Entrepreneurs Vijay and Sherina Binwani are on top of the world

  • Life Inspired
  • Thursday, 12 Sep 2019

Walking into The RuMa Hotel and Residences is like entering well-curated temple of cool. Smartly attired staff blend in seamlessly with the luxurious decor and open doors, and greet you with the sincerest welcome while the flattering lighting transports you out of the harsh city sun into a warm cocoon of natural materials and earthy tones.

Located in the heart of the city, just a pebble’s throw from the twin towers, there couldn’t be a better sanctuary to escape to if peace and serenity is what you wish in the middle of the day.

A split spiral staircase from the grand salon leads me to Atas, the only restaurant in The RuMa and which has been getting rave reviews since the boutique hotel opened late last year.

I’m having lunch with KL-based Malaysian entrepreneurs Vijay and Sherina Binwani and who better to help me review this restaurant offering modern Malaysian cuisine than the couple who celebrated their 18th wedding anniversary here nine months back when it first opened.

Helmed by executive chef Tyson Gee who came to KL from Vancouver via Melbourne, the concept of Atas is a very alluring one. Utilising the freshest seasonal local ingredients combined with heirloom produce (that’s old-time varieties of veggies and spices handed down through generations in seed form and recently planted), the cuisine at Atas represents something entirely new and palatable to both Western and Asian taste buds.

“At Atas, we do not want to recreate classic Malaysian dishes but instead focus on creating new, modern dishes with familiar flavours using local produce and unique herbs and spices,” Gee explains. “Malaysians hold their food in very high regard and I did not want to do a representation of it.”

Sherina and Vijay at Atas Modern Malaysian Eatery, The RuMa Hotel & Residences.

Vijay and Sherina arrive slightly off the appointed hour but their pleasant and friendly demeanour more than make up for the lost time. They are both handsomely dressed but that’s to be expected as both of them hail from the garment retail and manufacturing businesses.

She looks cheerful in a bright yellow number while he stands tall in a smartly tailored blazer and open-neck shirt. They look well-matched which begged the question – how did they meet?

“We were introduced at a mutual friends’ wedding in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands,” Sherina tells me while perusing the menu.

“I actually went to my cousin’s wedding first and while I was there my dad called me and told me to attend another wedding which also happened to be in Las Palmas,” Vijay explains.

A mutual friend from KL who knew them both made the introduction and as it turned out both Vijay and Sherina had more in common than they initially thought.

Both their grandfathers left India and migrated to Indonesia back in the day and while Vijay’s grandfather eventually expanded the business to Malaysia and Singapore, Sherina’s family stayed put in Jakarta.

“Our roots are in the Pakistan part of India,” Sherina says, adding that both of them belong to the Sindhi community. “Our grandfathers come from Hyderabad Sindh (located in Pakistan and not to be confused with Hyderabad Deccan which is located in south-central India) and both left India after the partition.”

The partition Sherina is referring to is of course the historic Partition of India when it was split into two separate countries after gaining independence from British rule.

Just then, we are told by the waiter that Atas is planning a change in their menu and it is possible to taste a preview through the Express Lunch Menu. Both Vijay and Sherina look excited at the prospect and that’s what we go for.

Consisting of four different pint-size snacks or starters, a choice of mains and a desert, Vijay decides on the fish, Sherina opts for the chicken and I choose the beef.

Vijay begins telling me about the beginning of his family business and how his grandfather started Binwani’s in Riau, Indonesia and in the process gives me a crash course in the Indian diaspora.

Our snacks/starters arrive and although all four of them – Otak otak, Rojak, Blue Sapphire Cheese Panna Cotta and Pani Puri – are small in size, just enough for a bite, they are big in flavour.

Starters consisted of (top) rojak with rose apple, ulam raja and tamarind, (middle) Blue Sapphire panna cotta with bean salad and (bottom) otak otak with calamansi and coriander
Dessert came in the form of Pahang Single Origin 70% Chocolate with foie gras and roselle
Corn fed chicken breast with buah keluak, okra and fermented chili sauce

When I ask if both of them work together, Vijay answers in the affirmative while Sherina says “on and off.” Apart from being an executive director of Binwani’s, Vijay also has his own thing going on.

“When I joined the family business in 1994, the business took on a different direction and we introduced some franchises and opened out first travel retail outlet in Subang Airport,” he says while devouring the otak otak.

Later, he decided to set up a menswear label called Lustro. But his baby right now is a Life Tech start-up which he founded with a university friend. “It’s an app that enables restaurants and other service-based retailers to launch promotions around their geolocations, offering amazing deals and experiences at specific times to eliminate down time and prevent wastage,” Vijay says.

