Secret dining: Private kitchens in KL
Flying under the radar of our dining scene, private kitchens are punching well above their weight. Kong Wai Yeng checks out other people’s living rooms for a good meal. Photography Stacy Liu
The place we’re going for dinner tonight is located at the slightly muted part of Bangsar. We’re lost. And since this private kitchen is set in a residence, we don’t expect the venue to be promulgated by a flickering neon signage. ‘Look for the gazebo and a white gate,’ the staff said to us when we made reservations over the phone. We then spotted a large crowd sashaying into a single-storey house on Jalan Abdullah, and quickly followed suit. There, a gazebo – hemmed in with soaring heliconias – perched next to an unassuming house that mentions nothing of Huck’s Café. But we know we’ve arrived at the right place. The sheer number of people dining here, and the warm aroma of roast chicken wafting out of the house have betrayed its nondescript façade.
Cushioning our backs are IKEA pillows, and at the end of the room are shelves of books, a collection of beer bottles, paintings and candle-lit tables. The atmosphere is comfy, and it feels like we’re going to a friend’s place for dinner – except that there’s a smiley waiter that places food promptly before you, and a group of strangers confabbing over expensive wines. A Balinese statue stares at us while we nosh on the starter – some keropok (fish crackers), which are fried to resemble little bowls to contain the Serawak Acar. Made from shredded carrots mixed in sweet and spicy sauce, the dish is addictive, like crunchy pickles that pique the appetite. The creamy asparagus soup is equally stellar as it gets all the flavours from the vegetable itself.
Private kitchens or some even known as supper clubs have been propagating across KL but in a hushed manner since most of them don’t want to commercialise their business. These are dining spaces held in proper houses, and are usually publicised via word-of-mouth as well as social networks. However, supper clubs mean something else. The term supper club in the US refers to places that offer dinner and night club entertainment while in Latin America, the clubs are called locked-door restaurants, which are mostly underground and not entirely legitimate. Nothing of the speakeasy sort, Huck’s Café was originally on Jalan Gasing in PJ but owner and chef Poh Huck Seng was forced to relocate after the neighbours kicked up a ruckus because of the noise and overwhelming customers. Eventually, Huck Seng obtained a license for his new outlet in Bangsar, which can now serve 35 people easily.
While restaurants trumpet their businesses through gimmicks and advertising, private kitchens prefer a closed-door policy. ‘People want something more personal, like an intimate space that serves homecooked food. You don’t have to worry about horrible service and chefs who compromise on food quality,’ Huck Seng explains. It’s true. Why pay a restaurant to feed you steaks that taste like burnt rubber, or to have harried waiters ruin your evening by messing up your orders? At these private kitchens, a communal mix is fostered, revealing a conviviality that can never be found in common restaurants. You can even shimmy to the music, get blitzed and sing birthday songs aloud without having the restaurateurs chase you out.
So, what’s special on the menu today? A secret. We’d allowed Huck Seng to decide the menu for us. Despite working in the advertising field for ten years, he has always had a penchant for cooking, making western nibblets for his kids on Sundays, and collecting cook books to improvise on his own recipes, which include Asian, Italian, Mexican and Western cuisines. Occasionally, he’d invite friends over for fuss-free meals and vintage wines. Only one and a half years ago, he’d decided to open the door to strangers. As soon as the food critics and bloggers caught on with the hoopla, Huck’s Café immediately went viral on Facebook.
My main course, a cottage lamb stew pie, immediately divides opinion. It’s customary for mutton to be used in a shepherd’s pie and beef in a cottage pie because logically, shepherds look after sheep not cattle. But the argument is unfounded here because Huck’s still whips out a pie that sings. Beneath the lumpy but golden mashed potatoes is cubed mutton, laced with a robust tomato-based gravy. The tender meat gains flavour from the long-simmered sauce, which softens the shallots and diced carrots in the dish. Sprigs of rosemary topping the mash are just enough to lend a pine-like fragrance but any further additions (particularly cheese) would be overkill. My dining partner wolfs down her entrée – a sweet-sour roast chicken, bathed in a creamy sauce that is racy and piquant. Two flavours, none of them fighting each other. But the sauce numbs our taste buds after a while – which is unfortunate, because it obscures the smokiness of the moist and crisp-skinned roast chicken that could’ve been a star on its own.
