Time-Honored

A classic 1920s immigrant journey from China to Detroit planted the seed for Mon Jin Lau, an urbane family restaurant where a blend of East and West, past and present serves a glimpse of our cross-cultural future
Time-honored
Photo: Joe Vaughn

If, as tradition demands, you honor your parents and ancestors by treasuring what they pass on to you and then bring to the family even greater reputation, Marshall Chin must indeed be a Most Honorable Son.

He is also a very hip dude, the owner of Mon Jin Lau in Troy, one of the most intriguing restaurants in the Detroit area and more recently a hopping midweek meeting spot.

Over the years, Mon Jin Lau has developed a loyal following and stayed on top of its game. It was opened in 1969 by Marshall’s mother, Mon, and maintains much of the tradition with which it was launched.

But under Marshall for 33 years, it also has evolved into the only Chinese restaurant of note to have successfully moved from the traditional Chinese menu into a multi-Asian cross-cultural fusion of foods from the East — China, Vietnam, Korea, Thailand, and Japan — capped by sushi and one of the best wine lists at an ethnic restaurant anywhere in metro Detroit.

“I like to think that we are a melting pot of Asia here,” Marshall says.

Of all the foods that have arrived in Detroit over the years — Italian, German, Polish, Arabic, and Hispanic — none seems to have had more difficulty in transitioning to a modern interpretation than Chinese.

Mon Jin Lau is that rare breed of Chinese restaurant where modern American influences rewrite old recipes, and dishes are served in a setting where décor, food presentation, and pampering service are part of the experience.

Today, Mon Jin Lau is moving slowly toward even more change with the influence of a third generation of Chins, sons Bryan, 31, and Brandon, 26, who have been tapping into their generation of young professionals. Brandon is assisting in the kitchen and helping to oversee the menu as well as doing some of the wine buying. Bryan is the marketing and PR director.

Call it a new Chin Dynasty.

The younger Chins are keeping the kitchen open much later to accommodate the younger crowd and have introduced “Shanghai Wednesdays,” a late-night dining lounge event that has been so popular that it sometimes gets more traffic than do weekend nights, the Chins say.

“Wednesday has become the new Saturday here,” says May Sue Chin, their mother and Marshall’s wife of 32 years. “We had out best year ever last year, and that was in a bad economy,” Marshall adds.

The menu at Mon Jin Lau is huge. It still leans heavily on old Chinese standards: Hunan spicy chicken, Szechwan pork, sweet and sour shrimp, and others. But it also delves into pad Thai, spicy udon noodles, and a variety of vegetable dishes with Asian influences.

What really sets Mon Jin Lau apart is the freshness and vibrancy of individual dishes, some of which are tweaked with spices or herbs, such as basil, or a sauce from another culture, influences that often come from the chefs of different nationalities there. In addition to Chinese, there are Vietnamese, Thai, and Korean chefs in the kitchen.

Standouts include a unique sauteéd soft-shell crab with peppers, garlic, and cilantro; Chinese ravioli, sauteéd in peppers, tomatoes, and Chinese pesto; and ginger-garlic eggplant, thin-sliced and rolled with wood ear mushrooms, pesto, pine nuts, red pepper, and Vietnamese rice noodles.

A separate sushi menu includes many commonly found rolls and individual fish pieces, but also such new stylings as yellowtail carpaccio with jalapeño, cilantro, and yuzu vinaigrette, or a tuna carpaccio with green apple and goat cheese.

“Sushi today is just exploding,” Marshall says, adding that Mon Jin Lau is providing the new Plum Market group with people to make fresh sushi daily. They have also started providing sushi to the box suites at Joe Louis Arena.

In a business where most restaurants are a revolving door of cooks and waiters, Mon Jin Lau has always had a steady staff. Marshall says that most of the cooks and waiters have been with the restaurant for more than 10 years.

“I think that one reason is that the family-owned restaurants are disappearing in Detroit,” May Sue says. “There are so many corporate-owned restaurants. There are not many of us around anymore.” Like his restaurant, everything about Marshall is a seamless blend from the new and the old, the traditional Chinese and the modernity of America, right down to his lanky 6-foot-1 frame that defies the height of most Chinese. Looking a good decade younger than his 57 years, Marshall is trim and fit. He sports black shirts, black pants, and black jackets, designer glasses, and a head of hair that’s purposely “carelessly” mussed.

Marshall and May Sue are polished, urban, and sophisticated. They speak Chinese reasonably well, yet they were brought up in Detroit, where they met as students at Wayne State. They are constantly curious, vastly well-traveled in Europe and Asia, into which they slide with comfort, and from which they constantly borrow ideas and imagery and figure out how to blend them into their restaurant and their lives. In certain ways, they represent Americans of the future.

“Marshall got very inspired by travel,” May Sue says. “We’d go to Toronto to great restaurants. And not just Asian. It was Italian, French, and others. A lot of inspiration came from them, and we saw the way they added all those other aspects — the ambience, décor, the plating of the food, and then the wine — all those things that old Chinese restaurants just don’t see.”

“See those pillars?” Marshall says, pointing to faux-stone columns along the main dining-room wall topped by a lighted glass globe. “I saw that in the Egyptian Hall of Harrods [London’s swanky old department store] and had them copied here.”

