorted by interior designer Walter Gagliano, who had also worked on DC Coast, and Aline Ho, a Vietnam-based designer who advised on purchase and export matters, they went on a whirlwind shopping spree in five cities--Bangkok, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, Macao and Singapore--and got nearly everything they needed.

"We definitely exceeded our expectations," says Tunks, who oversees both DC Coast and the new TenPenh (an Asian-sounding reference to the corner of 10th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, where the restaurant will be located). "I gained at least 10 pounds," he explains. And though Tunks calculates that they spent more than $40,000 on the trip, he also estimates they saved the same amount by buying everything abroad.

Their first stop, Bangkok, was the most fruitful. At the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company, a luxurious, Western-style fabric showroom that also has outposts in Paris and Los Angeles, the TenPenh group found both raw materials and conceptual fodder. "We weren't really thinking about upholstering the walls and banquettes in silk," DiMillo recalls, "but when we saw all these brilliantly colored silks with faint Asian motifs, we fell in love." They chose a red fabric with a leaf pattern in gold to line the walls of a private dining room and a gold-and-green-striped silk to cover the banquettes in the bar.

The TenPenh team ordered their flatware--a modern pattern in hammered-bronze, with knives shaped like traditional Thai swords--at Thai Home Industries, a home-furnishings store behind the Oriental Hotel, where they stayed. Though they had thought that little, out-of-the-way places would have the most unusual designs, they found that major outlets, such as Thai Home Industries, had not only the broadest selection but also the best quality.

At Fook Hin, a smaller store nearby with a more rarefied selection, they found mother-of-pearl hors d'oeuvre spoons for about a dollar each--far less than the $18 DiMillo had been quoted at stores stateside. And though they didn't want to buy anything as obviously Asian as a statue of Buddha, a 19th-century example at the Lek Gallery had such a subtly worn gold patina that they couldn't resist. At another antiques shop, Princess Collection, they found an unusual 17th-century Burmese wooden statue of two men posed to carry a metal gong (it will be installed in an alcove, as will the Buddha, out of the reach of children).

In Hong Kong, they went to Wah Tung China because the Ritz-Carlton concierge told them the hotel has a lot of its china custom-made there. The owners of TenPenh decided to do the same. "We couldn't believe you could basically just create your own pattern," DiMillo says. "I'd never seen so many options." After spending hours matching shapes with glazes, they settled on the china, including celadon rice bowls, crimson bowls for noodle soups (with holes to hold chopsticks) and matte black mugs.

Their trip to Macao led them to an unusual purchase. "We went to this temple, and hanging from the ceiling were all these incense coils," says Gagliano. When they got to Ho Chi Minh City, they bought several dozen coils at Nguyèn Frères, a flea market like store filled with both antiques and reproductions, to decorate TenPenh's ceiling. Nguyèn Frères was also their source for carved teak floor lamps with pumpkin silk shades, suede lounge chairs and bamboo place mats, all of which were customized for the restaurant.

The Old Saigon district of Ho Chi Minh City may look historic, but that's where the TenPenh team got a taste of modern Asia. Inspired by a teak dining chair at the ritzy Shanghai Tang boutique in Hong Kong, DiMillo and Gagliano went to Creative Design Curtain Design, a furniture shop seemingly unchanged since the 1930s, and asked if the chair could be retooled with a taller, more arched back and a mix of light and dark woods. "A young guy turns around and opens up an old armoire in the corner and there's his computer," Gagliano reports. "He takes our drawing, manipulates it here and there, and in a couple of seconds he's got the exact chair we want."

The culmination of all this work will be on display this month when TenPenh opens and begins serving dishes, such as Saigon crêpes and squid salad, inspired by this journey. And not a moment too soon. "My garage has been filled with 10,000 chopsticks," Tunks says. "I'll be glad to get the space back."

David Colman writes often about design, fashion and art for Harper's Bazaar.

Published July 2000
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