The Datai Langkawi kick-starts Chef Series 2022 with Johnson Wong of gēn, Penang

We sampled his six-course seafood-driven menu, which features ingredients native to the island.

Wong is the first of a handful of distinguished local and international chefs invited to participate in The Datai's Chef Series (All photos: The Datai Langkawi)

Few pleasures hold a candle to the way one succumbs to the epic setting of The Datai Langkawi. With gentle azure waves kissing your feet and the invigorating scent of the island’s ancient rainforest and sea breeze filling your lungs, it takes no effort for the mind and body to enter relaxation mode.

The spectacular vistas are but only the start of what the enchanting island has to offer — the natural wonders and wealth of flora and fauna that live and thrive within its forest folds, mangroves and deep waters are equally spellbinding. And for over 25 years, The Datai’s unwavering respect for nature has been the North Star for all that it does and serves.

Gastronomes and epicures have always looked forward to The Chef Series, the resort’s signature dining experience that see acclaimed chefs from around the world (past luminaries include Michelin star kingpins Nils Henkel, Michel Roux and father-and-son-duo Michel and Sébastien Bras) are invited to take residence to showcase their culinary talents. This year’s theme, “Eclectic Malaysia”, spotlights six distinguished local and international chefs who are familiar names in the Malaysian fine dining scene. And chef Johnson Wong of gēn, Penang, whose restaurant was listed as one of Asia’s top 100 Restaurants in 2021, is the opening act.


Wong served a savoury flower crab ice cream as a preview to his menu

“Whenever we do pop-ups or collaborations, we try to understand the community and neighbourhood and use ingredients from there,” said Wong after conducting a cooking demonstration at The Beach Club, with an infinite stretch of sky and sea as his backdrop. And what an array to choose from. The chefs are given carte blanche of The Datai’s permaculture garden, where many native herbs and crops flourish, and the freshest seafood sourced from local fishermen.

As a preview to his Jan 6 and 7 menu, Wong served a savoury flower crab ice cream, topped with T’lur caviar and freshly picked sea purslane, to nearby guests, most of whom were observing from lounge chairs or under shady palm trees. “It’s a type of plant that grows by the beach,” he explained, adding that the perennial herb differs from coast to coast. “It’s the kind of produce that offers you a taste of the place or surrounding.”

Wong introduced his six-course menu as seafood-driven with the incorporation of Malay and Southern Thai influences that reflect the region. “We don’t feature meat in this menu,” he pointed out. “It’s very much similar to what we do at gēn. The menus always contain more seafood than meat and that’s also part of my long-term plan. We are moving towards the direction of removing meat and focusing on seafood and vegetables.”


Guests who made reservations took their seats at The Dining Room

Come twilight, as the sun descended into the trees, guests who made reservations took their seats at The Dining Room, a restaurant that overlooks the resort’s iconic main pool. It was an idyllic scene, with an orchestra of island birds and cicadas serenading whoever who would listen late into the night.

A belly-warming clam broth, concocted with the addition of rice wine and sawtooth coriander was the indicator that the journey was about to begin. And so it did with the reappearance of the Tanjung Malim caviar, now over a bed of cured tiger prawn with ginger flower petals scattered on ice — a light and refreshing dish that guests were encouraged to partake with tiny spiced waffles, whose batter was combined with flavour extracted from the prawn shells.

The flower crab showed up next over a red chilli and peanut sauce. Reminiscent of the classic Malaysian favourite chilli crab, this is the sort of dish Wong is repeatedly complimented for. He is adept at taking something familiar, reconstructing and presenting it in a new and unexpected way, and doing it with flair and finesse. It was served with warm buns, of course, and we ensured not a single drop went to waste.


Ocean meets garden in the stingray dish

This was followed by our personal favourite, the Beras Adan Porridge, which came in a tiffin and contained a variety of toppings. It slowed down the momentum after the previous dish, but provided an interlude that evoked a sense of nostalgic comfort. The coveted rice, sourced from Bario highlands, was coated grain by grain with the sweet flavours of abalone. It complemented the aromatic holy basil topping, which was deep-fried for texture. The unassuming dish readied the palate for the next showstopper.

Ocean meets garden in a pretty plate anchored by the most succulent slab of stingray accompanied by sweet harumanis mango and tangy tamarind. The fluttering herbs and flower petals gave it charm, but it was the alchemy of bright flavours that etched the dish into one’s mind.

The finale was Wong’s personal favourite — lobster with bronok. If you are unfamiliar with the latter, so were most of the diners at the table. Bronok, he explained, is a type of sea cucumber native only to Langkawi. Its texture is smooth like a squid’s but it is chewier and saltier. Its unique composition causes it to completely disintegrate if cooked for too long; so, it must be eaten raw.


Lobster, heirloom tomato and exotic bronok

The fleshy lobster was done to perfection and the blistered heirloom tomatoes, sweet and savoury, offered an easier transition. The bronok, however, was a peculiar experience. The texture resembled squid and mature coconut flesh. But since a broth was added to the dish, we were unable to ascertain its original taste.

The night came to a close with pineapple ice cream with soy sauce and chilli along with pineapple pie, packaged to resemble the ones from McDonald’s. While we wished it would end on a sweeter note, the dinner experience was memorable as a whole.

Although Wong’s stint at The Datai was brief, vacationers can still look forward to exclusive menus prepared by Masaki Arakawa from Sushi Azabu (Feb 25 and 26), Azli Ahmad from OpenHouse (April 22 and 23), Raymond Tham from Beta and Skillet (June 17 and 18), Masashi Horiuchi of Entier (Aug 18 and 19) and Lee Zhe Xi and Soh Yong Zhi of Eat and Cook (Oct 6 and 7).  Alcohol pairings are also available for those who wish to imbibe in The Datai’s extensive list of spirits.


For reservations, call 04 9500 500 or email [email protected].


This article first appeared on Jan 17, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.


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