Starry, starry bites
When culinary stars fall to Earth, they turn into a neighbourhood restaurant.
AT 2pm on a regular Wednesday afternoon, Hello! is abuzz with activity. The hissing, sizzling sounds emerging from the kitchen form the background chorus to a soundtrack filled with the laughter and chatter of patrons squeezed chock- a- block into the smallish restaurant.
As you walk up to the cashier, you’ll notice a familiar face. Sherson Lian, celebrity chef and star of the Asian Food Channel ( AFC)’ s Reality Bites and Great Dinners Of The World is at the till, patiently listening to a customer who isn’t sure what to order. “Should I have this or that?” she asks, pointing uncertainly at the menu. Lian flashes a benevolent smile and walks her through the menu like an obliging tour guide. The customer places her order and leaves, a lingering smile etched across her face.
Behind Lian, fellow AFC partner in crime Johnny Fua stands imposingly over the staff, issuing instructions and supervising the culinary concoctions emerging from the open kitchen.
It’s strange, watching these television personalities in action. In fact, you don’t really expect them to be there at all. It’s like going to a Jamie Oliver restaurant expecting the man himself to come and take your order. These things don’t happen in real life. Except they do at Hello!, Lian and Fua’s collaborative F& B venture in Petaling Jaya which highlights good food and downplays the celebrity chef element.
In setting up the restaurant, Lian and Fua were determined that it would make it on its own, without the need to capitalise on their fame.
“We didn’t want to put our name to the restaurant. It should stand on its own, otherwise it won’t last. People should like it for what it is,” says Lian.
Because Hello! is in the middle of a quiet residential area, Lian and Fua have kept the prices affordable and the food accessible. Their wallet- friendly approach also extends to the décor, which is minimalistic and bare bones. The furniture is standard issue black chairs and marble- topped tables, the floors are plain cement and the brick walls have been roughly coated with white paint.
“We were thinking of something very homely, with a price point that is very friendly. That’s what we wanted to achieve and everything else was done to make that happen,” says Lian.
The restaurant has struck a chord with residents in the area, becoming an instant hit. In fact, when they first launched, demand was so overwhelming that they had to close four days later because they had run out of everything! Soon after that, Lian and Fua regrouped and realised they had to do away with some of their loftier ambitions ( like making their own pasta) in favour of realistic, practical options.
“We realised we had to draw a line between being too idealistic and serving proper food,” says Lian.
And that “proper food” is a mishmash of culinary leanings, from very Asian ( mango kerabu) to very Western ( chicken liver pâté) which, according to Lian, is part of their master plan.
“People can come back several times a week and have different experiences. They can have a cheap fried rice or something Western. On the weekends, they can have tapas, a main course and wine, and these are all different experiences,” he explains.
The tapas offerings are very extensive and designed to allow people to share their food. The drunken chicken liver pâté ( RM12) features a bowlful of boozy, garlicky pâté paired with crisp homemade bread. It is a simple, elegant meal that is one of Fua’s specialties.
It’s also an interesting choice, a European staple that hasn’t necessarily taken off or even been welcomed very warmly in our neck of the woods.
But according to Lian, Hello!’ s pâté has proven this theory wrong. “Yes, not a lot of Asians are daring enough to try it, but Johnny does a fantastic pâté and it’s one of our top sellers here,” he says.
Another great tapas offering? The lamb
massaman ( RM12). A little bit like a lamb keema, the concoction is made using a mixture of spices that are roasted and blended. The result is a thick lamb and peas masala that is satisfyingly redolent of aromatic spices.
The fat, fluffy homemade fried bread on the side is the perfect yin to the lamb’s yang and is sort of like the famed Chinese mantau buns, except slightly sweeter. The lamb is meant to be slotted into the bread, which has been created like a pita pocket, so it’s almost like eating a wrap or a sandwich, except that you can dictate how much or little of the filling you’d like in it. It’s a fantastic idea, and great value for money because the portions are extremely generous.
The tortilla seafood pesto pizza ( RM15) offers a practical exploration of the burgeoning locavore movement, which expounds the virtues of using local produce. This is something Lian and Fua also strongly believe in, as Lian says they “try to go as local as possible” in terms of produce selection.
In this instance, the pesto, a traditional Italian staple, has been given a Malaysian makeover with local herbs like coriander, Thai basil and ulam raja all making an appearance. It is both interesting and well- executed, resulting in a pizza where the pesto has a key role in elevating the rest of the ingredients and bringing them all together harmoniously.
Then there is the soft shell crab ( RM13) which is crispy and seasoned to perfection. On its own, the crab is good but nothing special. But once paired with the slightly spicy, creamy sriracha- mayonnaise dipping sauce on the side, a different narrative emerges. The sauce takes the crab from shy, quiet supporting act to full- blown megastar. The transformation is incredible and telling of not only how good the sauce is, but how well the two combine.
If you want a big, filling meal, tuck into the aku anak kampung ( RM22). Basically a local take on aglio olio, the dish makes use of Lian’s mother’s sambal recipe, and has lots of garlic and chillies in it.
It doesn’t really offer anything new in terms of flavour experiences, but it’s a good, slightly spicier version of a dish you’ve probably eaten many times. The only major downer when we have it is the calamari, which is tasteless and a bit rubbery.
For a sweet end to your meal, have a go at the peanut butter & salted caramel sandwich ( RM18). Two brownies are wedged together with lots of cream, nuts and lashings of peanut butter to make a wicked indulgence that comes in a portion so large, even Michael Phelps would approve. The chocolate brownie is a bit dry on its own, but once you get the cream and peanut butter in your mouth, you won’t even notice anything’s amiss.
In the end, you’ll leave Hello! by Kitchen Mafia deeply satisfied. Because you’ll have very quickly deduced that the restaurant’s ability to reel in the masses doesn’t seem to have much to do with the star power of the people behind the place. Rather, it is the place itself, a charming wallet- friendly joint with good food, that has really driven Hello! to success.
1 tasty: the spicy lamb massaman fits perfectly into the fried bread pockets provided on the side.
2 hello! also has a range of coffees, made using locally produced milk, like the coconut latte and hazelnut latte.
3 A Malaysian herb infused pesto is central to the success of the tortilla seafood pesto pizza.
4 creamy and rich, the drunken chicken liver pate is a smooth operator that has a worthy partner - in- crime in the crisp bread served with it.
5 Fua ( left) and Lian didn’t want their names on the restaurant, aiming instead for it to succeed in its own right.
6 the soft shell crab is good on its own but even better when paired with the srirachamayonnaise dipping sauce on the side.
the restaurant interior is monochromatic and plain, but still attracts the crowds in droves.
A play on aglio olio, the aku anak kampung has robust sambal flavours and lots of garlic.
The peanut butter & salted caramel sandwich is a dense, rich dessert that needs to be shared with a friend or two.