A restaurant at the Providence Place food court is suing another eatery, and the mall, over its exclusivity agreement to serve white rice and other menu items.
BY TOM MOONEY
Journal Staff Writer
PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Take two bowls of "white" rice from competing mall restaurants. Bring into court one restaurant's General Gao's chicken and compare the color with the other eatery's Orange Chicken. Add a smidgeon of alleged photographic mischief and you have a culinary conflict that has people steamed.
And a Superior Court judge feeling a bit addled.
"I feel the late Craig Claiborne [the New York Times food editor] should be sitting here instead of me," deadpanned Judge Stephen J. Fortunato Jr. yesterday as he heard closing arguments in what's being called the "Rice Wars."
Last fall, Cathay Cathay, the Chinese restaurant in the Providence Place food court, filed a lawsuit against two of its mall competitors and the mall itself, arguing its lease entitled it to the exclusive sale of "white rice (boiled and steamed)" and about a dozen other specific menu items.
David Chu, president and general manager of Cathay Cathay, accused both Japan Café and initially Gourmet India (which has been dropped from the suit) of infringing on that exclusive lease arrangement by selling similar food.
Or as Chu's lawyer, John J. DeSimone, passionately declared to the judge yesterday: "Mr. Chu has been violated with the rice!"
"It's white rice" that Japan Café is serving, DeSimone said. "White rice is white rice."
No, it isn't, countered Harris K. Weiner, the lawyer for Japan Café.
Chu's lease gives him the exclusive right to sell white rice that is boiled or steamed -- but not parboiled, said Weiner.
"We're selling parboiled," Weiner said, emphatically pointing toward the judge. "Parboil rice is not a violation."
Parboiled rice is used in all kinds of cuisines, including Mexican he said.
Weiner referred to some of his "expert" witnesses he used over 10 days of testimony, and several learned "treatises" and articles that had been read into the record.
The articles discussed how parboiled rice is milled differently from white rice in that it is initially steamed with the husk on, which changes the "nutritional value, texture, cooking time, color and tastes of the product. . . ."
"From a culinary standpoint," Weiner told the judge, "they are different."
But Fortunato had a question. When they toured the kitchens together, Fortunato said, "I saw white rice" in both kitchens. "Did you see white rice when you looked at them?"
The difference, replied Weiner, is in the rice's texture, taste and smell.
Weiner reminded the judge that he allowed Gourmet India to be dropped as a defendant in the suit because the basmati rice it serves was aromatically different -- not to mention yellow.
While Cathay Cathay might have an exclusive right to serve Chinese menu items, it doesn't "have the exclusive to the type of rice served in a Mexican restaurant or a Japanese restaurant."
Nor when it comes to certain chicken dishes either, said Weiner.
Chu has complained that Japan Café serves a Chinese Orange Chicken dish that is very similar to the glazed pieces of chicken it offers, called General Gao -- one of the exclusive menu items protected under its lease.
"We brought General Gao chicken into the courtroom," Weiner said, "to show it is not orange" as depicted in pictures the plaintiff introduced as evidence. "General Gao chicken has a red hue. Ours had a honey color."
"I would hope," Weiner said, "that the court would give no weight to those photographs."
"Are you suggesting someone manipulated the photographs?" the judge asked.
"I am," said Weiner.
DeSimone called Weiner's accusation and defense, variously nonsense, absurd and astounding.
"Maybe the name is different, but it's the same dish," DeSimone said of many of Japan Café's items.
Chu is suing the current landlord of Providence Place mall as well, Rouse Providence LLC., arguing it should enforce the exclusive lease arrangement it has with them.
DeSimone said Cathay Cathay pays about $275,000 a year in rent -- the highest of any food court vendor -- because of the exclusive arrangement it asked for. Yet the mall is doing nothing in return.
But Stacey Nakasian, a lawyer for Rouse, said: "The mall is not the rice police."
While the lease requires Rouse to tell other vendors not to sell the selected items of Cathay Cathay's menu, she said, it does not give it any enforcement power.
That is "an absurd position," DeSimone said, referring to the mall landlords as a collective "Pontius Pilate" who has wiped his hands of any responsibility "yet they're making mega dollars on this gentleman."
Fortunato said he will rule on Cathay Cathay's request for an injuction against Japan Café on May 4.