Monday, 22 February 2016

Review of Dewakan, Shah Alam - But What if God Was One of Us?

2015 may well be remembered in Malaysian gastronomy as the Year of the Two Darrens.  In the red corner, we have Darren Chin, an exponent of classic French technique, with his DC Restaurant.  In the blue corner, Darren Teoh (no relation to me), a champion of local Malaysian flavours, plying his craft at the Kolej Damansara Utama-owned Dewakan, located at KDU's Glenmarie (Shah Alam) campus.

Darren Teoh and Team at the Pass
Apart from their names, they have rather more in common.  As if in compensation for recent national shortcomings in other areas, and the need for hope to find a focal point, the local media has embraced these two young-ish chefs to an unprecedented extent.  Julie Wong, my former editor at Flavours and authority on the Malaysian dining scene, had been hectoring me to try Teoh's Dewakan for months.  Dewakan is a portmanteau of the Malay words "dewa" (small g-god) and "makan" (eat), which is a portent of ambition if not necessarily one of great promise.

After four months of hectoring, Julie finally agreed to drive me there, a commitment rather more onerous than it sounds (her partner's comment was apparently "On a Thursday?  You are mad!").  Despite the celestial name, Dewakan is located in a godforsaken industrial estate where even angels would fear to tread, with dimly-lit streets and even worse signposting.  While getting caught up in the outbound traffic from KL, and taking around a gazillion turns that even Waze couldn't recognise, I grumble to Julie that Dewakan could never earn three Michelin stars: frankly, no food on earth could be "worth this (very un)special journey".  Julie just nods and keeps her eyes focused on the road; she deserves a Datukship for putting up with my bollocks for the last nine years.

I could spend days and days writing about what we had here (a ten-course menu plus trimmings goes for RM 207 nett, which is around USD 50), but I don't really want to do that, and I doubt you would really want to read it.  Here is my condensed outline of my experience here, so you can decide whether it is worth the journey out here.  All photos are courtesy of Julie Wong.

What 

Whereas Darren Chin uses local ingredients as the medium to express his French stylings, Darren Teoh puts the local ingredients front and centre.  The dishes are complex and multi-layered, both in terms of techniques and flavours and textures, and also the length of the ingredient list.


This is, for better or for worse, a meal of four acts.  Act I, the high-flying start, incredibly forceful but balanced tightrope walking act using local ingredients and which would be the equal of any Michelin-starred restaurant anywhere in the world.  Act II, still local entrées but with a distinct lack of balance and harmony in the flavours.  Act III, a perfectly acceptable but sedate couplet of Western-style mains, and Act IV, sweets that hum along reliably like an old Mazda and are just about as exciting.

I have to say that for starters, Teoh dished up a couple of the best single preparations I have had this year.  The first hors d'oeuvre, a dried sheet of bok choy done up like nori, is crisp and salty and hits me right in the dopamine receptors.  Simple but sublime.


The second rapid punch in the combination, beef tendons fried so they puff up like keropok and sprinkled with a powdered chilli padi as vicious as a Paul Harris leglock, hits me squarely in the same spot.  At this point, I fear that the strength of my prejudice stemming from the KL-Glenmarie odyssey is about to be shaken.


His lightly cured mackerel with local herbs is a thing of true beauty and complexity, a feast for the eyes and the palate.

Local mackerel with bunga telang, nasturtium, bunga sawi, ulam raja
The start to the meal has to be one of the strongest in my recent memory; if this were a play, I would be on my feet giving them a frickin' standing ovation after the lights faded for the end of Act I.  Unfortunately, Act II, while just as unique and exciting on paper, is inconsistent on the palate.  The selection ranges from a roasted aubergine with black bean paste that just overpowers, an admittedly very good "ming prawn" noodle soup, to a very odd dish of smoked conger eel in a clam foam resting on a steamed egg custard.  While Julie enjoys the reference to the homely Cantonese steamed egg, I find there is just too much custard to be enjoyable, and the conger eel is borderline offensive with its very strong smoky and meaty flavour.

