Kebaya – inventive pan-Asian haute cuisine
The first time I sampled Christopher Ong’s cooking was at a Chinese New Year open house he held many years back. Lam Mee was on the lineup and although it is an uncomplicated dish to prepare, a flavourful stock was necessary to serve up a delicious bowl. With a dollop of sambal belacan on the side, I relish the entire bowl with gusto that day. It was wonderful and had just the right combination of everything a good bowl of Lam Mee would call for. Chris also highlighted that I was eating off an authentic antique Peranakan blue and white batik bowl.
For Chris, nothing is left to chance. He takes pride in everything he does, from cooking to building exquisite boutique hotels and everything in between.
He knows how accomplished he is and is confident in his business ventures, even in setting up Kebaya, a Nyonya restaurant right here in the heart of the World Heritage City of George Town. He is fully aware that Penangites are very well versed when it comes to Nyonya cuisine and it is almost impossible to serve up a dish to rival their mother’s or grandmother’s. However, Chris knows that he can elevate Nyonya cuisine a notch and is proud to introduce haute cuisine that has never been served before.
Chris worked with the hotel’s chefs – Zachary Choong (photo, right) and Kantapat Agechaosuan (photo, left) to create a menu of classic Indo and Straits Chinese Nyonya dishes. They use French cooking techniques and innovative produce to deliver surprising new twists on this already fascinating cuisine. The effect is simple, delicious, full of flavour and dazzling.
Prior to the grand opening of the restaurant, many months were invested in developing the menu and training the chefs. Chris took Zac and Kan to Saigon to experience the lightness of Vietnamese cuisine and to Bangkok to experience the depth of Thai cooking. Chris then took them to Sydney to see how Asian cuisine has been reinvented before sending them to work in Nahm, David Thompson’s restaurant in Bangkok so that they could learn first-hand from a world-renowned chef. A good friend of Chris, David is also an author, broadcaster and widely acclaimed expert on Thai cuisine.
Armed with a clear understanding and direction of the restaurant, the chefs were ready and Kebaya opened its door to the public in December 2012. A four-course degustation menu of entrée, main course, vegetables and dessert is served in Chinese style to allow guests to share the dishes. Since then, Kebaya has gained rave reviews and Chris is happy that all his effort and insights are well received, both by local traditionalists and international diners. On TripAdvisor (September 2013), Kebaya ranked No. 1 of 575 restaurants in Penang Island.
You will discover a magical experience, as I have when dining at Kebaya. In December 2012, together with Chris, food writer CK Lam and spouse, we sat down to a culinary adventure that was riveting and all too exciting. With my Peranakan parentage, I quickly discovered how ingenious Chris truly is. The flavours were recognisable but what has been served in front of us were all new and invigoratingly delightful. In September 2013, being a special occasion, I wanted my wife to share in this wonderful experience on her birthday. I was happy to see how impressed she was with Kebaya.
Prakaash Yegappan, the manager of Kebaya and Seven Terraces, a good friend of mine, saw to it that we had a memorable evening. He is a star and the service, impeccable. Kebaya was packed that evening and according to Prakaash, business has been brisk since its opening. To avoid disappointment, do make reservations if you are planning to dine at Kebaya.
Let us now look at the food that makes this restaurant unique and in a league of its own when it comes to Nyonya cuisine.
For starters, we had the Kebaya Banh Xeo, a dish with its origins in Vietnamese cuisine. These dainty crispy wafer pancakes folded in half were filled with a combination of bean sprouts, crispy tofu, dried shrimp, stir-fried vegetables and topped with tamarind sauce.
Also on the table, presented differently was a typical Nyonya dish – Otak Otak. The turmeric curried fish custard, usually steamed in banana leaves, was encased in homemade puff pastry and served as a starter instead of a shared dish with rice.
Pork Man Tou is another interesting appetizer to consider. It is a sous vide soy pork dish served with pickled vegetables on homemade mini man tou buns. This is an intriguing twist to the very typical Tau Eu Bak.
On my next visit to Kebaya, I would try the Miang Kham with Salmon Roe, Pai Tee and Chao Tom – minced prawn seasoned with herbs and spices wrapped around a sugar cane stalk and grilled till golden.
