Set­ting gas­tro-hearts afire

Care­fully-crafted dishes at nicely-placed prices, all scented by woodsmoke. Con­sider our love stoked.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Taste - By SUZANNE LAZAROO star2@thes­tar.com.my

ANY­ONE won­der­ing if the wood-fire cook­ing trend could truly be trans­lated into a Malaysian con­text will find that ques­tion an­swered at Bon­fire, in Star­ling Mall in Da­mansara Utama, Se­lan­gor.

Wood-fired cook­ing evokes depth and flavour, a com­fort­ing sense of home and hearth, and the kind of back-to-ba­sics kitchen phi­los­o­phy that is aw­fully at­trac­tive in to­day’s of­ten over-com­pli­cated world. But it also sug­gests heat and smoke, less ap­peal­ing in our trop­i­cal heat shimmer.

Bon­fire makes it work, giv­ing din­ers the former and omit­ting the lat­ter – your clothes may have a gen­tle smoky scent when you leave, but it’s nei­ther over­pow­er­ing nor un­pleas­ant (or sit out­side, and it’s a moot point). A pow­er­ful dou­ble ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem in the cen­tral open kitchen means that hang­ing out at Bon­fire won’t leave you yearn­ing for fresh air.

This foray into wood-fire cook­ing is thanks to sis­ters and co-own­ers Lee Ai Peng and Poh Peng, who ex­ude a gen­uine sense of warmth, and are al­ways on-site and hand­son. While Bon­fire is Poh Peng’s first ven­ture in the restau­rant world, Ai Peng and her brother opened the pop­u­lar Red Bean­bag in Pub­lika, Kuala Lumpur, in 2011.

“After that, I went to Mel­bourne to take a culi­nary course. Poh Peng came to visit, and we went to this restau­rant called Porteno,” said Ai Peng. The Sur­rey Hills restau­rant is a fire-fu­elled, Ar­gen­tinian bar­be­cue, meat-lovers’ dream, and the sis­ters found their own hearts aflame and imag­i­na­tions on fire.

“We wanted to recre­ate some­thing like that here, but with a Malaysian iden­tity,” she said. “And the aroma of grilling and roast­ing food is all part of the am­bi­ence.”

That’s thanks to a cus­tom-made one-tonne oven fed on lo­cal rub­ber­wood, and a menu with a mod­ern Aus­tralian feel show­cas­ing un­mis­tak­ably Asian touches, from the in­cor­po­ra­tion of a herbed co­conut milk sauce for the grilled snap­per to grilled squid stuffed with otak-otak. While Bon­fire’s din­ing room is un­der­stat­edly mas­cu­line, ac­cented with log slices, wooden ta­bles, and mod­ern metal chan­de­liers, the en­tire aes­thetic is com­pletely sofby tened the Bon­fire Girl – the un­apolo­get­i­cally pretty and won­der­whim­si­cal fully mu­ral that takes up the fea­ture wall.

Head­ing the kitchen is chef Shahrul Amin Man­sor, who has come up with small, fo­cused menus; lunch sees lighter, more in­di­vid­ual dishes, while the din­ner menu shines a spot­light on shared plat­ters, with some in­di­vid­ual or­ders.

From the lunch menu, the grilled chicken burger with caramelised pineap­ple, salsa, and thick-cut chips (RM24) stands thighs and wings above a sea of chicken burg­ers in the Klang Val­ley. The ten­der chicken thigh boasts so much juicy flavour that it doesn’t even re­ally need the pi­quant salsa, and a well-grilled ring of ripe pineap­ple adds even more sweet depth to the burger. I like my chips fat, crisp out­side and fluffy within, so these hit the spot for me.

The smoked lamb ten­der­loin salad with ker­abu salad and cala­mansi dress­ing (RM25) is avail­able for lunch and din­ner. The lamb is lightly grilled, just to the point of pink­ness, with a hearty smoke note; it’s ably sup­ported by a crunchy, pi­quant salad with pointed cit­rus notes. An­other dish pulling dou­ble duty, the soft shell crab pasta with blue swim­mer crab jus (RM28) is a solid or­der, with a con­cen­trated shell­fish flavour, a hint of chilli, and crisp crab ooz­ing briny juice.

