(THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The first thing that is likely to strike you about Grub by Ahong & Friends is that it has a very interesting aesthetic.
Large packs of tomato puree, cooking oil and even barrels of onion and garlic are on full display near the open kitchen.
Upstairs, the area outside the window is crammed full of bits and bobs – chairs, pieces of wood and the like.
It is a unique introduction to a restaurant that has been gaining traction and lots of fans for its reasonably priced, high-quality food.
But there is a method to this madness, as the man behind Grub, the affable Ngui Yeang Hong, or Ahong as he is popularly known, attests to.
“I have a background in architecture. And one of the things I learnt about restaurants is that people spend a lot of money doing up the interior and the cost of it is not justifiable. So for us, it is about stripping down everything that we can,” he says.
The stripping down also extends to a self-service structure that is in place. While waiters deliver meals to tables, customers collect cutlery, sharing plates, canned drinks and water themselves from a table laden with all these items. Ahong says when customers do this, he does not need to employ more waiters, which means his costs go down and he is then able to charge less for quality meals.
Ahong is probably best known for his stints on cooking competitions such as MasterChef Malaysia and the R.AGE Food Fight. At one point, he also had a stall in a hospital foodcourt. When that became too expensive to maintain, his thoughts turned to opening a restaurant.
But the road to opening Grub was not smooth-sailing.
Ahong and his then-girlfriend broke up while renovating the space and the end of this 13-year relationship caused a downward spiral that turned into a year-long depression. He even considered giving up the business, but was coaxed out of it by his friends at MyBurgerLab.
At the nexus of Grub is Ahong’s food philosophy, which is about doing simple, honest Western food using whatever is available.
To begin a meal at Grub, try the roasted beetroot, fresh fruit and feta salad (RM13.50 or S$4.40). The dish typifies Ahong’s use of local ingredients, or as he likes to put it – “making do with what we have”.
The salad is a pretty, totally Instagrammable affair that also features an interesting coalescence of flavours. The fruit in question is jackfruit – which at first seems incongruous in this concoction, but works wondrously well with the beetroot chunks and feta cheese.
Then there is the fried French quail with roasted grapes (RM9.50), inspired by a dish Ahong discovered in Italy. The Italian version calls for the quail to be cooked with cherries and wine, but as cherries are expensive and he does not put alcohol in his food, he made do with quail and roasted grapes.
The result is a delicate dish, framed by perfectly tender quail offset by the sweetness of the grapes and augmented by a light sambal on the side.
Perhaps the most highly anticipated items on the menu are the steaks. The New York strip (RM39) and flank steak (RM39) are some of the most affordable steaks you are likely to find in Klang Valley and Ahong monitors the cooking of his meats very carefully.
The steaks are marinated in salt, pepper and seasoning and left overnight to tenderise before being cooked, sous-vide style, to a recommended rare or medium-rare doneness.
“I serve steak only medium-rare or rare because if you go above that, it’s not worth eating anymore. But having said that, we do serve it to customers who want it some other way because I do have an approach where I think you should never take food too seriously,” he says.
As a result of all that attention to detail, the steaks are done to perfection – lovely pink slices that are soft to the bite and full of rich bovine flavour. The New York strip is particularly delicious – fat, velvety soft meat that is tender on the palate and ideal for carnivores of every stripe.
The steaks are served with a well-executed jambu ulam salad after Ahong realised that most Malaysians love this typically local offering, as opposed to the ubiquitous salads in many restaurants.
Next, try the slow smoked duck (RM30), which features a quarter duck slow-roasted with charcoal and served with an orange reduction. The dish was concocted because Ahong felt that, as an ethnic Chinese, roasting a duck was something he simply had to master.
It is clear he has learnt well, as the duck boasts hints of smokiness throughout and soft, yielding meat under a canopy of burnished, slightly crisp skin.
From the pasta selection, the beef ragu macaroni (RM16.50) is a clear winner that is sure to find rabid fans. The dish was concocted largely to make use of the leftover steak offcuts. The beef pieces have been braised to a soft pliability and the whole mixture is given added depth as a result of the thick blanket of grana padano cheese that layers the top of the dish.
For dessert, indulge in two sweet delights: the taufu fah cheesecake (RM12) and chocolate tart (RM12).
The former features a silken mound of tofu atop a digestive crust biscuit in what proves to be a delightfully satin-soft journey of textural discovery. The latter boasts a triple threat in the form of chocolate ganache, crispy feuillantine and chocolate tart casing, which come together to form sheer bliss.
Ultimately, a meal at Grub is an incredibly satisfying one, where simple, honest food is done to perfection.
And a lot of it has to do with the man who forms the heart and soul of the place. You are likely to find him in many areas of the restaurant – cooking in the open kitchen, wandering through the restaurant chatting with diners and, later in the night, sharing a glass of wine with a table.
Ahong says it is these conversations with his customers that makes what he does worthwhile. “That’s one of the things that keeps me sane for now,” he says.
Grub by Ahong & Friends
Where: 608 Jalan 17/10, Section 17, 46400 Petaling Jaya, Selangor; tel: +016-923-2983; open: 6 to 10pm (Tuesdays to Thursdays), 11.30am to 2.30pm, 6 to 10pm (Fridays to Sundays)