Saturday, 9 April 2011

A Posh Kopitiam - Really?

I'd like to point out that this was an unsolicited review, and I have not received any form of compensation for it. That disclaimer was part of the original copy, but for some reason it never made it to print.



A posh kopitiam
The usual local fare presented with flair and at a premium price? The Cookbook isn’t as bad as it sounds, really.

first published in The Star on 09 April 2011

An opportunity to touch base with a mutual acquaintance that Alex and I haven’t seen for months became a great excuse for us to dine at an upmarket cafĂ© I’d previously checked out with a colleague for an interior decor magazine.

Though born into a family business that sells mainly high-end furniture and tableware, John Teo had a personal interest in food. He leapt into the food business with My Cookbook, which features five dining areas over three floors, uniquely furnished and fitted with wares from the family business.

At first glance, one would not see much that distinguishes the place from the other kitschy, upmarket kopitiam outlets in the vicinity, other than the pedigree of the furniture, perhaps. Teo deals in names such as Slide and Pedrali from Italy, and XO by Philippe Starck.

Even the food — artfully sculpted and plated interpretations of familiar Malaysian favourites like chicken rice, char koay teow, fried rice, prawn noodles and so on — spell words that the budget-conscious Malaysian diner has come to dread, such as “expensive” and “pretentious”.

Putting such familiar fare on the menu had other problems too.

“People ask me, ‘What do you serve in your restaurant?’,” Teo says. “When they hear ‘chicken rice’, they’re like . . .” He rolls his eyes at the scepticism.

That this dish is on the current edition of his business card doesn’t help. “I do serve chicken rice, but that’s not even half the story. I can keep talking and talking, but there’s no point. My Cookbook has to be experienced.”

So that’s what we do. Alex and I meet up with a friend at John Teo’s place on a Saturday afternoon. Alex is almost enchanted on sighting the place. A clock with utensils for hands; an art installation made of more kitchen utensils, presumably the ones Teo sells; and chairs of transparent polycarbonate material with bright fuchsia cushions. And of course, the menu.

The layout is what one would find in swanky culinary cookbooks such as, say, Tetsuya Wakuda’s Tetsuya, or Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook. The tantalising close-ups of food on dark backgrounds whet appetites, though drinks are not similarly profiled.

Despite the posh food styling, most of the items are familiar. My Cookbook’s “signature” chicken rice (RM15.90) is a log of rice cooked in chicken stock and fat, underlined by a row of boneless chicken slices and cucumber slices. The chicken is made from a single roasted, deboned, tightly rolled-up thigh that’s sliced into thick, mouth-watering medallions.

Several things set this chicken rice apart from the others. First, the skin on the chicken is crispy. Second, they only use the thighs or drumsticks.

“Ask the usual hawkers for a deboned drumstick and they’ll probably stare holes into your skull,” goes John. Third, the block of chicken puree in the bowl of accompanying soup is made of double-boiled chicken stock.

I rarely get to serenade Alex with descriptions of good food; it’s often the other way around, given how frequently she finds the good stuff. Curious about the chicken rice, she decides to order one. We continue poring over the menus when Irene walks in. She finds the dining concept interesting as well.

We settle for a numerically mismatched set of orders. Appetisers are a poached egg on a toast lined with shaved dried scallop (RM8.90), and prawn bisque with prawn dumplings (also RM8.90). Joining Alex’s chicken rice on the table are a char siew salmon with cheese balls (RM26.90) on a plate lined with what looks like cooked egg white, and my curry chicken with barley/pandan rice and a fried prawn dumpling (RM15.90). Dessert is a scoop of homemade durian ice-cream topped with red beans, sitting in a bowl of pumpkin broth (RM9.90).

The 45-minute poached egg on toast is an upmarket version of an Ipoh kopitiam favourite, said to be cooked down to the molecular level. When broken, the yolk does not run. The dried scallop shavings give the toast more flavour. A great way to start a meal.

Each spoonful of rich, thick prawn bisque delivers a deluge of flavour and fragrance. Irene mistakes the intense red of the prawn for the colour of spicy chilli. The dumplings in the bisque are stuffed with a firm chunk of juicy, larger-than-usual prawn. And fresh, too. Not a hint of the smell that says this crustacean is halfway towards the belacan heap.

Everyone knows that potatoes and curry go well with each other, so it’s no surprise to find the curry chicken drumstick resting on a small bed of mash. The curry chicken is well cooked. The addition of cooked barley to the pandan-tinged rice gives it a chewier texture and an appealing colour contrast.

The chicken rice?

Now, rice that’s rolled into a log-like shape is unlikely to be light and fluffy. But flavoured with chicken fat and minus the oily feel, the rice is good enough to eat on its own. The skin of the chicken is crispy and lends a firm texture to the moist, juicy meat.

The double-boiled chicken stock is pungent and redolent with essence of chook, but the meat-puree block isn’t Alex’s “kind of thing”. Once in the mouth, it breaks up into what tastes and feels like masticated chicken breast.

The durian ice-cream would have tasted even better without the chunks of ice in it, but that is a minor complaint. The flavour is fine, delicate and not overpowering. It goes quite well with the bright amber pumpkin broth, creating a durian-based dessert that wouldn’t instil fears of body heat afterwards. Irene orders a second bowl.

The total price for a My Cookbook experience can be high (main dishes are priced between RM15.90 and RM26.90) and the distance to travel long, but the experience might well be worth it. If the boss and founder of the place can’t talk you here, this review is unlikely to, either.



My Cookbook
A-12, Sunway Giza,
2, Jalan PJU 5/14,
Kota Damansara,
Petaling Jaya
Tel: (03) 6140 6113

Pork-free

CLOSED FOR GOOD

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