Bon­fire’s blaz­ing stars how­ever are the grill items, most of which are avail­able for din­ner, which can be or­dered in­di­vid­u­ally (rang­ing from beef ribs at RM60 to wagyu skirt steak at RM80) or com­bined in great-value plat­ters.

Choose two items from the list of meat or seafood for RM135 (rec­om­mended for two peo­ple) or three items for RM175 (for three to four). We had a com­bi­na­tion of wagyu skirt steak, served with an in­tense, pi­quant beef jus, ten­der lamb rack with a jug of lamb jus, and a whole grilled snap­per served with a co­conut beurre blanc. On the side, a Mediter­ranean salad.

The meats were lovely, juices-run­ning-down-the-throat fault­less. But the fish! This is hence­forth the stan­dard all grilled fish will have to as­pire to, for me. A crisp skin giv­ing way to the flaky, tasty flesh – snap­per is a flavour­ful fish on its own – with moisture in­tact. The sauce was quite rev­e­la­tory as well, won­der­fully thick with san­tan and aro­ma­tised with herbs.

We also had an in­di­vid­ual or­der of squid done two ways (RM65). The fresh­ness of the squid, served whole, was ir­re­proach­able, but the charred, nicely grilled squid went down bet­ter than the one stuffed with otako­tak paste – while the flavour was

on point, the stuff­ing re­mained too mushy be­cause it was en­cased in the squid. Per­haps a prior steam­ing would have firmed it up more – the ac­com­pa­ny­ing stuffed chill­ies also had an otak-otak fill­ing which was nice and firm.

A host of sides can also be or­dered sep­a­rately, rang­ing from creamy, clas­sic Potato Dauphi­noise (RM18) with Parme­san to sweet cubes of grilled wa­ter­melon in a salad (RM18), given added depth by a brush­ing of bal­samic just prior to grilling.

The dessert menu is small and will change ev­ery four months. Rec­om­mended for shar­ing, The Big Bon­fire (RM26) is quite the show-stop­per. The restau­rant’s luxe ver­sion of camp­fire sta­ple S’mores, it’s a bowl­ful of Nutella cream topped with a thick layer of meringue that is torched at the ta­ble (you can opt out of the sprin­kling of al­co­hol – you’ll just get torched marsh­mal­low that doesn’t ac­tu­ally catch on fire). Sur­round­ing the bowl are gin­ger­bread short­bread cookie sticks, for dip­ping, as well as crunchy co­coa soil and berries.

The same amount of thought that has gone into the list of food of­fer­ings has ob­vi­ously been ap­plied to the drinks menu, whether cock­tail (served after 5pm) or mock­tail.

It’s easy to fall in love with the Demi Cinta Laksa (RM45); the Tan­queray gin-based cock­tail is spiked with torch gin­ger flower petals, lime, tamarind, gin­ger, and pineap­ple. It does taste like you’re drink­ing a sweet-sour laksa broth, with the as­trin­gent edge of the gin and the fun el­e­ments of cu­cum­ber ice cubes and sweet jelly noo­dles – it’s an ex­per­i­ment that to­tally pays off.

If you don’t want al­co­hol though, the Xiang Pian Tea Spritzer (RM16) is a com­plex mock­tail, with freshly-brewed Xiang Pian tea and notes of pas­sion­fruit, lime, chrysan­the­mum, and asam boi.

Bon­fire is a place for re­peat vis­its, a restau­rant that com­bines a wel­com­ing, cosy at­mos­phere with care­ful cook­ing and great ideas.

The plat­ter of rack of lamb, whole grilled snap­per and wagyu skirt steak was a stel­lar choice.

Set a dessert-lover’s heart aflame with The Big Bon­fire; you can opt for a liquor-less ver­sion too.

A gen­er­ous por­tion of smoked lamb adorns the crunchy ker­abu. — SUZANNE LAZAROO/The Star

Demi Cinta Laksa, in­deed. A stun­ningly orig­i­nal cock­tail.

The Bon­fire Girl watches serenely over Bon­fire’s pa­trons. — Pho­tos: YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

Grilled squid stuffed with otak-otak – great in the­ory, but the ex­e­cu­tion e Quite sim­ply one of the best chicken burg­ers in town. a . The cubes of wa­ter­melon are given added depth by a brush­ing of bal­samic just be­fore grilling.

Ai Peng (left) and Poh Peng want to pro­vide din­ers with both great­tast­ing food and good value.

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