Sunday, May 31, 2020

Soleil: Fine dining finds unfamiliar footing with casual cuisine deliveries

Evert Onderbeke has been a chef for a quarter-century, spanning his Belgian homeland to the U.S. to Malaysia, where he's spent most of the past decade. A seasoned professional who's seen good and bad times in fine dining, the head chef of KL's Soleil restaurant is now reinventing his own responsibilities to confront challenges he never imagined.

"I’ve been working in restaurants for so many years. I’m used to that kind of life, and now suddenly, that disappears," he says.

With fine dining banished far from patrons' minds, restaurants that perfected the art of poaching turbot and scallops have increasingly pivoted to the craft of sandwiches and burgers, pastas and pies, as casual cooking for pick-ups and deliveries becomes the comfort food for this era.



Evert has led the kitchen at Soleil for seven years, from its original home in Petaling Jaya's Section 17 neighbourhood to its current sleek space in Damansara City's DC Mall. We've been wowed ever since we encountered the Ghent-born chef in 2009 at High Tide, a now-defunct seafood restaurant that tackled marron to monkfish, Dover sole to Irish Pacific oysters.

But even with Evert's experience, the changes thrust on him have been dizzying. On February 14, he was preparing organic carrot soup with blood orange, duck pate with compressed watermelon, and Loch Duart Scottish salmon with mussel-saffron emulsion for Valentine's Day dinners.

A month later, he spent two days devising an emergency menu for deliveries - formerly anathema to fine-dining establishments - with simple dishes that could survive a trip in a box to customers at home.

Soleil's signatures such as slow-cooked coral trout with leek fondue and lobster emulsion were temporarily sidelined. But its delivery menu had to nonetheless live up to its reputation for respectable produce and techniques, so Evert came up with Black Angus beef burgers and lasagna, sourdough salt beef sandwiches, house-made pappardelle with lamb ragout and more.

Prices were a little lighter on the wallet, starting with Croque Monsieur for RM29 and express set lunches for RM31. The restaurant also ventured beyond its contemporary European perspective, initially swapping out Carabinero prawns and iberico lamb on its regular repertoire to deliver soulful Vietnamese pho.

“We prefer to sell takeaway dishes a bit cheaper than dine-in. There's no service, there's no ambiance - it's very different," Evert explains. "When we send the food in takeaway packaging, we always worry how the dish is going to come out. We don’t know when the customer is going to eat it. How long will it be in the box? In the restaurant, we see the reaction of the guests immediately, but with takeaway, we're not so sure.

"Desserts are also difficult. A slice of cake is no problem, but the desserts we usually serve in the restaurant are not for delivery. For instance, we have this pandan crepe with coconut sorbet - it’s all about the combination, but we cannot send a scoop of sorbet packed together with the crepe.”


The transition has triggered not only frustration but fear, as fine-dining restaurants struggle with excruciatingly empty tables.

 “I’m very worried for the business and the people who work for us," Evert says. "Even till today, the future is really uncertain."

Soleil reopened for dine-in May 4 with safety protocols. Some furniture has been removed to keep tables well-separated, halving capacity to 30 customers. But the mall now sees significantly less foot traffic - in its first fortnight of dine-in resumptions, the restaurant only welcomed about two tables of patrons per night.

"Even if we can fill up the restaurant, capacity has dropped to 50%. Of course, that’s not enough - you always build a restaurant for full capacity," Evert says. "For the moment, we can't even fill 50%, so we have no choice but to continue deliveries.

"Our daily routine has changed a lot. We're used to a busy restaurant, and now, it’s very quiet and we have to wait for takeaway orders.To keep the staff motivated is not easy, so we've turned to new things - like selling cheesecakes and cookies - to keep ourselves busy."

Evert says Soleil's fans seek diversity in their meals. The restaurant offers premium raw beef, lamb, tuna, wines and beers for delivery. For Easter in April, it promoted a family-sharing feast of duck rillettes, wagyu beef rump, Norwegian salmon, French mackerel and Kahlua tiramisu, continuing to highlight as many specials as possible.

Even as Soleil adapts to the times, it has to contemplate hurdles beyond its control. It relies on many foreign ingredients, particularly seafood, in short supply as distributors slash their imports.

