Meat's magic is in the moment. Always.
“The correct temperature for a piece of medium-rare meat is 45.5 (Celsius) and it takes at least a good twenty to thirty minutes to prepare. From searing, resting -- and the meat must rest -- to presenting it to the diner. Good food takes time. You come to Prime for a piece of meat; what I give you is a good piece of meat. You can put sambal on it if you want, but the steak will be good -- very good.”
How could we disagree. Connoisseurs and discerning carnivores know Antoine Rodriguez, executive chef and bedrock of Prime at Le Meriden Kuala Lumpur. As with the best of his peers, his tour of duty has taken him places, including Sri Lanka at the height of its civil war. Let's just say that Chef Antoine gets food, and his life has added up, exponentially, in KL. If you haven't heard it before, here's the creation story of Prime, still bustling on weekday evenings like your winningest best friend:
“When I came here in 2004, there were not many places I could go to for a good piece of steak. My only options were a place called Jake’s and Victoria Station... So I told the hotel owners, let’s do a steak place. We went all over Japan, Singapore and Bangkok and ate every steak we could find. We had steak for lunch, dinner and we ate until we felt we knew what was missing in KL. I knew exactly what I wanted -- a good place for a good piece of meat. With space, leather chairs, good wine, good beef."
Sourced from Australia, Prime serves halal-certified, Japanese-style beef. The restaurant carries fresh red meat and a variety in terms of brand, breeding and marbling. “I like to offer something different so I do have some really expensive Blackmore and interesting secondary cuts, which I personally like," says Antoine.
"For the Blackmore, we buy the cattle in Japan and ship them to Australia where they are treated and handled the Japanese way (minus the sake) and fed the same Japanese feed they use in Japan. This way, we maintain the halal certification but get the same grade and quality of the premium Japanese beef,” he explains.
If you've never met he man, Antoine is French, went to traditional cooking school, and served in the French foreign legion. Salt of the earth? As sure as la cuisine de grand mere -- food cooked with skill using your hands and with your heart rather than abstract philosophy -- is seeing a revival.
“I’m a real chef and I think I really go back to the old ways, the basic ways of cooking. To me, a dish should be rich. It should be fulfilling and when you eat it, you should feel the passion of the chef. I love cooking and believe me, I’ve done every style of cooking there is. I’ve done molecular gastronomy; I’ve done the pretty presentation type… you name it I’ve done it, but it’s not my style. I don’t practise it here because when I do it, I feel as though I’m not serving real food. Sure it’s good to look at; it's good to try, but in the end, I just want good food and that’s what I give my customers.”
“A good restaurant has three tests,” he says, when asked about Prime's robust crowd of regulars. “The quality of the product, the timing of the cooking and the seasoning. If you master these three, your restaurant is good.
Seasoning? "For me, all I need is a good piece of meat, salt and pepper. The flavour of the meat is what matters. When you cook a good piece of meat over the right heat, the meat releases its fat as it cooks and the fat drips into the charcoal, gas or fire and you get this smoke that flavours the meat. You finish it to the right doneness you want, and voila, that’s it. That’s all it takes”
Of course, it's easy when you know what you're doing. And Antoine is no dictator: “I once had a diner order a really fresh, top quality Blackmore cut. It was nearly RM700 for that piece of 220-gram meat so you can imagine how good that piece of meat is. He asked that I coat it in cili padi! And I did it! It was fantastic -- for him. Not for me but if that’s what the customer wants, I’m happy to do it."
Right: Foie Gras Trilogy
Prime offers Wagyu Prime Ribs, Blackmore (the award-winning 100% full blood Japanese Wagyu), Australian-certified rib eyes, centre-cut filet mignons, sirloins, tenderloins, short ribs, oyster blade steaks and Wagyu T-Bones (marble score 8/9). Sauces include béarnaise, cracked Sarawak peppercorn, truffle, mixed mushroom, Argentinean chimichurri dressing, mint and cilantro yoghurt sauce, mustard (three kinds), homemade mustard (four kinds) and basic sauces such as freshly grated horseradish, roasted tomato ketchup, and barbecue sauce with jalapenos. Prices start at RM208 nett, up to RM680, for a 220gram cut.
It's a mind-boggling selection. Antoine recommends the oyster blade cut because it is as well-marbled and juicy as the tenderloin at about half the cost, and nearly as tender. Also: "Boneless steak has excellent beef flavour. The steaks are cross-cut from the top blade, with a line of tough connective tissue down the middle. It’s tender, beefy and tasty. If you want, you can also go for the tenderloin or rib eye; they have beautiful marbling. Tenderloins are lean, rib eyes beefy. The most important thing is, they all have a bite. Meat is only good when you feel that bite in it. It’s not ice cream! It shouldn’t melt in your mouth. No no no no no."
This is Prime time for the capital's meatarians.