And then desserts. A name like ‘chocolate mud pie ice cream’ doesn’t stir excitement but it proves to be a display of skill. The mud pie is structured from Cloud 9 chunks layered with homemade chocolate ice cream before crowning it with raisins, cashew nuts and a chocolate cookie. The silken crème brulee – its top browned by a propane burner – isn’t bad either; if only it had a smoother consistency. Priced at RM88 per person, our four-course meal feels homey, as anyone who grew up with their mother’s cooking would immediately testify. But the dishes lack refinement – it’s like you’d expect a few compliments, though not a round of applause. And just so you know, Huck Seng sources his ingredients from the Bangsar wet market or local supermarts every morning to ensure freshness.
So private kitchens have made their point: you don’t need Cordon Bleu-trained chefs, flown-in ingredients and natty waiters with bow-ties to deliver quality meals. But how long will this hype draw in customers? ‘There’s definitely a market. People are tired of eating out because restaurants have fixed menus. Private kitchens don’t. We improvise. Dining tables are places for conversations and food, rather than just etiquettes. Many chefs have forgotten that cooking is a pleasurable thing to do,’ says Huck Seng. And this is exactly why some restaurants feel like a contrived experience. But it seems that anyone, whether armed with a culinary portfolio or family-guarded recipes, can join this new revolution of secret dining. Will the trend continue? While Huck Seng is optimistic that private kitchens will gain more popularity among the novelty-seeking foodies, self-taught chef and owner of Jen’s Homegrown Kitchen Jennifer Palencia has second thoughts.
‘Private kitchens will exist but maybe not proliferate because people aren’t fond of the idea of opening up their homes to strangers,’ says Jennifer who also runs Jen’s Underground Supper Club that serves mainly European and American food. Private kitchens are indeed a surreptitious affair – patrons dine furtively behind doors while chefs avoid being busted by keeping their locations under the wraps. If so much risk is involved, why do customers keep going back? ‘It’s natural that people gravitate towards good food. If you know that only a certain place can make a dish the way you like it, of course you’ll go back. Restaurants often think about profit. But self-operated “clubs” like us have no commitments. We cook because we love to. We want to share good food with everybody.’ Dining at private kitchens also makes you feel as if you’re a part of a secret society. And ultimately, food plays its initial social role – to gather and bring people together at the same table.
Loyal customers and food quality are the bedrocks for these stealth home restaurants because these establishments merely chug along via hearsay or personal recommendations. Some people return to these places out of curiosity; some crave the peculiar sense of privacy that can otherwise only be afforded if you book an entire restaurant. Being out of the public view grants intimacy, which allows chefs to ask for feedback – to perfect their cooking and establish a relationship with patrons. And from the diner’s viewpoint, strict table manners are no longer de rigueur and fastidious social graces collapse. These eateries want to wow you with their food, not with their lofty price tags or fancy service.
So here we are, dining and sussing out Huck Seng’s vast collection of advertising books, his favourite CDs and vintage knickknacks in a house that became his second home. It does feel a bit unusual (although pleasant) to have Huck Seng greeting us like friends and checking on our meals even though he didn’t journalists. Such is the beauty kitchens: the chefs trust you to come into their homes to enjoy meals that are sincerely crafted, hoping to swap their efforts for a long-term customer relationship. Prices may be a bit high but this is a home-cooked meal after all – quality is well justified. At least they don’t charge you RM45 for a limp salad.
For more info on Huck’s Café, see venue listing.
Jen’s Underground Supper Club (Taman Tun Dr Ismail) (03 7728 7909/jenshomekitchen.blogspot.com). Call for details. RM150 per person.
Sri Ganapathi’s Mess (47 Jalan 1/10, PJ Old Town)