On a sunny Tuesday evening, Ember Modern Bistro in Kuala Lumpur is slowly awakening to life. The eatery’s epicentre is a long, sprawling open kitchen which forms the heart of the space.
Here, chefs work fluidly alongside each other, slicing, frying and grilling like a well-rehearsed orchestra. The maestro behind this harmonious symphony is charismatic 32-year-old chef-owner Gary Anwar.
Gary is a seasoned chef who has cut his teeth in numerous restaurants in KL and beyond, including multiple Spanish tapas restaurants in KL and Singapore as well as a stint at celebrated local Japanese tapas restaurant Babe. Having spent a decade honing his skills in other people’s restaurants, a few months ago, he decided the time was finally ripe to strike out on his own.
“I reckon there is never a good time to open a restaurant. So I thought if I fail at 32, I can still bounce back, rather than start later. So that’s one of the reasons I decided to open Ember,” says Gary.
The second reason – and perhaps the more pertinent one – is a need to redress what Gary feels is lacking in most local restaurants.
“I’m kind of tired of seeing the restaurant scene in KL. To me, the good restaurants are few and far between, especially the ones that actually care about the food they serve and try their best to give you value for money.
“So with my own place, I might not be able to change what’s going on in the industry, but I can change what’s going on here,” he says pragmatically.
Which is why many things at Ember defy common restaurant practices everywhere else. Staff here get two days off a week (unheard of in most places) because Ember is closed on Sundays and Mondays.
“I come from a time when we were working 14, 16 hours a day and we only got one day off and it was terrible. You have no work-life balance and you sacrifice everything, so opening my own place affords me the chance to change this for myself and the people who work here,” he says.
On top of that, Gary shops for all the ingredients at the eatery himself, heading to the Pudu market every morning to hand-pick his choices, as the menu incorporates a lot of local produce.
“Basically we don’t just say everything is fresh, we know for a fact that it is fresh,” says Gary.
The menu is a tapestry of Gary’s life – his childhood, family and job experiences, all woven together to form delicious, Asian-inspired meals.
“At first, we were trying to find a way to describe what we do and as a chef, I try to avoid the word fusion, so now we say that what we’re doing is modern Asian. We are not defining the term but that sounds like something people can get behind,” says Gary.
Start your meal with the MB7 Darling Downs wagyu smoked beef tartare (RM41). Here, tender cubes of beef jostle alongside fresh shallots, crispy fried shallots and kerisik (toasted grated coconut) in what proves to be a delightfully sumptuous coupling of flavours and textures. The kerisik is the stand-out in this pairing, offering a nutty underbelly that permeates the entire meal with deliciously addictive tropical notes.
The eggplant salad and sesame dressing (RM27) is another inspired menu offering that has Middle Eastern and South-East Asian leanings. Here, luscious eggplant pieces coalesce peacefully with pomegranate and lots of crispy shallots. This assemblage is jazzed up by a dressing made up of sesame, miso and peanut butter, among other ingredients.
You wouldn’t be alone in thinking that the ingredient list reads like a hodgepodge of odds and ends picked off a jumble sale, but Gary’s sense of adventure wins out once again, as these seemingly odd bedfellows actually work spectacularly well together. The eggplant is yielding and submissive while the crispy shallots add verve and crunch to each mouthful. The dressing, despite sounding ominous, is actually quite understated and ties everything together beautifully.
Then there is the grilled lamb and noodles (RM35), made up of lamb, spring onion relish and soy butter. This is a simple, uncomplicated meal that somehow hits all those hard-to-reach high notes. The lamb is meltingly tender while the noodles are slick and flavour-packed.
The grilled fish and local baby vegetables (RM37) features market-fresh snapper topped with local greens like pucuk paku, pucuk labu and four-angled beans with a shio kombu (dried seaweed) butter rounding out the dish. This is a light, effervescent meal underscored by the sheer freshness of everything on the plate – from the fish to the greens.
With the kampung chicken with yuzu koshu (RM37), you’ll be hit with a triumphant, euphoric high as soon as you bite into the chicken which is oh-so-good. Things just get better when you dab a smear of the spicy yuzu koshu (fermented chilli with salt and yuzu) served on the side and lap up this winning combination.
It is of course hard to find perfection everywhere you go, and this is evident in the crispy prawns and vege noodles (RM35) which is essentially crispy local prawns mounted on a bed of julienned vegetables tossed in a Thai-inspired lemongrass dressing. Here, the overall sensation that assails you is ... nothing. The meal is fairly ordinary and doesn’t evoke any thoughts or impressions, which is to say it doesn’t leave a mark at all.
But this is quickly rectified by the yellowtail tuna (specials menu) which features yellowtail tuna sourced from Japan heaped atop a bed of rice floating in a river of dashi stock with a dusting of dried shisho leaf and plum completing this picturesque tableau. The fish is fresh and fleshy but the soul food aspect of this meal is elevated to a whole new level by the comforting trio of rice, dashi and dried shisho leaf powder. It’s another one of those quietly clever meals that Ember is clearly so good at.
Moving forward, Gary is continuing to go against the grain. Given that the restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays, he is looking at doing pop-ups with other chefs who may not yet have their own restaurants but want to put their skills to the test.
“The whole idea behind this is I have the space, I have the opportunity – I’m very fortunate that I can open my own restaurant and I understand a lot of chefs – we don’t earn a lot, so it’s very difficult for us to open a restaurant.
“A lot of restaurants are open seven days a week, so young chefs can’t just go to a restaurant and say, ‘Can I cook at your place for a day?’ So we can use this as a space and a platform for people who want to cook and showcase their food,” he says.
Ember Modern Bistro
20, Jalan Wan Kadir 1
Taman Tun Dr Ismail
60000 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 018-323 2786
Open Tuesday to Saturday: 5.30pm to 11.30pm