"Suppliers have become very careful. They have not brought in as much as before, because many restaurants have not been doing well and may not be able to pay on time, even with 30 days of credit. But it should be better by the beginning of June as more restaurants reopen."


There's no single solution that would succeed for all of Soleil's peers, Evert says.

"Some fine-dining restaurants will stick to what they’re doing. They prefer not to do more casual food, because that’s not their identity," he says. "There are others like us that try to sell more comfort food. At the end of the day, we need to think about our cash flow. We need money to pay the bills. Sometimes we have to do what we don’t want to, in order to survive."

Fine dining has always been effortful in Malaysia. Evert is open to further revamping his dine-in and delivery menus, but it's impossible to please everyone. "For our type of restaurant, people like to see new dishes, which we try to do every few months. We cannot keep offering the same menu, because people will get bored. But if you change too much, people will ask where their favourite dishes are."

He knows he'll persevere, with the hope that the heydays will eventually return.

“That routine of running a restaurant - the preparation in the morning, the service for lunch, then the preparation for dinner, and the rush for service in the evening -  that gives me the most satisfaction."


Scenes from Soleil in February. Other images courtesy of Soleil.


Reporting by EDKL writer Aiman Azri. Interview excerpts were edited for brevity.

Soleil is one of nearly 250 restaurants and retailers on our online store for vouchers and subscriptions. Shop at eatdrinkkl.com/store

This is the 13th part in our series on how people in Malaysian restaurants, cafes and bars are confronting their current challenges.
Chiu's: A Restaurant Founder's Pandemic Work Diary
Barista blues: A Malaysian cafe's precarious future weighs on its workers

Friday, May 29, 2020

FLOUR unveils new home, unleashes fresh formulas for Indian food

When the founders of FLOUR hunted for a new home to write their restaurant's next chapter, they found an abandoned colonial-era bungalow in Imbi, believed to have been built shortly before World War II.

Indian chef Yogesh Upadhyay and his Malaysian wife Natasha Ng glimpsed potential in that double-storey, dilapidated venue nearly a year ago and began renovations to open in early 2020. By destiny or coincidence, the house seemed roughly as old as Yogesh's first culinary inspiration, his eight-decade-old father.


While FLOUR's move from its three-year-old address in Bukit Damansara had long been slated for February, the past three months have pummelled everyone's plans. But now that eateries can welcome patrons back, FLOUR is ready for its rebirth, a restaurant to remember for a return to eating out.

FLOUR's new setting is remarkable, well worth the wait. Guided by Natasha, the transformation is dramatic and delightful (search for this location on Google Street View and you'll currently still see a crumbling site with a forlorn, for-rent banner).

A winged unicorn, gold-hued and life-sized, greets guests inside the entrance, a symbol of good fortune. The main dining hall beckons visibly ahead, complete with a trickling fountain and a full view of a 13-man kitchen, led by Yogesh - better known as Yogi - and his senior lieutenants from India.


Turn right and you'll sight a sleek, suave space, where velvet walls and tall mirrors exude pure plushness. On your left is probably the most popular section, a cross between a glasshouse and an old-fashioned English tea house, with the calm, verdant outdoors on display.


The locale holds other secrets, including two private rooms flanking the entrance, one lit radiant white, the other masculine in stately black like a Sicilian Godfather's personal chamber. And above everything, the spiral staircase leads up to a lovely loft whose crystal-clear ceiling shows off the city's shimmering skyline.


FLOUR hasn't just changed its postcode. Its revamped repertoire might be unrecognisable to many of us who first visited the original FLOUR in February 2017, jettisoning the stale, familiar cliches of Indian cuisine and jolting us with a revitalised, 21st-century perspective of what Mumbai, Meerut and Mangalore can offer.

The glossy book that is FLOUR's menu is a collection of curiosities, titled FLOUR Rises, with French overtones in categories like entrees and entremets. Fingerroots with carrots and beetroot? Mushrooms stuffed with olives and water chestnuts? Venison with chillies, ghee and ground coriander seeds? German-bred smoked duck with black lentils? Free-range chicken marinated with raw mango, or steeped simultaneously in saffron and papaya?


"It's modern. It's a totally new set of flavours. It’s food that moves forward from butter chicken, from rogan josh, from aloo gobi, from karahi chicken, from malai kofta," chef Yogi stops by to tell us.