Smoked Conger Eel and Clam Foam and Steamed Eggs
Suddenly, we segue off into gweilo land (Act III), with a couple of dishes, confit of lamb breast and roasted duck breast which clearly belong in the Western lexicon.  I am surprised at this twist off the path less travelled, and while the lamb is superb (pictured below, beautifully seasoned to the right extent of oversaltiness to set off against a sweet onion puree), I'm not quite as blown away by the duck, which doesn't go far beyond being serviceable.  I can only imagine that the inclusion of two meat mains is to prevent the inevitable complaints about "aiyoh, no meat one"and the classic "I had to da pow CKT / roti canai / pizza coz I was so hungryyyyyyyyyyyy, OMG SMH".  ROFLMAO. 


Desserts are just OK for me: while I like the idea of pairing off a sour meringue against a sweet element, the latter, a gula melaka "marquise" is a just cluster of hard chewy biscuit with a layer of dried dates.  The mulberry jam, cardamom ganache, etc. is better even if its plating is a bit of a post-modern cliche, but is served on a clear petri dish over another petri dish of woodchips for some unknown reason.  Now I'm used to inedible garnishes, but I don't appreciate this inclusion because it has zero thematic relevance to the rest of the dish.  A chocolate tart with caramelised jackfruit is decent; to be very honest, I prefer my own chocolate tart, and the jackfruit here is strangely devoid of any flavour.

Woodchips topped with cardamom ganache and mulberries
Some sanity is restored, however, with the ice-cream potong.  Despite my BS, I'm really just a small town kid at heart and I really enjoy this.  The staff actually "potong"the ice-creams even further to ensure Julie and I have a taste of each, a gesture I genuinely appreciate if only because it takes some elbow grease to actually cut these tough little buggers.


Why

Because you have heard so much about it from the local media.  Because you are sick of paying RM 400 and above per head for "fine dining", and RM 207 nett for ten courses is a bargain for a ten-course meal.  Because you have nothing better to do with your time than spend an hour and a half fighting the traffic out of KL.  Because Teoh and his team are capable of producing some serious gastronomic highlights which always look sublime on the plate.


And I love the space - the dining room is HUGE, probably a very welcome perk of the cheaper "rent" for this location, and lighting is also very good.  I love a lot less that they don't have a private room.  We had a insanely loud group of drunken Chinese businessmen at the table next door cracking the usual vulgarities, while their gaggle of tai-tais sat at the other end with looks on their faces as if to say "I can't believe we are married to such chumps and....ooooh, hello new diamond necklace!"  Despite our complaints to the staff, they either can't / won't do anything about it (see more on this point below).

Why Not

As much as I enjoyed some of the highlights on the plate, the more I reflected on the meal in the following days, the more I was disappointed at some of the shortcomings I encountered.  The wine list, insofar as I could make any sense of it, was pretty awful, both in form and substance.  What is one to make of "Vin de Table Rouge Cuvée Speciale", apart from the fact that it's rubbish, red and the winemaker thinks (or perhaps more accurately wants you to think) that it's special?  Who is the maker, what is the vintage, what are the grape varieties?  Julie took one for the team and ordered a glass; it smelled nice enough but as you would expect, fell apart soon after being exposed to the air.  Of course, the well-meaning floor staff couldn't help with my queries.

On that last sentence, I seem to find myself describing the waitstaff at most upmarket Malaysian restaurants as "well-intentioned", mostly because I find it difficult to say too much else positive.  There is so much going on here at Dewakan, and so little explanation, that I feel helpless except to say "mighty good that" or "not very impressed".  For example, I couldn't tell you a single thing about the ulam raja or the bunga sawi in my mackerel dish because no one could explain it to me.  And in times like these, when we are looking for something positive to say about our country, that lost opportunity to learn something about our neglected native cultural heritage is something to be mourned.  And that is not to mention the more usual shortcomings; it took us 20 minutes to find out what a "ming prawn" was, and even though I was promised the 10-course menu could be served in 2.5 hours, it actually took us well in excess of 3.5 hours.

