French Irony

It may seem strange to encounter an exquisite modern French restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, but there is one. It is called Frangipani, run by a restaurateur named Eddie Chow and his partner, a Fremch chef named Chris Bauer. Greeted by the restaurant manager, we were whisked inside out of pelting rain into a modern foyer with stainless steel-panelled walls and on into a contrasting and impressive Moroccan style interior, bathed in creamy white with towering rectangular columns, dramatically enhanced by a black pool in the center lit by an overhead skylight. The space oozes an exotic Casablanca ambience, softly lightened with luxurious space between the tables and romantic nooks overlooking the pool.

The staff were immediately attentive, seeing to the needs of our five year-old daughter first with an intelligent conversation on what she would like to eat. Tea- smoked salmon served with toast was identified as the most appealing, which was immediately put to the kitchen before the drinks and arrived at the same time, which might seem superficial to the childless, but it thoroughly impressed us and was strategic to the enjoyment of the evening. It is something other restaurateurs should learn because a restless child is a menace to the rest of the patrons.

Furthermore, this flawless service continued all night, highly attentive yet not obtrusive and with genuine purpose. This impression of genuineness was substantiated by the intelligent interaction between staff and guests and whenever any staff member was out of their depth, they immediately sought assistance from the manager or the kitchen. I have not encountered such excellent service in Asia in recent memory and the front-of-house experience is on par with one and two star Michelin restaurants we recently experienced in Italy, with the caveat that the best travelling accessory you can have in Italy is a baby. That sort of service is rarely achieved outside of owner-operated establishments.

The wine list frankly has more depth than anything I have seen in Asia, period, It is not an encyclopedia of trophy Bordeaux, although there is a certainly a broad representation of claret, astutely focused on St. Emilion and Pomerol. There is also a meticulous, concise range of new world wines, selected with savvy precision. All that said, the strength is a comprehensive range of Rhone, Languedoc and Roussillon wines and clearly a personally driven selection. You can sense a proprietary feel to it, if not obsession. Obviously pricing is an issue in country like Malaysia, inhibited by punitive taxes on alcohol. But the restaurant-level prices here are extraordinarily good value, not only by Kuala Lumpur standards, but very competitive with metropolises like Hong Kong, where they have no tax, just extortionate margins.

A lot of wines come in direct from France and the owners travel the different regions annually looking for new discoveries along with inspiration for produce and menus.

We chose a Domaine Vieille Julienne Lieu-dit Clavin 2007 Cotes du Rhone Blanc, highlighted on the wine list and also served by the glass: fragrant with white blossom and white peach, with hints of blanched almond and tarragon, it had a caressing oily-textural palate saturated in apricot and melon flavours, yet refreshingly savory and nutty with vibrant lemony acidity. Clearly a well-made, clean, modern Rhone white and with little wood influence – actually a Chateauneuf du Pape producer of much repute - which would easily benefit from two or three years bottle age, but delightful now.

To follow we had a red from one of my all-time favorite producers, the Domaine Pierre Clavel La Copa Santa 2005, from the Coteaux du Languedoc. It was an amazing surprise to see this on a wine list in Asia let alone Kuala Lumpur. It is a brilliant wine, very good value at RM260 on their restaurant wine list.

I divide up my analysis of fine dining restaurants in quarters; ambience/decor, service, wine list, and food, in no particular order of preference although clearly I have a wine bent. However, all facets are equally important to a complete dining experience. In a broader view, one has to put things in perspective relative to the establishment, or the occasion and circumstances. One doesn’t really place much emphasis on the decor when eating communally at your convivial local Thai, or if catching up with a group of friends, perhaps the wine list and bar are more important than the food.

For starters, the menu at Frangipani is unique with elaborate descriptions of every dish written by the chef, combining enticing explanations and philosophy behind the produce or influence from regions and travels, with a good deal of humour and personality behind each depiction. For example, Bauer’s description of his Herb poached ocean trout fillets: “DON’T immediately turn your attention away when you read the word 'poached'. In this case, it does not spell 'boring'! Our delicious ocean trout fillets have been lovingly marinated in herbs - gently rubbed with mother’s best olive oil and then wrapped air-tight before we poach them at 75°C. In this way, the taste stays in the fish, not in the water”.