We start with golden, gluten-free patties, their deep-fried crunch concealing a divinely sticky mash of sago, potatoes and spices (RM15 for four pieces of this vada, a light, appetite-whetting snack that Natasha calls her all-time favourite), and tandoor-cooked snake gourd stuffed with crushed peanuts and crisp vegetables like cauliflower (RM30 for five pieces). Bread baskets sit on the side, awaiting sauces - puffy-fluffy puri, unleavened with roasted semolina, alongside sorghum slices with a dense, firmly rustic bite, created with no eggs, baking powder or binding agents.

What makes this iteration of FLOUR potentially contentious is Yogi's refusal to play by safe rules. "Why would you come to FLOUR? Because you want to have butter chicken? No!" he insists. "You want sauces that you’ve never had in Indian cuisine, but it's still Indian food with its soul intact. You want to come with the mindset that you’re going on an adventure."

Out with murg makhani (the chief ambassador for Indian fare since 1948), in with FLOUR's roasted chicken leg heaped on a richly textured, savoury pumpkin sauce, lip-smacking to the bone (RM25). "I was tired of butter chicken," Yogi explains. "It’s impossible that there can't be another sauce made from a vegetable or a fruit to pair with chicken."


That concept is the through line for FLOUR's plates of produce, each ensconced on carefully conceived sauces that rely on herbs, vegetables or fruits not commonly chosen as sauces in Indian gastronomy, yielding sumptuously decadent bases in different shades of green. Nothing here is painfully fiery, so you can truly taste the nuances in each mouthful.


Yogi gets everyone to order the lamb chops, which take half an hour to cook, the crowning glory over a luxurious mint sauce unlike any other, as creamy as romesco (RM65 for four pieces). Even though FLOUR can't presently procure its coveted baby lamb from Spain, this is still carnivorously tender and convincingly tasty - elevated by the marriage of meat with sauce. The lamb is slightly more than medium-cooked, sacrificing sheer succulence to synergise with the sauce instead of tasting like two separate components.


Thought is also poured into the wine selection, compact but versatile enough to accompany dinner here, with palate-cleansing qualities for uplifting interludes in between the food.




Ingredients like foie gras and escargots might seem to lend a French air to FLOUR's artistry, but Yogi insists that snails are part of India's classic diet, tossed simply with heavy spices. At FLOUR, the earthy nuttiness of the escargots (RM42) is matched with a coriander sauce that's both salty and spicy - a sauce of which Yogi is proud to talk about with his Mumbai-based father, a former restaurateur who was supposed to visit Malaysia for FLOUR's relaunch.

"I told Papa, I’m making a sauce from coriander leaves," Yogi enthuses. "He said, how you do make a sauce from that? Then he imagined the taste, and said it would be good. That made me happy, coming from my dad, the biggest critic in the world."


That coriander sauce in a milder variation is also the foundation for what looks like palak paneer. But no spinach complements this fresh cottage cheese, purely coriander, brightened with orange rind and juice (RM26), Yogi says.


"When you want to bring a change to cuisine, your heart skips many beats. I have to ensure every dish that comes out is right, because it’s such a change from what people know. My heart is running and pumping. But my message is, don’t be scared."

FLOUR's overhaul of Indian cuisine is so quietly revolutionary, its definitions and distinctions can be lost on most of us for whom Indian food is like a third or fourth language, those of us who understand mentaiko and marinara better than masala. But whether we realise it or not, the lentil-and-fennel-packed bittergourd (RM28) is mutinously unconventional, shunning an onion-based sauce for its tandoor-smoked capsicum sauce, unheard of in 1900s-era India.

Likewise, no onions or ginger and garlic are part of the okra, made sourish with Greek yogurt (RM26), served at room temperature. The sliminess has been removed from these ladies' fingers, meant to be consumed immediately - let it settle after several minutes and the vegetable turns leathery. It's a polarising preparation, but if passion and prowess excite you about restaurants, prepare your taste buds for a thrill ride at the new FLOUR. 


Yogi has obviously lost weight since we last met in December, but in spite of the stress, his fervour never flags. 

