Interior designer Omar Khan dishes over rugs and Malay food at Bijan Restaurant


  • Eating Out
  • Sunday, 05 Apr 2015

A bundle of creative and nervous energy takes quick, fast steps towards me as I sit at the bar of Bijan Restaurant in the heart of KL. Omar Khan is definitely harried, and although he greets me cordially, his mind seems to be miles away.

“I had only two hours of sleep last night,” he rues, as I take in how his vintage-looking half-frame Dita spectacles make him look a lot more serious than he probably is. “I was putting the finishing touches on an interior design project which I just submitted. I’m also in the midst of launching two new rug collections, my new website and an online store. Plus, I was secretly planning a surprise birthday party for my partner.”

When I suggest to him that we should have postponed our dinner meeting, he says, “Every day is crazy. When you are building an empire, no matter how big or small, every minute of your day is spent doing something.”

We are led to our table in the outdoor terrace, where the rustic kampung like ambience – with bamboo roofing, teak furniture and potted plants – seems to exert a calming effect on my dinner companion. As we peruse the menu, Omar removes two small bottles from the pockets of his metallic-coloured nylon jacket and places them on the table in front of us. I look at them quizzically and he smiles, telling me they are pure essential oils.

“This one’s lemon and you can put a few drops into your water, and the other one is called 'Stress Away’,” he says, adding that having a high stress job and not wanting to resort to medication, these aromatherapy oils work wonders for him.

He then asks me to give him the palm of my left hand and he shakes two drops on it. “Rub your palms together and then inhale,” he tells me. I duly follow his instructions and I’ve got to admit, I felt mellower after a few inhalations.

Well settled, we look through Bijan’s dinner menu to study our options and after our orders are taken, Omar gives me a whistle-stop review of his career thus far. Having graduated from the Parsons School of Design in New York, where he earned a degree in animation and graphic design, he returned to Asia and moved to Jakarta, where his mother is originally from.

“I learnt the business side of art at Parsons, and as an artist you have to learn how to adapt the commercial side to your work,” he says emphatically. He went to work with his aunt who owned a retail space in Jakarta called The Papilion – a patisserie, chocolatier, café and bridal boutique which carried the creations of famed Indonesian designer Biyan.

Omar started the furniture and homeware store, and it was while dressing a window here that someone from the Lane Crawford group in Hong Kong saw his work and offered him the position of head of visual merchandising for the Pedder Group.

Masak Lemak Udang Tempoyak (above) and Rusuk Panggang (below).

As he was just beginning to tell me more about that stint, our starters – aptly called Aneka Pembuka – arrive. It consisted of a quartet of crispy prawns fried in batter with sweet chilli sauce, fried spring rolls with vegetables served with Bijan chilli sauce, steamed minced meat and herbs wrapped within a layer of pancake and coconut gravy, and Acar Tofu which was skewered, deep-fried marinated tofu topped with a spicy and tangy pickled vegetable sauce.

Satisfying and diverse, this dish was a happy indicator of more delicious Malay food to come.

Bijan Bar and Restaurant, which opened about 11 years ago, touts itself as a pioneer of fine Malay cuisine. Executive Chef Zulkifli has won the hearts and stomachs of many locals and tourists alike with his unique take on traditional Malay recipes that incorporate modern day ingredients and cooking techniques.

Whatever modus operandi Chef Zulkifli employs, it was certainly working: Omar and I demolished every single morsel in our starter platter and couldn’t wait for the main course.

While we do that, my dinner companion continues with his career trajectory and tells me how, after spending over three years in Hong Kong and with the experience garnered at the Pedder Group – which included collaborating with architecture wunderkind Andre Fu, founder of the award-winning AFSO, on several projects – he came to a pivotal point in his career.

He was spurred to start his own creative consultancy offering services in interior design, branding and visual merchandising. That resulted in the Omar Khan Collective, and more recently, he has successfully ventured into rug design. “A rug is an anchor in a home. It ties everything together,” says the 36-year-old who is the second eldest of five children.

His parents are Datuk Mahmud Khan and Datin Khadijah Khan and his ancestry, it seems, is as exotic as the rugs he designs – his father is of Pakistani and German descent while his mother comes from a Dutch, Chinese and Egyptian background. His uncle is the tycoon Datuk Sri Akbar Khan of Bandar Raya Development Berhad (BRDB).

Rendang Itik (above) and Aneka Pembuka (below).

All at once our main course arrives – a combination of several complementary dishes, served together, Asian style.

The spread consisted of our favourite of the night, Rusuk Panggang, char-grilled marinated beef short ribs served with pegedil, sweet soy sauce and sambal belacan; Masak Lemak Udang Tempoyak, stir-fried prawns in a creamy fermented durian sauce with kaffir lime leaf and onions; Rendang Itik, tender deep-fried marinated duck breast and leg; Ikan Siakap Sos Asam, deep fried sea-bass with a tangy blend of peanut and tamarind sauce, served with slices of raw four-angled bean, red onion and red chilli; and Pucuk Paku Goreng Tahi Minyak, stir fried wild fern with chillies, caramelised coconut and shrimps, topped with aromatic rendang sauce.

As we tuck into the food, it’s obvious that Omar – in spite of a pronounced American accent – remains very Asian at his core, thanks to a childhood spent in Malaysia, Singapore and Jakarta, before going off to a Connecticut boarding school.

He forgoes rice, saying he’s trying to shed some pounds. Despite having avoided the carbs, Omar appears excited when the waiter comes up to ask us what we would like for dessert. He orders banana fritters with homemade coconut ice cream and when it arrives, his eyes light up. “It’s soooooo good as its old school,” he says as he takes a big bite.

As we end our meal, I ask him for his definition of good taste and his reply surprises me: “I wouldn’t worry about what is good or bad but just focus on telling your story ... if you are true to yourself, it doesn’t really matter what other people think,” he offers in a very matter of fact manner.

Bijan Bar and Restaurant is at 3 Jalan Ceylon, 50200 Kuala Lumpur. Open daily 4:30pm–11pm; phone (03) 2031-3575. For details, go to bijanrestaurant.com.

This article was originally published in Life Inspired, out every second and fourth Sunday of the month, and distributed exclusively with The Sunday Star to selected areas in the Klang Valley. The next issue will be out on April 12.

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