I also get a strong feeling that the team do not have a clear vision of what they want Dewakan to be.  Julie and I caught up with Teoh afterwards (to its credit, Dewakan does not comp meals for media of any sort, not even for Julie), and I asked him if his intention was to champion the local produce.  Surprisingly, Teoh said no, but soon he said he wanted to turn Dewakan "into an institution".  I asked him what he meant by that, and he said that he wanted to educate the guests.  I asked him what that was if it was not championing the product, and he conceded the point under my brutal cross-examination.  Of course, I had to relate my frustration that his staff were not able to properly educate diners about the food, and he seemed to take it on board.  According to Teoh, this is part of his programme for 2016 (along with the wine list), so stay tuned.

Conclusion

I think a friend summed it up quite accurately when he said that Dewakan is currently a team of talented chefs and cooks, but that it takes rather more to be a great restaurant.

And this is a true shame because Dewakan's angle, the investigation of forgotten native ingredients and elevating them to a "fine dining" level, is precisely what makes people like 50 Best voters and Michelin inspectors (and sadly, foodie hipsters) salivate.  The lack of any explanation or education not only means that Dewakan is failing to exploit its one great selling point, but also that diners leave their tables none the wiser.

I hope Teoh wasn't fibbing and that he is indeed working on the service and presentational issues because Dewakan has tonnes of as yet unrealised potential.  He has put together a kitchen team that works like a Swiss clock; watching them in the open kitchen was a marvel - clean, quick movements with no redundancy and very little noise.  With a bit of recalibration on the flavours and a lot of work on the front-of-house, I reckon Dewakan could be something special.  And it needs to be special for two reasons.  Firstly, our native produce (I don't count in this category the otherwise wonderful exotica that folks like Loh Lik Peng and Leisa Tyler grow in Cameron Highlands) deserves a champion, and Teoh has clearly done the hard yards in learning how to master their mysterious powers for the culinary good.  Secondly, because I'll be god-damned if I have to put up with that blasted journey again for anything less.

DEWAKAN
Seksyen U1,, Jalan Kontraktor U1/14, Glenmarie, 
40150 Shah Alam, Selangor
Malaysia
Tel:+60 3 5565 0767
BYO welcome, RM50 for wines and RM 70 for liquor.  For a list of BYO restaurants in KL and the Klang Valley, please click here.
Reservations recommended

6 comments:

  1. Gday Julien, I noticed you been doing a lot of review in our northern neighbour. Still waiting for you to write on Corner House my favourite restaurant. Cheers!

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  2. Hi Marcus, I will be going there shortly ;) Anything in particular you recommend?

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  3. 62 degree farm egg in Cervernes onion.

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  4. 62 degree farm egg in Cervernes onion.

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  5. HI Julian,

    I just want to report back that the Darren did indeed incorporate the education part. I was there in Dec and each course came with an introduction. The wine recommendations were excellent too. They have replaced the lamb with quail which is one of the highlights of the meal for me. That and the duck which was minimalist, pure and perfectly done to highlight these aspects. I agree about the impressive Act 1 and as for Act 2: I'm not so keen on foam either. The handmade noodles cold soup is not to my preference as I'm not a big fan of green tea or cold noodles. But I love the meringue dessert and pulut ice cream. I could eat that everyday. So the trip out there on a weekday (yes, I went on a week day)...it was worth it. They brought out fresh homemade bread and soft butter upon arrival and that immediately made the crazy traffic jam, the bad temper, etc. all a quick distant memory. The bread was excellent. I highly recommend it.

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  6. Interesting - heading there for the first time this saturday. Hopeing the experience will be at least as good as Gaik's !

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