As for the mains, we had Prawn Geng, a wonderful dish of fresh jumbo prawns cooked in creamy coconut curry flavoured with fresh turmeric and lemongrass; Thai Soft Shell Crab Salad with spicy chilli lime dressing, mint, mango, green apples and pomelo; and Organic Roast Pork Tender – succulent sous vide 3-layer pork belly served with hoisin balsamic reduction dipping sauce.
The menu also offers Lor Ark – duck confit with caramelised spiced plums and oranges in cinnamon, star anise, cloves and nutmeg; Hong Bak Lamb of prime New Zealand shank sous vide for 48 hours and served in its jus (traditional Hong Bak is cooked with pork in a light Nyonya kurma); and Grilled Snapper marinated in a spice paste and wrapped in a banana leaf, grilled over a charcoal flame.
A must-try among the mains, which I had on my previous visit, is the chargrilled Chicken Kapitan. The aromas of the curried sauce work very well with the slight smokiness of the barbequed meat. This dish reminds me very much of Ayam Percik but with a very distinct Kapitan identity.
To accompany the mains, we had sautéed market fresh selection of greens and Sambal Goreng – french beans and baby corn, lemongrass, shallots and belachan coconut cream, with cashew nuts.
It was an interesting meal; certainly quite different from the traditional Nyonya cuisine, yet the core of the dishes is distinctly recognisable Peranakan flavours. However, I think it is in the desserts that Chris made really quite revolutionary changes; bringing long-established favourites with evergreen recipes kept perpetual through generations, into the realm of the present.
Nyonya Tang Yuen, glutinous rice balls coloured blue with bunga telang (blue pea flower) were filled not with crushed peanuts and sugar but grated coconut cooked in brown palm syrup (recognisable in the classic green ‘onde onde’). The bite-size tang yean sat in warm coconut cream with slivers of young coconut flesh awaiting our indulgence. This is a brilliant merriment of coconut in three different forms – cream, grated and slivers.
My wife’s favourite dessert was the Crème Brulee. Crisp burned sugar topping enhanced the fabulously deep, rich flavour and smooth creaminess of the pandan egg custard. She also enjoyed the Gula Melaka Mousse sprinkled with caramel macadamia nuts very much. Coconut Panna Cotta topped with passion fruit and candied pistachios were sinfully delicious too. Indeed, it was a truly satisfying end to a great meal.
Now, let us pause and take a moment to appreciate the grand dining room itself that is very much a part of the entire dining experience. The Kebaya dining room is lavish, richly decorated in grandeur with geometric tiled floor, marble tables, a teak Art Deco bar and floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets showcasing priceless antique kam cheng.
Much of the sublime beauty of the Kebaya dining room and at large, Seven Terraces is due to the vision of Chris as well as Karl Steinberg. Together, they have converted a row of seven C19th Anglo-Chinese terraces into a romantic, beautiful and timeless retreat that successfully captures and celebrates the spirit of Penang and its unique Peranakan culture.
Having see first hand the amount of work that goes into accomplishing Seven Terraces and Kebaya, I have learnt from Karl and Chris that success is indeed a mixture of having a flair for the things that you are doing; knowing that it is not enough, that you have got to have hard work and a certain sense of purpose.
Karl and I worked together on developing the website for Seven Terraces, the logos for Kebaya and Baba Bar, the layout for the menu as well as other promotional materials for the hotel, of course, always with encouragement from Chris. While photographing Chris’ precious antique kam cheng for the menu cover of Kebaya, Karl noted, “Lighting is everything Adrian and I’ve installed more than a thousand light fittings to make this place sparkle like a Christmas tree”. He has not only successfully made this stunningly impressive property shine, in more ways than one, but has also together with Chris brought the lustre back to George Town’s boutique accommodations.
Baba Bar is the hotel’s public lounge and opens daily from 2:00 pm till 10:30 pm. It serves a collection of specially selected wines and beers as well as cocktails and a full bar of spirits and liquors. Try their signature George Town Cooler – a refreshing combo of nutmeg, lime grenadine, Bombay Sapphire and longan, topped with soda or other classic cocktails.
Kebaya at Seven Terraces, Stewart Lane, 10200 Penang
Tel: +604 264 2333, 261 2862
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved.