Starry, starry bites

When culi­nary stars fall to Earth, they turn into a neigh­bour­hood restau­rant.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TASTE - By ABI­RAMI DU­RAI star@thes­tar.com.my

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.

— Pho­tos: rAy­MONd OOI/ the Star

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.

6

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.

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