It's late, but he tells us to have desserts of two different dairy interpretations - the first is his reconstruction of shahi tukda, a cloying dish he has always hated, fried bread dipped in sugar syrup, slapped onto a plate with condensed milk. Yogi's ghee-fried rendition is buoyed by a topping of reduced milk, the product of hours of stirring, caramelised to a natural, non-fermented sweetness, swirled with strawberry puree. 


Similarly, Yogi's gulab jamun has no added sugar - it's made with real milk reduction, fresh and whole-cream, set into a paste, aerated for sponginess, floral with rose water. Perhaps the most wholesome gulab jamun in the city.


Yogi realises the new FLOUR won't be as crowd-pleasing as before - a meal here is still characteristic of comfort food, but it now demands more from the customer, an open mind and a receptive spirit. He even forecasts that 40 percent of patrons may not favour the evolution. 


"I’m not going anywhere. I’m here to stay. I'm trying hard to take my cuisine forward," he says. "Will Malaysia accept my food?"


FLOUR
12, Jalan Kamuning, Off Jalan Imbi, Kuala Lumpur. Daily, 1130am-230pm, 6pm-10pm. Tel: 012-960-0053

This post first appeared on eatdrinkkl.com

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Baro.cafe: Hidden smiles, hushed conversations hold back cheer in cafes

When Vivien Tan opened her own cafe on March 4, it was a dream come true. She had always enjoyed coffee and worked part-time in cafes on weekends for the past three years. In February, she finally left her job of seven years in information technology to launch Baro.cafe in Sri Petaling.

The two-level space is a labour of love, with comforting pastel hues for a relaxing state of mind. Upstairs, a mini playground seeks to ensure that the vibe is family-friendly. 

But today, her dream looks very different, with an often-empty space that's struggling in its infancy, illustrating the plight of cafes that want to be warm and welcoming but have turned into destinations that many patrons remain reluctant to visit.

Baro.cafe shares its space with a separate businesss, Baroness, which specialises in bubble tea. Baro doesn't have its own signboard yet, since work on that ceased when the Movement Control Order kicked in. Most people only know Baroness and think this is purely a bubble tea joint.

Upstairs, the play space with its bean bags lies vacant. A pool table and two arcade-style machines also go unused. For more than two months, the joy has been sapped from what was meant to be a place of cheer and celebration.

Baro.cafe reopened for dine-in on May 20, with full safety guidelines that limit its capacity to 12 customers. That means a space that should have been bustling with chatter is now mostly quiet.

Vivien is nonetheless relieved that operations have resumed, after two months of deliveries. "Surely it's better to serve our food and coffee in the cafe," she notes, explaining that customers sometimes encountered issues with inclement weather, late deliveries and difficult communication with delivery riders. She even took it upon herself to deliver some orders personally.

Baro.cafe has steadfastly made the effort to make customers feel appreciated. For deliveries, thank-you notes were often inserted, with reminders to stay safe and stay strong.

Now, as customers visit with their faces shielded by masks, the mood can feel muted. Smiles are concealed and conversations are kept short, undermining Vivien's favourite part of running the cafe - the human interaction with her patrons.

“I like to let customers know that we serve good coffee with different flavours and characteristics," Vivien says. "When they tell me that the coffee is nice, I want to explain it and discuss the coffee."

As a new and relatively unknown cafe, Baro has its work cut out. Vivien, who doubles as barista, spends most of her time in the cafe, keeping the music on to ensure it's not completely silent or sterile, and planning more steps to promote Baro.

The menu continues to expand, with savoury meals like Thai fish rice bowls to sweets like a moist lemon yogurt loaf and double-chocolate muffins. Beverages are also merry, with the frothy-foamy caramel shakerato as a young-at-heart highlight, complementing the more serious single-origin coffee with beans from Ethiopia, Brazil, Colombia and Guatemala.

"We still have a lot to learn," Vivien notes. "We want to be consistent in our quality, so that the people who come will always enjoy their visits here."

Reporting by EDKL writer Aiman Azri. Interview excerpts were edited for brevity. Images are courtesy of Baro.cafe.

Baro.cafe is one of nearly 250 restaurants and retailers on our online store for vouchers and subscriptions. Shop at eatdrinkkl.com/store

This is the 12th part in our series on how Malaysians in restaurants, cafes and bars are confronting their current challenges.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Dim Dou Duck, Desa ParkCity

Duck devotees, waddle or wing your way to Dim Dou Duck, where Cantonese roast duck emerges with extra smokiness from a British-built Bertha charcoal oven, blending Eastern traditions with European technology for duck done distinctively.

