Eat Drink KL: FLOUR: Mother Earth, a father's inspiration, a French-Indian vegetarian epic

Saturday, September 4, 2021

FLOUR: Mother Earth, a father's inspiration, a French-Indian vegetarian epic

When guests return to FLOUR next week, on 8 September, many of them might not realise how perilously close the restaurant came to never reopening. 

Two months ago, chef-founder Yogesh 'Yogi' Upadhyay could barely stand, battling dual health crises, having contracted Covid-19 and dengue consecutively.

But like his restaurant, which has plied peaks and valleys for nearly five years, chef Yogi rises anew, resilient enough to make a phoenix envious. 

When we last met Yogi in March, none of us could have foreseen the tribulations of recent months. At its lowest ebb in July, FLOUR was scarcely earning a hundred ringgit on deliveries daily, far from sufficient to sustain its crew.

That makes FLOUR's latest gambit even more head-spinning. 

Instead of retreating to a safe harbour by serving certified crowd-pleasers like butter chicken and biryani, FLOUR has sailed right back into risky waters. 

Yogi, its captain, is choosing to sink or swim with Mother Earth, his new vegetarian degustation menu that abides by Ayurvedic precepts, inspired by the two men who left the most indelible impression on his life.

It's a menu that demands an open mind and rewards an open heart - a meal to experience, even if we're meat-eaters who'll never turn vegetarian, Malaysians who constantly misunderstand India, or spice muddlers who might mistake cumin for coriander.

Like other respectable restaurants in KL, FLOUR has worked to welcome patrons back properly, to put them instantly at ease. Tables are well spread out across a sprawling space; beautiful private rooms are also available.

FLOUR's efforts extend beyond the call of duty - each printed menu is slid into an acrylic sleeve with artistic flourishes that take two days to complete by hand. 

Flipping through the pages, patrons can peruse heartfelt tributes to Yogi's father and his late mentor, both of them vegetarians. His father, now in his 80s, is hale and hearty, a testament to a lifetime of securing all the nutrition he needs from vegetarian produce, without ever eating an egg.

The first thing we taste on the Mother Earth menu is a reassuring throwback to happier times - FLOUR's entrenched signature of a chocolate egg tinged with tamarind, ginger and jaggery, on a nest of fried okra. The okra, pesticide-free, is cultivated at FLOUR.

The other components of this course - the first of 11 - are new: A spiced water sphere, its dark green tang slipping from a golden spoon through our eager lips, and a 'plant in a tart,' potato and mint sprinkled with seeds turned into soil, for a palate-cleansing burst of more spices. 

Together, the trio form The Beginning, somewhat sweet, sometimes savoury, creamy and crunchy, bracing us for a voyage of multifaceted textures and fascinating flavours ahead.

Every encounter with FLOUR yields illuminating insights into India. This time, Yogi guides us primarily through the mainland recipes of his South Asian homeland, recast through the prism of Indian and Italian perspectives, by Yogi and his second-in-command, chef Alessandro Piso. 

The Open-Mosa takes us somewhere between the Taj Mahal and Akbar's Tomb, on Agra's streets where aloo samosa is the summertime snack of choice. This is samosa subverted, its pastry reconfigured into a cumin-tinged tuile, its potato stuffing substituted with turmeric-laced celeriac, embedded with coriander seeds, encircled by droplets of peas and pomegranates instead of a chutney. 

The next course, called Crystal, owes its origins to kachumber, the everyday Indian salad of chopped tomatoes and cucumbers. Here, the tomato too is transformed, into a translucent gelatin centred with leftover tomato skin and seeds, cushioned by Japanese cucumber, Spanish cherry tomatoes, Indian caramelised onions, pine nuts and basil. It swings our taste buds towards the sparkle of acidity, bolstered by natural, spice-fuelled umami, free of any added salt. 

We're then whisked west to Gujarat for osaman, a traditional lentil broth, reinterpreted as the Lentil River, with a base of Indian green lentils boiled al dente and left to rest, slathered with fresh cream and showered with lentil soup - simple and sultry, potent in protein for pure, healthful nourishment.

"Vegetarianism is not Ayurveda, but balance in food is Ayurveda - not how to consume but why to consume," Yogi philosophises, noting that Ayurveda is Sanskrit for knowledge of life and longevity. "If I'm going to do a vegetarian menu, I'll do it exactly on the principles of the world's oldest eating habit, the Ayurveda," enduring in India for over 5,000 years.

