One of the most memorable meals we’ve had this year is at Dining Room, Macalister Mansion, Penang.
The Chef’s Tasting Menu sees an “eight” course (eight in inverted commas as with canapés, amuse bouche, palate cleanser and petite fours, it’s more like 12 courses) degustation present Malaysian ingredients through innovative cooking techniques, capturing the essence of nature at its finest.
Head Chef Johnson Wong and his team are responsible for this gastronomic journey. Originally from Johor Bahru, Johnson left to pursue culinary studies in Australia, and has since worked in some of the most recognised restaurants around the world. Harnessing his global experiences, Johnson returned to Malaysia seeing the Dining Room as an opportunity to continue to raise the profile of the uniqueness and diversity of local produce.
Before we even approach the first course, canapés, an amuse bouche, and a to-roll-over-and-die-for box of bread rolls rouses our appetite and imagination.
To commence, our palates are cleansed with an orange sorbet with basil. Served atop a round black slate plate, it’s well suited as refreshment from Malaysia’s tropical climate. Mushroom bao resembles a burger, as it’s been sliced into two and stuffed with mushrooms in a barbecue sauce. It has an enticing peppery finish, and suitably precedes a wet tomato balsamic salsa, encased in a crispy pastry. Lastly, a smoked fish cracker – rolled filo pastry with dehydrated fish skin fried and crushed to create a powdery top – completes the quartet.
The most intriguing however, is a new recipe we get to sample that might soon become part of the menu. Laid on the first page of an open book, it’s a deep fried dough stick. It looks like it should be crunchy, but it’s not – it’s wonderfully chewy instead. Dehydrated mushrooms and black truffle form a delicious seasoning, while a simple Parmesan and milk combo provides the perfect dipping. Asian texture, western flavours – it works.
Charred grilled razor clams come in a covered dinosaur shaped dish, which smokes upon opening. A finely chopped cucumber salsa and tangy smoked butter join it. It’s elegant in texture and addictive in flavour.
Chef says the bread is not counted as a course, but if you smell it, taste it and fall in love with it as we do, you will probably compute it as course number 13 too! Tiny warm coffee rolls come in a wooden box, reminiscent of sake boxes you might find in Japan. Break them open, put a dab of butter in the middle and pop the whole thing in your mouth. It’s a carbgasm.
When the mud crab arrives, I find it hard to control myself and let out a little clap and cheer for the presentation! A glass topped treasure box holds open shells bearing shredded crab meat, asparagus, ginger flower and potato. Smooth white ocean rocks, dried red seaweed, grapes of ice and a garden of fresh herbs adorn the surrounds. That addictive tang of the ginger flower causes us to dig in again and again trying to satisfy the lust it stimulates. The taste is pure and habit-forming. With this comes our first wine pairing, Verve Prosecco Brut, Andreola, which mirrors the dish in its clean crisp essence.
62.5 °C Egg
Chef’s insistence on using natural ingredients, and limiting the number in each dish so that the characteristics of every one can be acknowledged is well illustrated in the 62.5 °C Egg. An irregularly shaped pottery dish holds a careful arrangement of charred (with a torch) baby maize, caramelized Cameron sweet corn, the flawlessly cooked egg and a sprinkling of minute corn flowers. Chef explains that he loves eggs. He likes to play with them, and it’s rare that he creates an entire menu without at least one egg recipe. He says the dish is not complicated, “In the end, it’s just egg and corn.” Despite chef’s humbleness, this dish is a showstopper. Elegant in texture and flavour, and adeptly paired with Clos Baudoin 2006 Vouvray from Francois Chidaine, this one could make it to my best dishes list for 2017.
As we’re discovering the intricacies of the next composition, Smoked Duck, chef assures us that, “Actually this combination is very common. I just made it a bit more interesting.” Johnson’s unpresuming manner is humbling. The duck has been air-dried for 12 days and then smoked. A crumble of five-spice brioche and paper-thin umami chips add crunch. Beetroot roasted with berries, honey and shallots contrast with a mildly sweet complement to the smoky and saltiness of the other components. The wine mate, Domaine L’Ostal Cazes Estibals, Minervois 2013, a blend of Syrah, Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre, is equally as filling in the mouth with tannins and a whisper of oakiness balancing the flavours of the duck.
