(THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Being the younger sibling can be trying. Everything you do has been done before and your older sibling is always there, rubbing your face in the fact that he/she got there first and will always be numero uno in your parents’ books.
This was exactly what Wong Yin How was looking to avoid when he set up Grano Pasta Bar in Bangsar hipster enclave APW a few months ago.
Wong is the owner of the successful 1½-year-old eatery Proof Pizza + Wine, which serves delicious wood-fired pizzas and has a rabid following.
“When the space next door became available, I think it was a very logical step to do a sister outlet. I wanted a separate identity because both are very niche in terms of the food itself, so in this way, there’s a very simple compartmentalising between Proof and Grano,” he says.
So Wong set up Grano right next to Proof, with a connecting walkway upstairs the only link between the two. It is a smart decision because instead of pitting the siblings against each other and inciting constant comparisons, the two are destined to be thick as thieves, each ably complementing the other.
The kitchen is helmed by Meg Lee, head chef at Proof, who is used to working with dough and has had experience making fresh pasta in a luxury hotel in Singapore. The menu was devised by both Wong (who makes yearly trips to Italy) and Lee in a synergistic exchange of ideas.
“I would say it’s a bit of a to-and-fro situation. There were some things I really wanted, like I felt that truffle pasta would work well because, in Proof, we are famous for our truffle pizza. So there were a few markers that I shared with the chef, but she filled in the blanks and we refined it from there,” says Wong.
Lee uses both durum wheat flour and Tipo 00 (finely ground Italian wheat flour) to make pastas from scratch. A pasta machine imported from Italy helps her two-man team churn out pastas more efficiently.
“I like working with flour and dough, so that’s why pasta and pizza are like brothers and sisters for me. And I think fresh pastas are more versatile because you actually have more freedom to do what you want,” says Lee.
The menu at Grano is compact, with about 10 pastas on offer, as well as a few salads, small bites and desserts. On the pasta front, aside from the ubiquitous carbonara, you are unlikely to find anything else on the menu that rings a bell. Even the pasta shapes are slightly different from anything you are likely to have experienced on the local front.
“These are all unique-shaped pastas like reginette and creste, which you won’t see very often. We imported these moulds and will definitely look at getting more moulds,” says Wong.
To begin your Italian adventure at Grano, try the Polenta Fritta Con Taleggio (RM21.60 or S$7.20), which is essentially crispy polenta (cornmeal) fritters served with an aubergine sesame seed spread and semi-dred tomato pumpkin seed pesto. Lee was determined to introduce polenta on the menu as it is common in Italy but rarely featured in Italian restaurants here.
“I think maybe some Asians don’t like it because it’s mushy, but I thought if I introduce more texture, so it’s crispy outside and soft inside, maybe they will enjoy it,” she says.
The result is reverential – a crackly, crispy exterior that yields to a tender inside. The pesto and aubergine spreads are equally good – the aubergine has a lovely lusciousness while the pesto is sumptuous and flavourful. Both are perfect for mopping up with the polenta.
From the pasta selection, go big with the Tajari Egg Pasta (RM37.70). This is one of the few pastas that Lee and her team handmake from start to finish, without the aid of their cosmopolitan pasta machine.
The richness of the pasta is accentuated by fresh summer truffle butter sauce, Pecorino Romano cheese and shaved black truffles scattered gracefully atop. The pasta is decadent and you will get the heady aromas and flavours of the truffle interspersed with the richness of the cheese, although if you had to pick a winner in a tug-of-war of flavours, you might think that the cheese overpowers the truffle just a tad.
Next up, indulge in the Ravioli (RM37.70), which boasts plump little ravioli pockets stuffed with air-dried, cured duck breast and mixed mushroom risotto with a tomato saffron broth to round things off. This is a meal that shows gentle finesse – the lightness of the broth dances seductively on the palate while the velvety ravioli serves up little parcels of pleasure.
Then there is the Reginette (RM33.90), which features long, frilly pasta strands jazzed up with braised free-range chicken, pork pancetta, white wine and chicken broth. This is another light, flavourful affair underscored by salty bursts of pancetta and a nourishing chicken broth. The pasta itself is bouncy and springy to the touch, a wily adventurer that you will want to put a lasso around and keep to yourself.
Probably the prettiest offering on the menu is the Risotto (RM28.30), a rich purple beauty that has been given its shade courtesy of the roasted beetroot in the mixture. Other key figures here include Gorgonzola blue cheese, capers and Pecorino Romano cheese. Even though there are so many prominent flavours on show, Lee has found the perfect equilibrium in highlighting the creamy texture, earthy vegetable flavours and lavish cheesy undertones without losing ground on any front.
The Creste De Gallo Lisce (RM34.90) represents one of Wong’s contributions to the table and is inspired by how popular nduja has become in Italy and beyond.
Ndjua is a spreadable sausage from Calabria in southern Italy made with pork fat, herbs, spices and spicy Calabrian peppers. In this iteration, the nduja is cooked with pearl onion, capers, zucchini and cherry tomatoes in combination with the creste pasta (shaped like a rooster’s crest). This is a dish with verve and spirit – you will find robust tomato flavours underscored by a hint of that spicy sausage running through. But perhaps the best thing about this meal is the creste itself, which is plump and has an endearing addictive quality.
From the limited dessert options at Grano, it is well worth trying the Sourdoughnut (RM23.50), which features crisp doughnuts with tender, fluffy inner cores, enhanced by twin delights: a rosemary custard sauce and a rose flower whipped cream. The custard and cream serve to sluice through the cloying nature that fried foods typically have and are incredibly good at their job.
Portions at Grano are on the petite side, but given that they are mostly carbs, that is a good thing in my books. Wong says they will be looking at changing the options on the menu constantly, although the menu itself is unlikely to become more expansive.
“I don’t think we’ll be expanding it, but we’ll be changing it and refreshing it fairly regularly. The next evolution would be using flavoured pastas, so chef is going to move to that as a next phase,” he says.
Grano Pasta Bar
Where: Lot 29-2, APW Bangsar, Jalan Riong, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, tel: 03-2788-3595; open: 12.15 to 3pm and 6 to 10.30pm (Tuesdays to Sundays)