The Art Deco chandeliers in the main dining room were inspired by ones in Paris at the Left Bank Belle Epoque seafood brasserie called La Coupole, where writers of the 1920s — Jean-Paul Sartre, Getrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway — hung out. The molding around the ceiling of Mon Jin Lau was copied from a long-gone New York restaurant.

The journey of today’s Mon Jin Lau really began in the 1920s in Canton, China, when Jin Chin, who later changed his name to Joe, sailed to the United States. He came through Ellis Island in New York, and eventually to Detroit, where he had a Chinese laundry before going into the grocery business. There, the roots of the Chin family food business were planted.
For nearly eight decades, the Chin family has been one of the most prominent in Chinese food in the Detroit area. First, as owners of Wah Lee, one of the biggest Chinese-goods stores and importer and exporter-distributor in the original Chinatown area, near the spot where the MGM Grand Detroit now sits near Bagley, Third, and Porter.

The store supplied vegetables, goods, and spices to Chinese restaurants throughout the area. Joe Chin’s success allowed him to back several restaurant ventures for his extended family, most of whom were Chinese, and other Asian-themed places that operated with the names Chin and Chung as part of their titles: Chin Tiki in Livonia, run by Marshall’s late half-brother Marvin Chin, being one of the better known, is still operating under his family. Among those Joe Chin financed was the film actor Benson Fong, who married his daughter, Gloria Chin, and started Ah-Fong restaurants on the West Coast.

Joe would marry three times. His first two wives died. Then, in an arranged marriage, Joe, by then 60 years old, went home to China and brought back his third bride, 18-year-old Mon. Marshall was the oldest son of their four children.

In 1969, the corner of Stephenson Highway and Maple in Troy was out in the middle of nowhere. Mon Chin was an enterprising young woman, and she saw a future in the building that sat at that location, a lounge and restaurant named Chateau Gay. Its circular roofline of beams that all came to one point at the center, like a parasol, reminded her of the pagodas in China. The walls in the dining room had been built short and at right angles to one other, making little alcoves. They looked vaguely like a Chinese fan. She liked that too, so she bought the place.

But Mon also wanted something very different from all the other Chinese restaurants, those mom-and-pop places with tinny music and flyspecked Chinese calendars. Mon’s place would be grand and comfortable, decorated with sweeping, big allegoric murals and poetry, just like the fine European restaurants.

When it came to naming the new restaurant, Mon assembled her name with that of her husband, Jin, and added the Chinese word for house or place: Lau.

For the interior, she commissioned a commercial muralist named Blaine Perrigo, who studied the art and books of China and painted a series of allegorical tableaux, as well as a panel done with luminous portraits that now hangs in the bar.

“In Chinese, I am what is called a jook sing, or an ABC, American-born Chinese,” Marshall explains. “And, it is very unusual for a jook sing of my generation to have gone into his parents’ Chinese restaurant business. My peers all were doctors, lawyers, and engineers.”
When Marshall graduated from college, his aging father was already 83. His mother was still in her 30s. “I remember thinking that I didn’t want to marry someone who was going to be in the Chinese restaurant business,” May Sue says. “But I think he felt an obligation to go into the restaurant because his father was old. As No. 1 son, he felt, ‘I can’t leave my parents in this.’ But it was then that he really found his calling.”

In the 33 years that Marshall has run Mon Jin Lau, he has opened it up to the outside by adding French doors and windows throughout, adding a bright, peaceful, and fresh effect.
“We saw these wonderful windows in the Giorgio Armani store in London, and I said, ‘We’ve got to have those,’ ” Marshall says. He has planted locust trees, stands of bamboo, and trained ivy up the walls. In 2006, Bryan and Brandon pushed him to build an outside patio, which was an instant success.

On a trip to China two years ago, May Sue and Marshall discovered Shanghai. “It’s such a blend of the old and the new,” Marshall says. They saw extraordinary architecture of skyscrapers, glass and marble, designs being imported from the United States and Europe, and a whole crop of young Chinese designing fabric, fashions, and furnishings, and making modern art.

One of the world’s super chefs, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and others were opening clubs and restaurants, creating foods that combined Eastern and Western cultures, and reinterpreted the old cooking, all in a glittering new city of skyscrapers. Shanghai, it seemed, was the new nesting spot of the 60-story crane. “We were just awed,” May Sue says. “I realized that this was the New York of Asia.”

The Milford poet Thomas Lynch writes about the mysterious cycles of connection between life and death in which present and past are really one, interconnected. When Joe Chin left Canton in the 1920s, with just enough for his boat passage to America, he was outward bound to some distant flicker of belief that, in the place he was going, he would see a bright future. Immigrants used to talk of the awe of seeing New York for the first time.
Now, after a journey that largely retraced his father’s footsteps, the son stood looking at Shanghai’s new skyscrapers, architecture, luxury, and restaurants. And Marshall stood in awe of the future, too.

1515 E. Maple Rd., Troy; 248-689-2332. Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-1 a.m., Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Sat. 4 p.m.-2 a.m., Sun., 3 p.m.-11 p.m.

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