Based with scallop and cauliflower soup, succulent pan-fried scallops are topped with matcha foam. Crunchy buckwheat gifts another dimension and there’s a natural sweetness from the seafood that permeates the cream. The round smooth finish of the Sake Bijofu, Tokubetsu Junmai finishes the experience. With this change from wine to sake, we learn that chef has plans to mix up the beverage pairings even more so in future menus with thoughts to include cocktails, sake and spirits in the line up.
Lemon and nutmeg granita is hugged by a hollowed out lemon skin atop a round black slate in the palate cleanser. Fine shreds of candied nutmeg furnish tasty garnish.
Another beautiful pottery bowl holds a pristine white piece of cod. Bridging sea to the land, are truffle sabayon, mushroom consommé and duxelles. The cod has been cooked at 60 degrees for eight minutes with olive oil and is blissfully moist. Full, rich and juicy, a Bordeaux red blend, Chateau Talbot 2011, complements the earthy tones of this recipe.
The second main course is a gorgeous pink specimen of lean meat. The Australian loin has been char grilled, and comes with chestnut puree on its crown, with potato crackers and a chestnut and mushroom reduction. Charcoal is eager in the palate and chef shares with us that he loves, “charcoal, grill and smoke.” As such he relishes a certain smokiness in the overall flavour profile of a plate. Well structured with tannins and a breath of pepper in the conclusion, the 2011 Rocca di Montemassi ‘Sassabruna’ Monteregio di Massa Marittima DOC from Tuscany, Italy provides the ideal companion to the lamb.
My Childhood Memory
I do adore the concept of “pre dessert” and who would disagree? Surely, the only thing better than one dessert is two desserts! Chef’s inspiration for this one comes from memories of his childhood when his mum gave him guava with sour plum powder. “Obviously I can’t give you a kid’s dessert,” he confesses, “so I paired it with panna cotta.” The rich panna cotta base and white chocolate mousse are lifted with a mildly tart guava sorbet, shavings of fresh guava and sour plum. It’s light and refreshing, and leaves us feeling energised. The fruitiness of the 2013 Trimbach Muscat Reserve from Alsace, France acts as a fine accessory to the tropical fruit on the plate.
The decadent dessert finish is like going on a truffle hunt! A light airy chocolate mousse scattered with berries is fanned with dark chocolate and meringue wafers on top. We dig in to discover what resembles a truffle covered in chocolate powder and a nugget of truffle ice cream. Yum!
A deep-fried donut with a red bean filling (resembling a churro, but not a churro), and a “cow ear” cookie filled with mascarpone and coffee jelly, ensure 100% satisfaction. The final wine, a 2014 Tralcetto Cerasuolo D’Abruzzo DOC Rosé from Italy is thankfully a fresh fruity number, easy drinking, concluding the meal on a lighter note.
The brilliance of the chef only comes to full manifestation at the end of the meal. While each course has been meticulously executed, so too has the overall experience. Too often we’ve come away from degustation menus disliking ourselves for overeating. This is not the case here. The food was fresh, clean and uncomplicated. We actually feel perky as opposed to a state of food coma. Not a single whiff of foie gras or strip of wagyu beef was found on this menu, and I absolutely delighted in chef’s refusal to follow the trend (the trend I’ve found all too common in this region of attempting to make a menu sounds luxurious by the persistent inclusion of the two aforementioned and in my opinion excessively used ingredients). It’s a refreshing change, and one I hope to experience more than once this year of the rooster.
The eight course Chef’s Tasting Menu (what we had above) is priced at RM308, or a four course MM’s Discovery Menu can be had for RM228 – although with all the little extras we figure it as 12 and 8 courses respectively. Add RM160 for wine pairing, or RM80 for semi wine pairing. To maximize the dining experience the set menus are designed to be enjoyed by all guests at the table.
Reasons to visit: elegant dining setting; unique menu for Penang – contemporary cuisine based in European cooking techniques using local ingredients; ideal for date nights and true gourmands.
228 Jalan Macalister
11400 George Town
Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
+6 04 228 3888