Skewered on a spit, a whole lamb slowly rotates on a rotisserie over a large open pit grill, sizzling and sputtering as flames lick the seared meat, juices dripping onto the coals below. The wall behind it is composed entirely of neatly stacked firewood – fuel for the pit – and all around the sprawling open plan kitchen lie various griddles, hot plates, ovens and sous-vide cooking apparatuses. This is a place dedicated to the grill. This is Charcoal, the fledgling outlet of The Saujana Hotel KL, and for some 27 years the site of a run-of-the-mill generic hotel coffeehouse restaurant. The heart of Charcoal – the open pit grill with rotating lamb spit “We wanted to maintain the essence of Malaysia, to retain the roots of local cooking using traditional techniques, while introducing an open-grill concept with international flavours and trimmings,” said Jerome Carrouee, F&B Director of The Saujana KL, as he welcomed guests there to sample Aussie Chef Robert Johnston’s MIGF menu. Jerome Carrouee, HE Matti Pullinen, Susanne Silfverberg Pullinen and HE Luc Vandebon Diners including HE Luc Vandebon, Ambassador of the European Union Delegation; HE Matti Pullinen, Ambassador of Finland; Dato’ Mirza Mohammad Taiyab, Director General of Tourism Malaysia and Puan Zarinah Abdul Hamid, Executive Director and GM of Administration, Fujifilm (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd, made up the illustrious guest list, all of whom were eager to sample Chef Robert’s eclectic menu. Tourism Malaysia officer, Dato’ Mirza Mohammad Taiyab and Datin Su Wai FunDato’ Jeremy Diamond, Datin Kalsom Diamond and Belinda Leong Gathering on the terrace for virgin mojitos and champagne, guests arrived at the restaurant to be personally greeted by Chef Robert who spent the time mingling with the group, talking about his three year stint in Singapore and what drove him over to Malaysia. Food and love mostly, after having married a Malay girl while on the tiny island and wanting a change of pace. The affable chef was keen to show diners what the Charcoal flavour entails and so without further ado, after guests had whetted palates with mini skewers of satay and homemade sweet potato chips, they retreated within the restaurant towards the semi-private chamber.
Sweet Potato Chips with Paprika
Mini Saty Skewers with Cucumbers
Muted tones of grey and brown, hardwood flooring, a skylight roof and rustic driftwood tables (sourced from Kelantan and carved out by local craftsmen) merge for a contemporary and cosy look, with a nod to a countryside cabin. Sitting on the tables were stylish decanters of water containing chunks of Japanese charcoal, meant to detoxify the liquid and impart subtle flavour. As guests were seated, MIGF Organising Chairman Dato’ Steve Day made his round of introductions while guests were treated to an amuse bouche of sotong goreng served with an array of delicious homemade sambals made by Nonyna chef Auntie Belle – renowned in these parts for making the most lip smacking marinades and condiments. Tuan Syed Mudzhar Syed Ali, Nishdev Singh, Datuk Dr Victor Wee, Chef Robert Johnston, Belinda Leong and Dato’ Steve Day Chef Robert’s first course immersed diners in time honoured Malaysian fare: a Nonyna platter with popiah basah – homemade spring rolls with black bean sauce, kuih pai tee – baby prawns with tamarind chutney and shredded roasted duck, and begedil ayam – potato patties with minced chicken filling and Asian pear chutney. Traditional savoury flavours presented in a refreshing way got the meal of to a lip smacking start. Chef Robert rolls up a popiah
Popiah Basah, Kuih Pai Tee and Begedil Ayam
Next up the main course, and diners had a choice between grilled Melaka Straits mackerel in banana leaf or grilled South Australian beef braised short ribs with barbeque sauce and creamed potato. Cooked sous-vide, the ribs are pulled apart, doused in special homemade barbeque sauce, then assembled and cooked again, making for extra tender and flavourful bites. The fish is grilled and charred to perfection, with dark flaky meat that works extremely well with the zesty marinades. Each dish was served with a rainbow of these, including chilli garlic, sambal mangga, sambal hijau and kerabu sambal.
Melaka Straits mackerel char-grilled on banana leafCharcoal Grilled South Australian Beef Short Ribs with Charcoal BBQ Sauce and Creamed Potato Naturally Chef Robert was on hand to explain the subtleties of each dish, while fielding questions from the diners. His dessert, a vanilla rice custard with roast pineapple, coconut and caramelised banana, closed the meal on a decidedly European note but with plenty of local influences thrown in for good measure. The vanilla rice itself, although a Western pudding, is an homage to sticky rice – a staple in many Asian countries, while caramelised banana or goreng pisang, is a favourite in Malaysia. Warm Vanilla Rice Custard with Roast Pineapple, Coconut and Caramelised Banana “Malaysia is without a doubt a multicultural society, and Charcoal is a clear representation of that – we have our Nynoya, we have our Chinese, our Indian and Malay influences. We also have western fare, our steaks. All these elements together make Charcoal an authentically modern Malaysian restaurant,” said Chef Robert in his closing speech. HE Luc Vandebon delivered his own little speech in which he graciously thanked the teams for a meal that deftly blended local and western flavours and cooking techniques. Belinda Leong, Encik Naim Azwana Bin Rahamad and Puan Zarinah Abdul Hamid