The monosyllabic noun “root” holds meanings varied and profound. Its definitions span the subterranean anchor that nourishes a plant to origin, the act of supporting or cheering and the firm establishment of something.
It is not often that a restaurant’s name denotes such a wide breadth of meaning but gēn (Mandarin for “roots”) succeeds by championing a progressive take on native ingredients while advancing the local haute cuisine scene and honouring its Penang — and by extension, Malaysian — setting.
Behind the contemporary flavours entrenched in childhood nostalgia are long-time friends Johnson Wong and Javi Tan. They bring a powerhouse of experience to the table, having cut their teeth on restaurants in Spain, Russia and Denmark, including the two-Michelin-starred Noma in Copenhagen.
Some of that Scandinavian sensibility has seeped into the décor, an oasis of modern minimalism that is at odds with the wet market and hawker stalls that dominate the Chinese enclave of Lebuh Presgrave. The industrial décor of cement floor and pendant bulbs is softened by large potted plants in the corner and mosaic tiles in the kaki lima (five-foot way) outside, visible through the glass walls. Complimentary dinner theatre is provided by the open kitchen, separated from the 24 diners by a long wooden table that forms the only seating in the house. Interaction with staff is part of the experience, though they have perfected the art of swift and unobtrusive service.
While à la carte options are available, I recommend surrendering your evening to the chefs. The tasting menu changes monthly, a testament to the extensive imagination at play here. We opt for the 11-course tasting set on a quiet weekday evening, geeking out over the kitchen equipment while marvelling the youthful average age of the team.
Fermented chilli man tao with a salted egg sauce is placed before us, the fried dough holding well against the slightly sweet dip. Pandan brioche follows with matching custard, sprinkled with turmeric otak-otak crumble and a wobbly dollop identified as a coffee sphere. The brioche looks like and has the texture of a biscuit, its crispness complemented by the burst of coffee to create a sweet and bitter, crumbly and liquid sonata.
The bready theme continues with a dim sum basket of deep-fried dough pillows garnished with a pepper sauce buttressed by whipped cream and soy caviar. It is a clever elevation of the popular toast and half-boiled eggs kopitiam breakfast with good bite and familiar character.
We move to loftier, aerated heights with a beetroot and cardamom espuma, which appears as red foam in a glass bubble of a bowl. For something so tiny, it is heavily herbaceous with a saffron cream centre and notes of coriander, honey and lime. Every single component makes itself known in this single mouthful.
Similar unabashed honesty of ingredients is present in the semi-raw grouper, served with a cloud of sago in coconut cream and lemongrass. Accompanying this are sharply pickled papaya ribbons and pegaga leaf and microgreen spinach in a turmeric and kalamansi lime dressing. It is a one-two punch of a starter, prickling all flavour receptors on the palate while providing a pleasing mouthfeel.
The merry-go-round spins faster, a breathtaking whorl of colours, flavours and textures. It is a heady voyage, thrilling without being overwhelming as each course gives way to the next with no risk of monotony.
Take the thing of beauty that is the sous vide egg with dehydrated enoki mushrooms, white fungus and curry leaves in a mushroom reduction spiked with black pepper. It is reminiscent of a bird’s nest, a dry forest with a yolk beaming like a sun in the centre. Paired with the chew of fine mushroom tendrils and the heat of sambal, it suggests nasi lemak — just rich enough to be gratifying without sliding into jelak (cloying) territory.
Having crested in flavours, we start our descent with pan-seared Ipoh duck in a curry reduction topped with baked pumpkin and curry leaves. Its underwhelming taste might have been calculated to give the palate a rest with an emphasis on texture. This is affirmed with a cleanser of sancha sour plum and haw flakes in crumbly frozen nitrogen ice cream, paving the way for dessert proper.
Like a fat oyster atop a dish of or chien (oyster omelette), a red sugar gelato crowns tau foo fah in lemongrass foam with a snappy ginger crumble and grass jelly. It is delightfully refreshing, the thick slabs of smooth bean curd showing off the gelato’s toasted notes. A fitting ending is the “very Penang” rice cakes or huat kueh, deconstructed to present desiccated coconut, palm syrup and a tuak sorbet with a side of nutmeg juice.
Eleven courses might be overkill and the menu has since been streamlined to five courses (RM200+) or seven (RM250+). Wine pairing is an additional RM120+ and RM140+ respectively.
I can see why gēn is a member of Secret Tales, a collection of independent Asian restaurants that includes the likes of Dewakan in Utropolis Glenmarie, Labyrinth in Singapore and Empty Plates Bangkok in Thailand. Establishing a fine dining foothold on an island that fiercely defends its world-famous hawker fare is not for the faint-hearted but the restaurant is confident and cohesive in its philosophy and execution.
Those are far from sexy adjectives but that spine is necessary to stand on its own in Penang. At gēn, deep roots in tradition and place as well as imagination and sincere respect for ingredients are giving local fare fresh flourish while allowing its contemporary ideology to thrive.
gēn, 68A Lebuh Presgrave, George Town, Penang. Tues-Sun, 6-11pm. Contact 012 578 3323 to make reservations.