At Batik, Good Things Come in Small Packages

Owner Henry Sy has developed a loyal following at Batik.

It is a universal truth that most kids do not like eating their vegetables. In fact, many adults only eat the green stuff for the health benefits veggies provide, such as vitamins, minerals and fiber. Many parents employ various methods to convince or “trick” their children into eating vegetables, but at Batik in Kentlands, these methods constitute a business model.

“My wife made dumplings just to get our three kids to eat some vegetables,” said Henry Sy during a recent interview with The Town Courier. Sy and his wife, Emily, are co-owners of Batik Asian Cuisine and Dumpling Bar at 200 Main Street. The popular eatery, which some — but not Sy himself — may refer to as “Asian Fusion,” opened its doors in June 2009 and has been featured twice in Washingtonian Magazine’s “Beast Cheap Eats.”

Sy said he and his wife knew they wanted to mirror the success of their Union Station restaurant, East Street, but wanted to add a unique twist. “People say, ‘Why dumplings?’ but we didn’t want to be [strictly] Southeast Asian food. My wife really wanted to share [the idea of] dumplings with other people who have kids who won’t eat vegetables,” he said.

Despite the menu, which offers dishes spanning from a wide array of Malaysian countries in Southeast Asia with a touch of Japanese and Chinese influence, the Sys, who are both Filipino, do not consider their restaurant an “Asian Fusion” restaurant.

“Fusion implies a fusion of flavors [into one dish,]” Sy said, “but we simply have many offerings. Although we primarily serve southeast Asian food — just toned down for Americans.”

After a quiet chuckle, Sy added, “Americans like sweets.”

Serious again, Sy emphasized, “The [main] reason our menu is not exactly ‘fusion’ is because most Southeast Asian flavors are in themselves already a fusion with influences from Spain, China, France and India, to name a few.”

Batik is consistently a neighborhood favorite and is greatly embraced by locals, but the Sys originally bought the space simply as an investment. At first, two restaurant tenants tried and failed to make it in the space. Some may have said the Sys’ investment hadn’t paid off, but the situation gave them an idea.

“I thought to myself, who can be a better tenant than myself?” said Sy.

So the couple, already experienced owners with East Street downtown, began plans to open a second restaurant.

“We said we don’t want this to be the same as East Street,” said Sy, even though the two eateries do share some menu items such as the spicy Drunken Noodle entrée. “We thought, lets make it a dumpling place!”

This decision has become the heart of Batik but also the cause for an occasional derisive comment from well-traveled customers. “They say, ‘This is not what it tastes like in the Philippines, etc.’ Or ‘I had this dish in Japan, and this isn’t [authentic].’ But everybody — even different regions of the same country — has their own interpretation of a cuisine,” said Sy. He added that foods of Southeast culture have many similarities because they all come from the Malay people. “The differences came [not only from interpretation], but [from] which culture colonized each of the [Southeast Asian] countries.”

While there is a stunningly diverse menu considering Batik’s small kitchen, it’s the dumplings that are the unquestionable stars of the show. All of the dumplings are homemade, and the restaurant is currently in the process of developing its most asked-for addition: a gluten-free dumpling skin. Sy said many people who cannot tolerate gluten will still eat the filling of the dumplings. Until now, Batik has had to buy its premium dumpling skins but will soon be making its own. When that happens, a gluten-free product will also become available.

Batik got its name from a traditional kind of design that uses tree sap and minerals to dot color and texture onto fabrics. “It is a sort of ancient tie-dye,” said Sy, and the style is famous in Malaysia and even parts of Africa.

The Sys decided to name their restaurant after the design because “making dumplings is just as skilled, personal, detail-oriented, and time consuming as making traditional Batik,” said Sy.

This commitment to the time-honored dedication to detailed food preparation is truly a family affair. Some of the dishes are Henry Sy’s mother-in-law’s recipes, and Emily Sy and her family have been in the restaurant business for more than 25 years. Sy’s in-laws, wife and even oldest son help with every aspect of the day-to-day operation that keeps Batik humming and popular. Much of the serving staff has been with the restaurant for a long time, too, and each one of them began working at Batik after trying the food or even being a regular at the restaurant.

Sy said the Kentlands community has been very supportive of his family’s hard work at Batik. “I’ve made a lot of friends in Kentlands — they really embrace you. The Kentlands population is very good to me,” he said.

As for Batik’s success, Sy gives much of the credit to his wife’s creativity and genius. “My wife, she is the brain of Batik. And I am the face!”