In his soliloquy, the Unified Theory of Deliciousness, chef David Chang of Momofuku fame defines transcendent dishes as those that transport you to “another moment in your life” without losing sight of the present.
“The easiest way to accomplish this is just to cook something that people have eaten a million times. But it’s much more powerful to evoke those taste memories while cooking something that seems unfamiliar — to hold those base patterns constant while completely changing the context,” he writes.
Malaysian by name and French in nature, Akâr dining chases that elusive otherworldliness. Commonplace ingredients in local cuisine are given the French treatment or a dash of wit, proving how technique and imagination can put that “extra” in “ordinary”.
Akâr’s amuse-bouche certainly amused in the form of a delicate red orb, a slippery gel sphere that popped to reveal a burst of biji selasih, aloe vera and rose water. It seemed unusual to open the meal on a sweet and fragrant note, but carte blanche requires you to trust the kitchen to lead you through a cohesive dining story.
Under the helm of Japanese- and French-trained chef Aidan Low, it certainly does. We opted for the five-course set, which included a liver dish absent in the four-course menu.
A bouquet of fresh vegetables from Cameron Highlands opened the meal with each component individually prepared: crisp coins of finely sliced beetroots, baked and then grilled kohlrabi, baby radishes bathed in butter, and raw heirloom cherry tomatoes garnished with chive flowers and basil oil. Binding this potpourri of flavours and textures was a frothy Miyagi oyster foam, delicate enough to not overpower the vegetables but a highlight in its own right for its briny, umami depth. Its iodine and salinity were key in upholding the edible garden, Low would later explain.
Next was raw Botan prawns in a fermented bean curd dressing, a creative reconstruction of Cantonese seafood congee that erased any doubts as to the originality and flair of this kitchen. Typically a sidekick, fermented bean curd or fuyu was honoured at the heart of this dish as a luxuriant, mayonnaise-like emulsion. The Japanese shellfish were buttery and almost tensile, stretching languorously when torn by fork tines or teeth. Its richness, and that of the creamy fuyu, were contrasted by the bright acidity of burnt orange confit, the crunch of rice crackers and the earthy greenness of coriander oil. Save some bread — ours was a duo of soft roll and crusty black glutinous rice ciabatta — to mop up the remnants of these first two courses.
Mains followed with an option of duck or beef (an additional RM60 on top of the prix fixe menu). Cherry Valley Duck imported from the UK was rubbed with salt and aged for five to seven days to draw out all moisture and concentrate its flavours. It was prepared two ways, as a tender roasted breast and full-bodied leg confit, served with velvety chestnut puree, black tea jus made from BOH tea leaves and a medley of buttermilk cauliflower, sunflower sprouts and citrusy gooseberries.
The same accompaniments escorted the pink and seared beef cuts, as did a zingy shio koji. A testament to Low’s Japanese chops, the koji (cooked rice fermented over a yeast starter, common in saké production) was blended with chopped leek, garlic, ginger, sesame oil and reduced saké. I would have preferred the beef sans chestnut puree as the shio koji fared better in celebrating its natural flavours.
“Please keep an open mind — this is not your typical foie gras,” said the waiter as he set down the saucers. Rather than the terrine or pâté we were expecting, Akâr’s interpretation was a wheel of airy Larnaudie parfait topped with a filo disc, held in place with plum gel and dried mandarin pieces. The entire dish was dusted in mandarin sugar, its crystals sparkling ethereally. This was an interesting experiment I would love to repeat — the filo cracked gratifyingly, the whipped foie gras was cloud-like and uplifted by fruity notes — and a smooth segue to the sweeter portion of the evening.
Palate cleansers are usually something I tolerate rather than enjoy, but Akâr forced me to renounce that indifference with an inventive toddy (palm wine) and saké granita. When later asked how he accomplished this, Low said that the fermented tang of toddy could be off-putting, but freezing dilutes its aroma. Here, saké and toddy are frozen with glucose and presented in a pool of coconut water with an egg white espuma peak. I wanted more, maybe in a large glass — the zesty, complex concoction had all the makings of an excellent cocktail.
The grand finale was a slice of spiced layer cake crowned with Chantilly cream, Callebaut chocolate drops and orange tuille, served with cinnamon ice cream. It seemed more nostalgic than extraordinary and, like the fuyu with shellfish, leaned towards that taste memory Chang spoke of with its play of familiar flavours in unorthodox contexts, reminiscent of comfort food such as congee and kek lapis. Akâr is fittingly named in this tribute to the Malaysian roots of the youthful chef.
Contemporary French cuisine is not one locals might know intimately, but Akâr’s approach is a great entry to that world. Staff explain each dish in detail and the emphasis on local ingredients not only reassures the novice but also keeps prices low. The current menu (it changes every other month) is a high-value proposition at RM150+ for four courses and RM180+ for five, with wine pairing an additional RM100. Corkage is a bring one, buy one policy that requires diners to purchase a bottle for every bottle brought.
Marked only by discreet signage and a large wooden sliding door, the minimalist façade and interior allow the food to do the talking. The counter demarcating the open kitchen provides hands-down the best seats in the house: with all the clever ideas and techniques at play here, you want a front-row view of the action.
Akâr dining, 109, Jalan Aminuddin Baki, Taman Tun Dr Ismail, KL. 018 277 0597. Monday to Saturday, seatings at 6.30pm and 8.30pm.
This article first appeared on Oct 5, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.