MADE IN MALAYSIA
Chef Isadora Chai, Antara Restaurant
Although it may, at first glance, seem a particularly odd choice for Chef Isadora Chai, the opening of Antara Restaurant, her exquisite space in a century-old building in Jalan Raja Chulan, Kuala Lumpur, is, at heart, an extension of her multi-award winning French fine-dining restaurant in Petaling Jaya, Bistro à Table. The values she’s always maintained at the latter – including obsessive attention to detail, passion, and quality of service and ingredients – Chef Isadora Chai, Antara Restaurant have transited to the new space, but the idea behind Antara is more than just the execution of it.
“When you think about it, there’s no real Malaysian fine-dining restaurant here. There’re one or two that focus on Malay fine-dining, but what I wanted was a real fine-dining Malaysian experience, something that truly reflects Malaysia,” she explains. Antara, for Chai, is the distillation of all that is best about Malaysia’s multicultural culinary heritage, but taken to another, higher level. “Anyone – local or foreign – can come here and taste a bit of the cultures that make up Malaysia. I wanted to make local food that’s elevated with the best ingredients, in a nice and comfortable environment, with excellent service and where you can match it with wines and cocktails.”
It wasn’t easy getting here, of course. “The challenge for me was making Malaysian food even better than it is already, and the only way to do that was to use the best ingredients,” she says. Local hawker food, already one of the glories Malaysian cuisine, gets refined at Antara: here you’ll find mantao stuffed with foie gras, pai tee filled with foie gras and anago, popiah rolled with lobster, Sarawak laksa topped with lobster and hazelnut roti jala with dulce de leche anglaise, while the sang har meen (fresh water prawn noodles) comes with marron instead and the orchien (oyster omelette) is fried with foie gras. Chai, however, wants to do more than just add luxurious ingredients to her hawker food. Her menu is peppered with local ingredients and produce that she believes deserve a wider audience and better appreciation – hence, belachan and asam chicken wings, and salt-baked seabass with sambal durian tempoyak, cincalok and ulam raja salad. She is particularly proud of the alternative she offers to the seabass: patin buah or river fruit catfish. “I have this fisherman who supplies us patin buah but he is not always successful in catching them,” she says. “When he does, however, I get all excited as it’s a very delicious fish, one that deserves to be better known.”
As with the case for patin buah, Chai commits to the extra mile of securing the best of every ingredient and produce for her kitchen. “There are a lot of these niche cottage industries – people who make things by hand, the traditional way – that supply us with what we need,” she says. “For example, there this old man who makes soy sauce especially for us that’s MSG free, while noodle for the sar hor fun comes from Ipoh; the tofu comes Bentong and the belachan is from Bintulu.” Even after the ingredients arrive, there’s still the labour that goes into making them perfect for the plate and palette. “For the Sarawak laksa, for example, the master stock calls for 30kg of chicken that’s finally boiled down to 25 bowls of broth,” she says. “There are no short cuts when it comes to ensuring the best flavours!”
Enthusiastic as she is, Chai believes fine dining has still a way to go in Malaysia, especially where Antara is concerned. “There are still many people who misunderstand fine dining or aren’t keen on paying that kind of prices. Here, it’s even harder – people wonder why they should pay such high prices for hawker food,” she says. “They don’t see what goes on behind that – all that effort and work just to get everything right, from the supplier right to the kitchen staff.” There are, however, others who trust in what she is doing, both in Antara and Bistro à Table, and it is them who sustain and encourage her. “It’s not easy,” she admits. “But it’s something I feel passionate about – this is a niche that allows me to represent Malaysia and show what we can be.”