Another cornerstone of FLOUR's Mother Earth menu is sustainability. "If I use a vegetable, every part of the vegetable is used - the leaves, the roots, the stems. No wastage," Yogi says. 

That virtue remains on display throughout the four main courses that follow.

Two asparagus spears pay homage to Yogi's French culinary training, nodding to the classic Gallic preparation of asparagus with hollandaise sauce. This ensemble is a pleasing patchwork of colours - the green of the shoots, the orange of smoked hollandaise, the pristine red of Spanish pimentos, the mellow yellow of turmeric foam.

Also striking is the Scarpeta, Italian for sopping sauce with bread. This harks to India ingeniously, mirroring Maharashtra's pav bhaji, a thick vegetable curry typically rounded out with a soft bread roll. What FLOUR crafts is a mash of American russet potatoes, capsicum and cauliflowers, shaped into a map of Mumbai, scattered with peas and Jerusalem artichoke, drizzled aromatically with aged gorgonzola, complete with a brioche bun, for eating with your fingers. 

It's Complicated is ravioli with shades of momo, layered with baby eggplant that's roasted just right to emit sweetness instead of astringency. Its other star ingredient is less physically apparent - ajwain, or carom seeds; applied poorly, it could destroy a dish with bitterness, but done right, Yogi says it furnishes "the umami of your life." According to Ayurveda, it's also a powerful cleanser that aids digestion.

Finally, we wade into the Swamp - treading the path of sustainability, Yogi gives us an earful, an ear of corn in full, from kernel to husk and silk, but in an unexpected texture and temperature. The kitchen has roasted Japanese corn, poached and pureed it, put it in a mould and frozen it. The result is corn that needs no chewing, like baby food, stuffed with spiced jelly. Its coolness contrasts with a warm pudding of amaranth leaves, florally adorned to represent the ravishing lotus flowers that populate a swamp. The synergy is sweet earthiness with a marvellous mouthfeel.
The Mother Earth 11-course dinner is priced at RM395+ per person. Wine pairings (RM275+ per person) feature four glasses for the vegetarian menu - always encouraged since Yogi is a wine lover who's most comfortable at the end of an evening's service with a glass in hand. 

Yogi has worked with one of Malaysia's top sommeliers, Yuhei Teraoka, to curate scintillating choices that that prompt almost as much conversation as the food, including a vintage from Yogi's favourite domaine, Joseph Roty, nurturer of among the largest concentrations of old vines in Burgundy.

Yogi shuns the sea urchin, wagyu beef and truffles that too often epitomise the superficial extravagance of the city's tasting menus. But he's partial to caviar, with Earth & Sea as an optional add-on that's consistently on his menus. For this round, it's something extraordinarily special - 12 grams of arguably the finest Silver Baeri caviar, harvested from rare 24-year-old sturgeons (RM250). The 3.2-mm roe offers greater depth of flavour while maintaining a delicate texture, bringing us a bit closer to the Caspian Sea. 'Go slow, don't rush," Yogi reminds us before we take up our mother-of-pearl spoons to plough through the beetroot thoran below the roe.

If you're heading here with a companion who must have meat, FLOUR offers an eight-course non-vegetarian degustation (RM520+) that comprises old and new hits, from Spanish suckling lamb shank with biryani and pomegranate curd to plump, succulent Canadian blue lobster tail with fresh coconut sauce, curry leaves tempered with black mustard seeds, glazed peas, artichoke and wine-cured cauliflower.

Desserts and digestifs close out the journey. 

Muskmelon, playfully presented on a 'pillow,' is melon, melon, melon all the way - French muskmelon with a relatively robust melon flavour, sweet on its own with no sugar, refashioned into forms like foam, jelly and cream to complement fresh melon.

The carrot mille-feuille is a play on halwa, studded with creamy purees of the root vegetable and cardamom, separated for diners to dissect. The saga concludes with Hennessy-paired chocolate truffles that channel mint and fennel, with FLOUR's famed masala tea (or black coffee) to send us off.

FLOUR's latest direction could be divisive - this is a menu that will thrill some and turn others off (it's temporary; FLOUR will revert to menus with meat later this year). But if you're searching for KL's most thoughtful, mindful degustation dinner, a genuine expression of a chef's being and background, a complex exploration of a foreign but familiar country's cuisine, FLOUR will feed and fulfil you. 

12, Jalan Kamuning, Off Jalan Imbi, Kuala Lumpur.  
Open Wednesday-Monday, 6pm-11pm. Tel: 012-960-0053

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