Sequestered in the burgeoning dining enclave of Bukit Jalil in Kuala Lumpur, is fine-dining restaurant Zen by Mel. The just-hatched eatery is the brainchild of Melanie Pong and her husband Damien Lee, the founders of the city’s hugely popular café CC by Mel, which specialises in delicious (and very pretty) Japanese fusion fare.
The two were motivated to open Zen after realising that they couldn’t really spread their creative wings as much as they would like at CC by Mel, as they were constantly bound by price restrictions.
“Our chef wasn’t able to explore food outside the box, because he couldn’t exceed the costing given. So we thought ‘Why don’t we start a fine-dining restaurant where we can have chefs work their magic and create nicer dishes with more wow ideas?’” explains Lee.
So Pong and Lee hand-picked a team of chefs that they believed would fulfil their dreams of a Japanese fusion fine-dining space.
The concrete version of Zen has taken shape in the form of an intimate 12-seater eatery built around a performance-style open kitchen which allows diners to see everything that is happening in the kitchen as it is happening.
The kitchen is helmed by charismatic head chef Jordan Yap Zi Yuan, a 28-year-old who cut his teeth working in Japanese restaurants in Tokyo, Japan. Yap works hand-in-hand with 42-year-old sous chef Mohd Shafik Mohd Taufik, who has spent 27 years at Malaysian-based European eateries like Lafite, Entier and Zenzero, to name a few.
Rounding out this assemblage is passionate young ‘un Mirza Akmal Mohd Asri, 21, a former private dining chef who represents a new breed of culinary wunderkinds thirsty for knowledge and experience.
In coming together to assemble the food at Zen, Yap says the idea was to forge his and Shafik’s core strengths together in harmony.
“At Zen, abang Shafik and I have a yin-yang balance. I like Japanese techniques and chaotic, artistic things and he is very constructed, so we combine to create organised chaos,” explains Yap.
“That’s why the synergy between us has to be very close, because he does the European factors and the local ingredients and I do the Japanese elements. Sometimes I can be too adventurous, so he brings me back down to Earth,” says Yap, looking fondly at his “abang”.
At the moment, Zen only offers a 10-course Daiisho menu, priced at RM498 per person. Each course is cooked and plated in the open kitchen and once it is presented to guests – Yap, Shafik or Mirza explain the dish’s DNA and formation in great detail.
All three chefs are very open to taking questions about a dish and this results in an un-fussy experience where conversation flows fluidly and diners don’t feel stifled or uncomfortable. Yap himself often happily walks around with sauce bottles, asking if diners want more of this or that!
Some highlights from the menu include the amouse bouche (palate cleanser) called Seitaikei tart. This is made of beetroot that is cooked, blended and dehydrated until it forms a leather-like texture and is then moulded into a tart shell. This is topped with sashimi-style Japanese buri fish, a smoked mushroom vinaigrette (made up of porcini and shiitake mushrooms) and pearls of Iranian caviar.
This is a one-bite meal that serves to illuminate a beguiling prism of flavours. The beetroot offers a rustic, earthy quality that segues into velvety soft fish, which is then pipped by the woody, smoky notes from the mushroom vinaigrette and a rich mineral burst of salinity and opulence from the caviar. There is also textural balance – softness, hardness and a little bit of pop. As meals go, this marks a triumphant prologue of what’s in store for diners.
The cold appetiser of Hotate Picasso is made up of Japanese scallop with nori puree (made with seaweed and vinegar) and smoked uni paste with kaffir lime leaf oil and Malabar red spinach foam infused with a bit of beetroot.
The scallop is the star of this sea-faring show and is limber and supple with a velvety mouthfeel. This aquatic treasure is great on its own but sometimes the food heavens throw in a surprise element that doesn’t sound particularly exciting in its own right but somehow acts as the wind beneath the wings of another ingredient. This is exactly what the kaffir lime leaf oil does for the scallop – giving it a zesty, refreshing lift-off that takes it from good to extraordinary in a single mouthful.
The hot appetiser of Ahiru Ume features Bidor duck that is dry-aged for five days before being pan-seared to render the fat and then finished on charcoal for a lightly smoky after-effect. This is boosted by roasted Momo peach from Australia, an aged umeboshi glaze, Cointreau jus and local ulam.
The duck is thinly sliced and retains both a light outer crust and a pink middle, ensuring silken smooth meat that practically slides down the palate with minimal effort. But perhaps the true hero of this concoction is the charcoal grilled local ulam. Composed of pucuk paku and paku rawan (a vegetable that grows in the waters of padi fields) that Shafik sources from local markets daily, the ulam is sprayed with a mixture of Cointreau, mirin, sake and jasmine tea before being grilled over hot Binchotan coals.
The result is revelatory – the vegetables have a lovely char and a smoky allure that give it such an addictive quality that you can’t help but long for more of this green wonder.
The main course of Aji No Shinen or Iberico lamb rack feature lamb (which is sourced from Spain) where the fat is rendered on the pan before being charcoal-grilled. This is buoyed by cauliflower that is butter-poached before being roasted in the oven. On the side is a saikyo miso curry leaf paste made up of curry powder and curry leaves while crunchy bits of lamb fat finalise this meal. The entire concoction is then smoked with apple wood and covered with a dome before the big reveal.
The scent of the apple wood is one of those olfactory experiences that is so bewitching, you’ll want to bottle it. This sets the tone for the meal, which reveals lamb that is perfectly pink and tender and a curry paste that makes for an unusually good accompaniment. The roasted cauliflower meanwhile has a wonderful char and is tender to the touch and deserves a pedestal of its own.
Desserts are made by pastry chef Jessica Veritus, 23, who was brought in from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Veritus has put together a series of pastry options that belie her youth.
Perhaps her most successful dessert offering is also the most substantial – the Imperial Zencha. Here, matcha mousse is made using ceremonial grade matcha which was once reserved for emperors and empresses. The mousse is filled with raspberry compote while an adzuki red bean ice-cream rounds out this concoction.
This is a dessert to remember because even if you are not a fan of matcha, you’ll enjoy the subtle green tea nuances here which are pleasant but don’t have that staunch bitterness so pervasive in commercial matcha. The texture of the mousse is also an additional plus point, as it is pillowy soft and segues into the sweet, slightly fruity notes of the berry compote contained within. The adzuki ice-cream meanwhile is a smooth operator that countenances the sweetness of this meal perfectly. It is a well-constructed, well thought out dessert that hits all those requisite high notes – and then some.
Moving forward, Yap and his team are trying their hardest to make it onto the inaugural Michelin Guide Kuala Lumpur – their ultimate goal.
“Every day we are trying to perfect the menu, we have a daily post-mortem after dinner service just to make sure the next day’s dinner is better than the one before. So getting awards is something we are striving for and fuels our drive and passion to perfect our craft every day,” says Yap.
Zen by Mel
Pusat Perdagangan Bandar
Persiaran Jalil 1
57000 Kuala Lumpur
Open: Wednesday to Monday at 6pm (first seating), and 8.30pm (second seating)