Looking at the way three of us are enjoying and demolishing every single morsel laid out in front of us, this restaurant might not need to use his app. “It’s a geo-location based and an on-demand platform which means wherever you are in the city, you can order from restaurants within a 5km to 40km radius depending on your personal setting.”

The app which will be launched in mid-September will be named EatenHunt, a play on the name of the protagonist in the movie Mission Impossible. Vijay adds that they plan to curate more experiences apart from food like scuba dive lessons and spa treatments.

Sherina likes the mushroom masala and creme fraiche inside the Pani Puri while the I find the Blue Sapphire Panna Cotta and bean salad both tangy and refreshing.

Pani Puri with mushroom masala and creme fraiche
Seabass with wild spinach, kaffir lime and tuak
Black Angus sirloin with roasted shallot, ginger torch and anise jus

Nothing’s left on our plates and just as I am wondering about our main course, Sherina, not wanting to be left out, tells me about her new baby.

“I just opened a luxury wellness retreat in Bali,” she says enticing me to ask her more. “My motivation for starting this retreat is because I want people to realise that self-care is very important,” she says.

Our main courses arrive just then – Sherina has the Corn Fed Chicken Breast with buah keluak, okra and fermented chili sauce, Vijay ordered the seabass with wild spinach, kaffir lime and tuak while I’m eyeing my Black Angus sirloin with roasted shallots, ginger torch and anise jus with anticipation. There is a pregnant lull while all three of us take our first bite into our mains.

My sirloin is juicy and tender at the initial impression and a few seconds later, the flavours of roasted shallots and ginger explodes in my mouth giving the meat a deeper dimension. The anise jus leaves a pleasant aftertaste making me crave for more. However, having just returned from Bali, I’m keen to know more about Sherina’s new venture there.

I find out the name for her retreat in Bali is Escape Ritual and she whips out her iPhone to show me the retreat’s Instagram page. It’s a sprawling white modern structure set among rice fields and lush greenery with seven rooms complete with an infinity pool and yoga space. Based on the four elements namely air, water, earth and fire each of the four package is specially designed to address specific concerns relating to health and well-being.

Savouring her corn fed chicken which she says is tender and well-seasoned, Sherina reveals how she got the name of her retreat.

“Everyone should make it a ritual to escape,” she tells me. “It’s important to re-centre and tune out of the humdrum of life once in a while.” Practising what she preaches, Sherina and Vijay both meditate every day. Hearing this, I ask them to give me a few pointers on how to begin this mind-calming exercise.

The cuisine at Atas represents something entirely new and palatable to both Western and Asian taste buds
The flattering lighting transports you out of the harsh city sun into a warm cocoon of natural materials and earthy tones

“There’s always a million thoughts that run through our mind,” Sherina begins and I’m with her as I think about our next course – dessert! “When you sit down and you close your eyes, just acknowledge whatever thought that come in. Let it come and go. Eventually your mind will quiet down. I focus on a light in my third eye.” At this point Vijay finishes his seabass and says the fish skin was perfectly crispy while the fish was cooked just right. However, Vijay said all the Malaysian flavours was found in the accompanying salad.

“It’s different for different people,” Vijay tells me. “I meditate by leaving my eyes open and focusing on a statue of Lord Shiva on my altar.” Both Vijay and Sherina meditate every morning for around 10 to 15 minutes and they tell me the benefits are immeasurable.

“I find I am more focused and efficient during the day after meditation,” Vijay reveals. Just then our dessert, a parfait containing Pahang Single Origin 70% chocolate with foie gras and roselle arrive.

As true blue entrepreneurs, both of them are consummate multi-taskers just like their lunch, they don’t have just one thing on their plate. A new business venture both of them are involved in is The Run To, a luxury supercar adventure which participants drive through the most scenic routes and stay at outstanding hotels while dining on the most sumptuous meals. They have partnered with The Run To (UK), a company that organises supercar drives from various destinations in Europe to Monaco, to bring this experience to Malaysia.

Vijay explains what this venture is all about: “It is essentially a six-day road trip with super luxury cars starting in Thailand, traversing Malaysia and ending up in Singapore, just in time for the Formula One race…. it’s a great way to promote luxury tourism in Malaysia.” He says they are planning the first Asian The Run To in September 2020 culminating in the Singapore Grand Prix.

Finishing off the last bits of this rich and creamy dessert, Vijay let slip a telling formula of their marriage and working relationship. “Sherina is very hands on and detailed-orientated. I look at the bigger picture.”

Atas is located on the mezzanine floor in The Ruma Hotel and Residences, No 7 Jalan Kia Peng, 50450 Kuala Lumpur. Tel: +603-2778 0888

Correction: A previous headline for this story erroneously stated that the Binwanis are the founders of Atas. This has been corrected and we apologise for any misunderstanding caused by the error.

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