Won To Stun
Enfin bets the farm on his degustation menu.
There’s something about James Won. He's an enigmatic character and I’m not the first to say so. As I walk into his flagship restaurant Enfin (home to Asia’s only Krug Chef’s Table) in KL's golden triangle, phone in hand trying to bring an end to a heated recall of my day (me), I catch the enigma himself standing to the side of the lobby watching us all arrive. I wonder, even as I'm (still) trying to conclude the chat, if he's trying to get a feel of each of us… or if he's merely a very curious person who wants to see for himself his guests for the night before he deems us worthy of his creations. I overhear him rattling something off to a fellow chef in Cantonese, then turn away to discreetly (and finally) conclude my conversation, settling into a compact velvet sofa before being ushered to my table.
I glance around. A geometric sliding screen of slim iron conceals the restaurant lobby and thereon, diners walk through an elevated walkway of polished copper with copper-plated steel bands folded around the walls and ceiling, purportedly to emulate ‘fine ribs’.
We're seated four to a table. The lights in the restaurant are dim, muted; warm. I relax. Glowing the colour of a molten egg yolk, Enfin is all-encompassing, if deliberately minimum in design. Copper is abundant and liberally used throughout, giving the main area of the restaurant a brazen, fired look. Towards the back of the main restaurant sits a spectacular custom-built spiral staircase specially installed for access to the dining suite on the mezzanine level. Continuing the theme, copper bands encircle the stairs, creating a rose-gold metallic hanging ‘curtain’ -- glamorous and stunning.
Chef James Won. | Photograph by Carol Sachs
(Enfin won a gold award for the excellence of its design under the fine dining category at this year's Reka awards by the Malaysian Institute of Interior Designers.)
According to the larger-than-life chef, I am one of the chosen few in this town who is about to taste his new degustation menu, which he continually refreshes. But tonight's is a first.
“This is something of a dream come true for me because finally, at long last, I can say that everything you eat tonight, everything from here on, is 100% farm-to-plate. We own our own farm in Cameron Highlands now and there is no greater pride in that because you just cannot -- ever -- compare imported, air-flown produce and ours, which we allow to ripen until perfect, before then transporting them here, a mere three-plus hours away,” says Won, without pausing for breath.
Indeed, he's the chef who proudly proclaimed, “Dinner is not what you do in the evening before something else; dinner is the evening.” I like this man.
Won is known for his technique. He drolly comments that sometimes his food is so technical for containing not just one, but several different techniques in one dish. But he does not elaborate on their fervent application, which leaves me hungry to know more. It comes as no surprise that Won is witty, with an arresting face that one doesn't look away from; his introduces each dish for the night with a sprinkle of childhood anecdotes and personal favourites that led to their creation. I now know he really favours fermented bean curd, oatmeal cooked Chinese-porridge style with scallops, fermented bean curd and miso (I’m not kidding), unripe banana shoots, and similar local familiars replete with nostalgia.
Highlights of the night include an expanded amuse bouche course; a push to replace white wine (with his own blend of koji and in-house rice wine that has the properties required of white wine, but localised for the here and now), novel fermentation techniques (of his own), and the much-lauded use of local produce grown on his own farm.
Dinner starts with dessert (oh yes) because, Won says, “I like to surprise my patrons because everyone comes with an expectation of first having an appetiser or amuse bouche, followed by mains and then dessert. They expect also a certain flavour, from salty, spicy and tangy, to sweet, for dessert. I don’t want my patrons to enjoy food like that. I want them to be surprised; and, if you taste something sweet first, even though it’s not dessert but the amuse bouche, that allows your senses to truly enjoy the dinner, and not eat according to rote.”
The amuse bouche options are three; lead ingredients include white sturgeon caviar, squid ink macaroons and truffle cream. The mains include scallop, a vegetarian mushroom textures tartare, cured Hamachi and truffle, North Sea White Cod or Rack of Lamb. Desserts include a cheese platter, a divine pumpkin and mandarin meringue log and avocado mousse with Mediterranean dates and dark chocolate.
If you ask if I remember everything I eaten tonight, I don’t. But if you ask if I remember my experience of eating each dish, I do. Every dish served is preceded by an aroma so robust, so tantalising, I have to restrain myself from moaning in public, in a fine-dining setting no less. The presentation is minimalistic, but Won's perfection of technique is evident in every immaculate creation.
The food isn't simple, but the man is. All he wants, as far as I can tell, is to blur the boundaries of what we know and expect as fine dining. Food isn’t to be dissected and analysed; food is to provoke and be savoured. Like a very good wine, or a very satisfactory sigh-inducing romp in bed, it’s not about what you see. It’s about what you feel.
Thank you, Enfin.
Enfin by James Won is located at Lot 2.05, Level 2, Menara Hap Seng 1, Jalan P. Ramlee, 50250 Kuala Lumpur, Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia