Frustration can be a very powerful source of motivation. In Muhammad Imran Abdullah’s case, it was what spurred him to open Positano Risto, a halal restaurant in Singapore serving authentic Italian food.
“What I actually realised was as Muslims, when we travel around the world, we don’t have a Western food chain that caters to halal diets, so when we go to places like London, New York and Tokyo, we can’t walk into any Western chain restaurant and eat there,” he says.
So in December 2017, Imran and his brother-in-law Muhammad Ishak Ahmad decided to do something to address the persistent problem they had encountered during their travels. And that is how Positano was born in Singapore. The eatery serves true-blue Italian food, arguably the most popular Western cuisine on this side of the world.
“So we started this idea in Singapore, one of the world’s most competitive restaurant markets. Everyone laughed when we first started and said, ‘You are never going to survive without alcohol’. We don’t serve wine or beer, but we went to No.1 on TripAdvisor for Italian food and we’ve stayed there since we opened,” says Imran.
Late last year, Imran and Ishak decided to venture to Malaysia, opening a Positano outlet in Publika, Kuala Lumpur, which has since become popular.
To put together the menu at Positano, Imran and his brother-in-law looked to the top Italian restaurants in the world for inspiration and then tried to “halal-ise” whatever they could.
As Imran admits to being extremely pedantic, the taste tests that were conducted to get the final results were nothing short of military operations.
“We tasted a lot of dishes with at least 10 people at each sitting in our focus groups and then we went through rankings and ratings and anything that didn’t get 9/10 average among the group – failed.
“Basically, everything on the menu has been researched to death. Some dishes have been sent back to the kitchen 17 times before they got on the menu. So yeah, we’re very, very fussy,” says Imran.
At Positano, nearly everything is made from scratch, from the pizza dough to the sauces, as Imran doesn’t believe in “cheating”.
The Malaysian outlet does deviate slightly from its Singapore predecessor in some ways, as there is a more extensive selection of desserts (the restaurant has an in-house pastry chef) as well as some meals that are not available in Singapore. While the Malaysian outlet sources all its produce from halal suppliers, it is still in the process of getting halal certification.
Start your meal at Positano with the char-grilled calamari with herbs (RM28.95) which features perfectly-cooked squid – tender and malleable with a slight char on the surface. The cephalopods are tossed with mint, parsley and chilli and dressed with garlic oil and lemon in what proves to be a sunny, lightly zesty affair that guarantees total, unfettered adoration.
From the pizza selections, opt for the super supreme calzone (RM59.95). The best-seller in Positano’s pizza range, the dough was perfected after 164 failed attempts! Here you’ll discover a lovely star-shaped pizza that offers a crispy, crackly exterior that gives way to a paper thin crust.
This foundation is topped with a motley crew of ingredients in the form of tomato sauce, mozzarella, turkey ham, beef pepperoni, burrata, parmesan cheese as well as pockets filled with mushroom and beef pastrami. It’s an indulgent affair that is so endearing and easy to enjoy that you’ll find yourself reaching for slice after slice with little regard for diet or decorum.
Next up, sample the squid ink seafood spaghetti (RM44.95) which is essentially spaghetti tossed in homemade squid ink sauce and chilli, topped with tiger prawns, clams and squid. The spice levels can be adjusted to your preference but even if you choose the mildest option, there is a lively undercurrent of heat running through the veins of this meal. The squid ink itself is delightful – a lightly briny affair that thoroughly coats the pasta and forms a protective layer over the generous portions of seafood in the mix.
The fettucine carbonara (RM32.95) is topped with beef pastrami, crispy beef bacon, chives, parmesan and a single, wobbly sous vide egg. Toss the entire concoction together and you’ll quickly discover a sure-fire panacea for a bad day. The pasta here is dreamy – everything coated in seductive creaminess and accentuated by the yolky goodness of the egg in the mixture. And while beef bacon can often be disappointing – many times too chewy or chalk-like – happily, this version is spot-on and remarkably close to the real deal.
If you’re after something to really sink your teeth into, the signature short rib (RM78.95) is just the ticket. The braised hunk of beef is served with mashed potatoes, grilled vegetables and a mixed salad. The beef ticks all the right boxes – tenderly yielding and pliant, but it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, which would make it more memorable. The same cannot be said about the mashed potatoes, which are really buttery, silken smooth and oh-so-good.
Take a dive into the dessert end of the menu with the signature ice cream brioche (RM36.95). The homemade brioche is deliciously pillowy soft (although some parts are a tad burnt) and pairs so well with the ice-cream in the mixture that even if you started out saying you couldn’t possibly finish such a mammoth portion, you’ll find the willpower and greed to polish off the entire thing.
Having tasted success with both Positano outlets, Imran is determined to open more as he is sure there is a large Muslim market looking for a trusted source of Italian food.
“We are in discussion with four different leading malls in KL to open our outlets. And we are looking also beyond KL, at places like Johor and Penang, as well as other countries in South-East Asia where there is a huge demand for what we bring.
“But we are taking it one step at a time – we don’t want to get too ambitious. We want to do things with quality and consistency and make sure the brand is grown at a rate that is sustainable,” says Imran.