High-end flavours of Penang

Updated: 13 Dec 2013

A Penangite’s discerning palate has expanded to luxurious flavours brought in by innovative chefs marrying both foreign and local ingredients. CK Lam and Su Aziz explore them, revelling in their exotic tastes.

Chin’s Stylish Chinese Cuisine
A flamboyant restaurant at the end of Church Street Pier, Chin’s Stylish Chinese Cuisine (pictured) serves cuisine leaning towards the Hunan and Szechuan style. The restaurant is run by Dave Chin, a long time entrepreneur in restaurant business and has earned several prestigious awards in his London restaurant during the 8o’s and 90’s. A graphic designer by profession, Dave decorates his dining area with distinctive sophistication and surrounds the place with floor to ceiling windows to exploit the spectacular harbour view. The result’s akin to the attitude of a grand dame who presides at one end of the pier.

Starters of cold garlic cucumber, Hunan shredded seaweed, seaweed cashew and century egg with grilled red peppers are robust in flavour and skewers of Heavenly Blessed Joss Stick of seashell meat, baby abalone and sea fungus soaked in spicy and chilli oil in a bamboo holder, are presented elegantly.

While most dishes are Szechuan-influenced, such as his flamed cod fish, cumin infused mutton and fresh-water fish steamed with chopped chillies and spicy poached fish, the one closest to his heart was born in his London restaurant many years ago – the crispy aromatic duck has flaked duck meat wrapped together with shredded cucumber and scallion in homemade pancake. Exotic flavours bloom in his lightly spicy, sweet and sour frog-legs accompanied by fragrant rice and served in a stone pot to keep it warm to the last spoonful.

Suffolk House Restaurant
Restaurants put as much thought to the food presentation and dining environment as the taste and quality of the food. One such place is Suffolk House Restaurant housed in a restored Anglo-Indian Georgian Mansion that belonged to Captain Francis Light, the founder of Penang. A sprawling lawn dotted with large, old trees adds serenity to its old world charm.

As of Oct 2013, this restaurant is helmed by a new chef who adds creativity through available ingredients to the dishes. Comforting yet elegant flavours are evident in their new menu of western fare that match the romance of the surroundings and the building's history. This is a wonderful place for first-time visitors or out-of-towners.

A garden of flavours and textures at Suffolk House

The Kebaya Restaurant at Seven Terraces
Stewart Lane has its fair share of cafes but now there’s a greater variety on offer – a restaurant serving Nyonya cuisine with modern twists within the newly refurbished boutique hotel, Seven Terraces, offers Straits Peranakan and Indo-China cuisines. Their degustation menu showcases dishes that may be familiar but with a refined cooking approach and presentation style.

Their hong bak that’s a Nyonya dish of braised pork, for example, is particularly special as it is cooked with lamb shank instead. The complexity of the spice mixture, plus coriander and chilli strips, blends well with gamey lamb and this results in a mix of flavours akin to that of Nyonya hong bak and Indian kurma. Meanwhile, their lor ark is more than the standard braised duck. Here, it morphs into duck confit with caramelized spiced plums and oranges that is tender while exuding hints of star anise, cloves and nutmeg.

For a touch of Indo-China flavour, prawn geng is fresh jumbo white prawns cooked in pungent, smooth curry along with a medley of ingredients such as herbs including turmeric and lemongrass that gives a rich full-bodied taste to it. Beides that, there’s crab geng that’s normally a messy feed, is thoughtfully served with the shells removed, making this dish even more delightful. Also banh xeo, a Vietnamese dish is a small crunchy pancake folded in half and filled with textured combinations of bean sprouts, crispy tofu, dried shrimp, julienned carrots, greens and a tamarind sauce.

Sweet endings come in the form of local-styled crème brulee of pandan egg custard with fragrant pandan juice served with kaya or coconut jam cookies and egg custards topped with crisp-burnt sugar that are deep rich flavour and smooth creaminess. Their unique dessert with a touch of curious blue hue is tang yuen or onde-onde rice balls made of glutinous rice flour and juice from bunga telang blue pea flower. These balls are filled with palm sugar and desiccated coconut and drenched in rich coconut milk.

Kebaya Restaurant

Vino Vino Bistro
This is the place to go for a wonderful yakitori experience. They serve a myriad of this skewered, barbecued delights. The yakitori pieces are delicately grilled after marinating in either delicate soy-based sauce or salt. There are outstanding and extraordinary pieces such as aburi eihire or grilled stingray fins and hamichi teriyaki or grilled yellow tail. Admittedly, not many places would have thought of using whole stingray fins on their yakitori menu and theirs are stunningly flavorful and the perfect accompaniment to a crisp, French chardonnay.

