The barely cooked cockles sold on many Penang street corners are not for the faint-hearted, neither is the congealed pig’s blood, an essential ingredient in Curry Mee, not to mention the pungent (some say fragrant) aroma of Assam Laksa – the legendary street food of this small but mighty island lauded by CNN and Forbes. It’s not unusual to subsist almost entirely on the wide variety of high quality street food available when one visits the island. So what happens if one desires a respite from sitting precariously on a plastic stool while sweating it out by the roadside?
Upmarket dining in Penang has long been dominated by food with occidental inflections rather than those of the Orient (the exception being Chinese banquet-style restaurants, which are a different animal altogether). However, a new breed of local restaurateurs and chefs are making sure that diners in Penang need not choose between ambience and Asian flavours.
One of the loveliest hotels on the island is undoubtedly Seven Terraces. The brainchild of Chris Ong, his flawless taste coupled with local nous have given birth to a string of successful heritage hotels and Seven Terraces, with its gilded screens, rococo chandeliers and exquisite antiques, is the perfect setting for Kebaya, Ong’s gastronomic ode to his Peranakan heritage.
Opened in November 2012, the restaurant serves Peranakan food prepared with contemporary techniques in opulent surroundings reminiscent of 1920s Nyonya glamour. Here one can partake of local flavours in the form of classic French desserts like Pandan creme brûlée, Gula Melaka mousse, passionfruit and pineapple panna cotta and durian soufflé. By doing this, Ong has succeeded in elevating cuisine from the home kitchen to a fine dining experience. “The intangible heritage of George Town is in my DNA. This is a source of inspiration constantly as its seasonality is constant. So we can plan ahead; for example, Chinese New Year, Chap Goh Meh, winter solstice, all have their special occasion food and it’s a question of how far we want to take this,” enthuses Ong.
As for his clientele: “I think it’s very cynical to conceptualise your food to the audience’s taste. I am happy there is an eclectic mix of guests each night from old Penang Nyonya families to MNCs to travellers. The wide appeal is through the hard effort to explain the concept of Peranakan food as widely as possible.”
Set in the stunningly restored Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion which recently made a cameo in Crazy Rich Asians, Indigo was conceptualised by heritage architect (who led the restoration of the mansion) Laurence Loh and Beh Weng Chia (Executive Chef). Like the architecture of the mansion which is a fusion of Eastern opulence and European flourishes, the menu offers a marriage of East and West, with classical techniques and modern interpretations, inspired by the history of The Blue Mansion itself.
“We wanted to allow a different facet to the Cheong Fatt Tze and George Town heritage experience. My cuisine is a mix, at the base are classical French techniques with an overlay of Japanese and Australian influences. We tend to bring in prime meats and cold water seafood but look to local ingredients and influences for vegetables and spices,” explains Beh.
This approach has garnered Indigo a loyal fan base since opening in mid-2016, no small feat as Penang customers, known for their discerning taste, are notorious for being hard to win over and loath to part with their cash. “With the Penang customer, it’s important to offer them value for money in premium ingredients that are different to what they can get from our casual hawkers and restaurants. With visitors, we need to show them heritage influences and recipes – so it’s a fine balance that we are constantly tweaking!”
Chin Chin GastroPub
While Chin Chin GastroPub has no pretensions about being a fine dining establishment, the refined cooking techniques and top quality ingredients place it in a league of its own in the Penang dining scene. Opened in the upmarket suburb of Pulau Tikus in September 2016, Chef Jack Yeap worked with Chef Beh of Indigo and founded this gastropub with the purpose of cooking simple, good food with an emphasis on fresh produce.
While the food in Chin Chin is inspired by Japanese Izakaya fare, it also reflects the two Penangite’s beloved hometown in terms of the locally sourced produce. “We source a lot of seafood from our dedicated fishermen who bring us [a] fresh catch daily from just off the coast of Penang. Good produce inspires us. With food being such a big part of us, we are inspired every day from everything around us in Penang,” says Beh.
Though an evening at Chin Chin will set you back a lot more than an average plate of the most ‘luxurious’ char koay teow, the gastropub seems to have won over the hard-to-please locals as it is notoriously difficult to get a reservation here.
Opened in January this year, the newest and most intriguing player to celebrate local produce on the Penang scene is Gēn 根 (roots in English). Helmed by Javi Tan and Johnson Wong, the childhood friends hail from Johor and had stints abroad at renowned restaurants in San Sebastian (Spain) and Copenhagen (Denmark), among others, before they returned to Malaysia.
“We wanted to create a place where Malaysia’s best local produce is fused with passion, culture and our childhood memories, then delivered with the best hospitality for a modern Malaysian dining experience. Gēn 根 is our love for local produce in the form of progressive Malaysian cuisine,” explains Wong.
But what exactly is progressive Malaysian cuisine? Described as a deep dive into the nuances of Malaysian flavours and cultures, the chefs take great care to understand the ingredients and the communities that they source them from when conceptualising a dish. These ingredients are then prepared with modern European techniques usually found in haute cuisine. For example, local oysters usually found in the humble Or Chien (oyster omelette) is used in a beautifully executed sauce to accompany fresh local snapper sourced from fishermen from the Balik Pulau fishing village. The dish is infused with aromatic curry leaf and kaffir lime.
Food literally takes centre stage at Gēn 根 as diners eat on a long bar which sits 24 people, facing the open kitchen. Tan and Wong handpicked the chefs from Penang’s finest young culinary talents, although Tan explains that the Gēn 根 kitchen lacks the usual hierarchical structure and each chef prepares a dish from start to finish to give them a sense of ownership. If the sophistication and contextual nuances of the food at Gēn 根 are anything to go by, it bodes well for the Penang dining scene and Wong believes the best is yet to come: “Penang is a city with so much character; it has all the potential to be known for fine dining in the future. It is just a matter of time.”