Dim Dou Duck's founders include the folks who carve steaks at Medan Damansara's Stoked, slice out pizzas at Bangsar's Proof and fire up sourdough loaves at Bukit Damansara's Smith, so they know how to imbue heavenly heat into food. The kitchen is led by Malaysian chef Lam, whose career in Chinese cooking has brought him beyond borders, even plating up Peking duck in Peru.

Take a table under Dim Dou Duck's centrepiece of gold-hued, giant feathers floating from the ceiling, in an airy, double-height space that's still being fitted with decorative flourishes as well as a mezzanine with private banquet rooms, or sit outdoors amid The Waterfront's gorgeous greenery in Desa ParkCity.

Dim Dou's duck is noteworthy even before it reaches the restaurant, sourced from a Perak farm where ducks are bred till nearly 2.5 kilograms in weight - 10% heavier than typical. Perfect for full-bodied poultry pleasure, with more meat to bite into.

Despite its larger size, any aggressive gaminess in this fowl is tamed subtly and soothingly with angelica roots, complementing the bold-flavoured meat with comfortingly familiar herbal undercurrents.

The crackly-skined duck is air-dried and roasted classically, but a bonus step is taken when you order: It's finished for five minutes in a powerfully versatile cast-iron oven, maintaining moisture and enhancing tastiness. The result is charcoal-warmed meat that's firm but still succulent, with a fresh, lightly fragrant sultriness that cuts to the core, closer to the bone.

For Chinese roast duck fantasies made flesh, this is worth the trek even from the other side of the Klang Valley, balancing primal carnivorous allure with earthily calibrated, naturally nuanced aromatics. RM46 for half a duck suffices for two to three persons; whole-duck portions clock in at RM78, alongside single-serve drumstick (RM26) or wing-breast (RM23) combos.

For a diversity of duck, Dim Dou also offers everything from Peking duck with pancakes and duck bone broth to prince duck. The former was not yet available when we visited, but we were royally pleased nonetheless with the latter, a bronzed beauty that's no ugly duckling. Younger, cleaner-tasting duck with less depth but a little more lusciousness, with lots of thin, crisp skin to savour with each mouthful of richly juicy roast meat (RM48; enough for two persons).

Dim Dou's roasts are so coveted, its siu yuk was sold out by the time we arrived at 2pm. Thankfully, char siu was still in stock (RM28) - robustly, decadently caramelised, currently yielding a solid chew that the kitchen is still fine-tuning to achieve melt-in-the-mouth sumptuousness. Wet your beak with German beer to pair with the Bertha-barbecued pork (wine will come soon).

Be an early bird at Dim Dou Duck: Dim sum is served for lunch in addition to the complete menu, spanning favourites like prawn dumplings (RM10.80) to siu mai, char siu buns, egg yolk custard buns, lotus leaf-wrapped glutinous rice, and century egg pork porridge. If you're too late for dim sum though, the main Dim Dou selection promises fried siu mai with truffle sauce for contemporary, crowd-rousing playfulness (RM20).

Set lunches merit a mention - choices of Shanghai or egg noodles, served soupy or dry, with wontons, sui kow or roasts, at RM18++ with a drink. Rice sets are also offered, with a throwback soundtrack of Leslie Cheung, Danny Chan, Teresa Teng and Beyond in the background.

You don't have to like duck to make Dim Dou a destination: Construct your own modern Chinese meal with Malaysian claypot chicken with yam to Hong Kong-style fried seasonal vegetables, plus clams, beancurd, iced fruits and more for a no-holds-barred feast. Intriguing recipes include plump prawns prepared with Vietnamese-style pesto (looks like a wasabi sauce but hits you with punchy notes of lemongrass, lime, coriander, fish oil and green chillies; RM38), and tenderly leafy Chinese spinach with wolfberries in nourishingly thick pork bone pepper broth (RM25).

Dim Dou Duck
FF-20, First Floor, The Waterfront, Park City, Desa ParkCity, Kuala Lumpur. Daily, 1130am-3pm, 5pm-10pm. Tel: 03-62626024

This post first appeared on eatdrinkkl.com