As chef Bauer pointed out, his cuisine is modern French, which I have interpreted as meaning he is deeply rooted in his native French cooking but takes a pragmatic view and a contemporary approach to what he can source in Malaysia, considering it is a somewhat restricted marketplace. Alas, there is less Asian-produce influence in his food, although seafood from Japan is prominent, much of the rest is sourced from Australia, New Zealand and of course France.

The a la carte menu is planned to entice several-course dining, with an extensive range of first, second and third courses priced respectively at RM30, 45 and 60, with small additional charges for more extravagant produce. Servings are kept to a sensible size and an overall light touch to the cuisine with adherence to basic cooking techniques rather than elaborate garnishes or overcomplicated dishes.

You can opt for a three-course (full-size portions) of your choice for RM120, add RM20 for dessert, obviously encouraging you to sample as much of the chef’s repertoire at a reduced price. There is also a tasting menu comprising seven smaller courses at RM$158, or $258 including a wine paired with each course, to my mind, extremely good value indeed.

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Three plump fresh oysters from Kumamoto served with a vinaigrette of miso, white wine vinegar and olive set my brother-in-law’s palate on the right track. Moreover, it was encouraging to see oysters from the northern hemisphere where it is winter and the oysters are at their best, as opposed to a substandard experience we had recently where Australian oysters were proffered in complete ignorance of the seasons. My pan-roasted porcini powder-dusted Hokkaido scallop was perfectly cooked; a large and fleshly specimen that was crunchy yet melted in the mouth and had that wonderful interplay of sweet scallop meat and sea saltiness. I could have easily had six of these washed down with our Rhone Blanc as a complete meal.

My wife immediately zeroed in on a classic bouillabaisse-inspired dish, it being one of her favorites, yet it is terribly difficult to find a chef who can make a decent one. We paired it with a Rhone Blanc and it was brilliant with all the hedonistic intensity of fish broth and crustacean reduction with a creamy texture yet light on the palate and perfectly cooked seafood morsels. Bravo!

The male contingent were not terribly adventurous with our main courses as we were both in the mood for a good steak, I opted for a grass-feed Angus Porterhouse and my brother-in-law a Wagu rib-eye topped with pan-fried fois gras. I think I alluded to a light meal? Both steaks were perfectly cooked and hit the spot admirably.

My wife chose duck confit, as simple as it looked in presentation, served with a potato puree, it was cooked to perfection.Duck confit is one of those dishes or techniques that can go terribly wrong, with the duck leg looking inviting with its golden brown skin and wickedly fatty flavors. However, often the actual meat is dried out and like chewing on balsawood. It is a dish that requires patience and a thorough understanding of traditional techniques, to which Chef Bauer indubitably demonstrates.

We decided to have a cheese platter to mop up the rest of our red wine, all it in excellent condition and ripeness, cheese being another peril of restaurants in Asia. We were equally impressed by the variety of the selection and quality of the cheeses, so much so another glass of red had to be ordered!

The consensus is we had a most enjoyable experience at Frangipani and while it is not inexpensive, it certainly offers very good value for the overall package. The restaurant has been going for seven years and thus has a well-established following and proven track record. This is to date, our benchmark for fine dining in Kuala Lumpur and must-visit.

Verdict: Over-delivers

While I had a quick tour of the upstairs bar, we did not have the opportunity to road-test it fully but by all accounts, this is one of the hot spots of Kuala Lumpur’s night scene. It is an enormous space with modern-chic décor and lots of different spaces and lounging areas, some more secluded for naughtiness. With a reputation for the best cocktails in town, the resident celebrity bartenders will concoct something lethal for you. There is a resident DJ, who opens with “cool chill out vibes, which progresses to hip grinding funky, Latin house as the evening heats up”.

Eddie is candid about the bar. “It pays the rent, and it’s a lot of fun.” He goes on to say, “We have had people coming to the bar for years, like five years, and they don’t even know the restaurant downstairs exists” So if you are looking for the complete night out on the town, Frangipani has it all; you can start with drinks a 6 pm in the bar, dinner from 7.30 head back to the bar to chill out after dinner or groove on till 1am. Brilliant!

The bar and restaurant is open Tuesday to Sunday, closed Monday’s. Tel: + 60 3 2144 3001, reservations@frangipani.com.my, 25 Changkat Bukit Bintang, 50200

www.frangipani.com.my

The Wandering Palate, 25th February, 2009