Another unexpected find here is the bonjiri or bishop’s nose. Not always a favorite with many since it’s the wrong end of the chicken but to those who do enjoy it, it’s considered the juiciest part and here it’s carefully grilled to perfection, yielding a flavorful meat. Pop one fully into your mouth for a juicy and tender bite. Besides the yakitori, which is their chef’s specialty, there are tapas dishes such seared foie gras marinated in teriyaki sauce, smoked duck with wasabi cheese, marugo yamakake and hamachi saikyo yaki.

Then on weekends, a daily tapas promotion of air flown fresh oysters and wine certainly brings in the crowd. Besides that, their extensive list of alcoholic beverage spans single malt whisky, champagne, sake, shochu and over 100 wine labels. Premier wines are offered to customers by glass from the Vino Tech dispensing system.

Oysters at Vino Vino Bistro

Feringgi Grill at Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa
This restaurant needs little introduction. Serving fine food for over three decades has made it an institution in Penang. Its Tudor style setting, warm lighting and exposed red brick wall shape the atmosphere that matches its status while long walls of picture windows give a killer view of the manicured gardens. What’s considerate is, tables are set far apart to give diners privacy and there’s a lounge and bar adjacent to the dining hall where guests can chill before or after the meal.

Although their rotating roster of chefs has helped its menu’s evolution, there are favourites that never change such as their creamy and velvety signature tomato soup of tomato puree, butter, mushrooms, shallots, gin and fresh tomatoes and it is prepared at the table then served with parsley and cream. Of course, grilled dishes of beef, chicken and fish as mains are a must and the crepe Feringgi has been their trademark dessert for decades and again, it is prepared at the table, as per their tradition.

Currently, a touch of contemporary and vibrant flavours are added by German chef de cuisine, Matthias Tretbar, whose five-course degustation dinner menu includes an amuse bouche of soft boiled quail egg injected with truffle oil and served nestled on micro green salad with pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. His seafood delight of prawn, scallop, squid and tuna whispers hints of Asian sauces such as teriyaki, chilli and wasabi. While his butternut cappuccino soup carries the delicate spicy notes of curry and topped with vanilla foam.

Matthias serves a refined touch with his poached halibut drizzled with lemon butterscotch, chilli and sweet soy sauce and accompanied by wilted greens, capsicum, mash and mushroom dust for a modern, playful twist. However, his surprising robust flavours appear with the slow cooked shredded oxtail meat that can rival any good red wine with a long finish and velvety tannins.

The restaurant’s wine menu offers an impressive line-up ranging from Chateau Latife Rothschild- Emilion, Bolgheri Sassicaia to Australia’s Penfold’s Grange. For those who wish to pop champagne, the Louis Roederer Crystal is a great choice.

Feringgi Grill

Dining Room at Macalister Mansion
Having helmed the Dining Room’s menu for close to a year now, its chef, Lance U’ren has matched the restaurant’s sophisticated ambience with quiet playfulness. This chic fine dining restaurant with its cool, minimalistic interior offers decadent and luxurious flavours. And their wine list is not bad either.

For instance, Lance’s bergamot smoked salmon releases a slow, seductive after taste on the palate especially when paired with an understated and dry semillon white wine. His soup of moss green, creamy spinach is cleverly coupled with the firm texture of smoked black lip mussels that is well able to unravel somewhat tight flavours of a medium-bodied red wine to reveal ripe berries with just a hint at spiciness.

Beef will never go out of fashion and Lance’s chargrilled wagyu steak is kept juicy at medium doneness and when coupled with polenta and carrot puree, surreptitiously turns creamy on the palate. However, it’s a terrific one to thicken a shiraz and bring it to a sweeter crescendo.

Meanwhile, his desserts are naughty but nice. He twists flavours and coax them to play nice with each other such as a combination of distinct fruity richness of jackfruit jam with slices of brie and sable breton (French buttery shortbread). The result is a long finish, both memorable and unique. Another is pulling together salty and bittersweet with a salty caramel ice cream and bitter chocolate ganache. Now, couple that with a sweet dessert wine from their wine list and an explosion of lychee sweetness will happen at the back of your palate.

One of Lance’s strengths, it’s safe to conclude, lays within the details that help along in terms of texture and punch – strips of cucumber pickle with his salmon, crunchy crumble that coats his cubes of foie gras and rich, syrupy Perigueux sauce that holds its own while accompanying red meat.

Dining Room’s menu is ever evolving, and just like the building it’s in, it gets better with time.

Dining Room

This is one of the features from the latest Time Out Penang annual guide 2013/14. You can purchase the guide here.

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