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  • Writer's pictureTien Chew

Substantially Beta

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

Photo: Beta KL

A Brief History

Beta KL made waves when it hit the Kuala Lumpur fine dining scene in 2018, with chef Raymond Tham, of Skillet At 163 fame, helming the kitchen. As an advocate of the rise of modern Malaysian food, I was thrilled to hear that Beta KL would bolster KL's gastronomy ranks with its take on a cuisine all Malaysians hold dear to our hearts.

At last, yet another high-end modern Malaysian restaurant eager to compete with the numerous European-focused restaurants littering the city had arrived.

So excited was I to try this then-new restaurant that I brought my family and a large party of close friends to my inaugural visit. The consensus amongst us post-meal was unanimous: we enjoyed ourselves, but something was missing, a particular something that we couldn't pinpoint at the time.

The food had flair and, more importantly, scored in the taste department. However, upon retrospection, I realised that there was an issue with the pacing of the meal stemming from a dish's portion sizing. If I can correctly recall, the menu's breadth also created some barriers for first-timers, as it was designed to encourage guests to sample a wide range of items influenced by Malaysia's geography. We had to order certain items once or twice throughout the meal as there was simply not enough to go around for such a large party, messing with the flow of dinner.

Nevertheless, I chalked it up to pre-opening shakiness and still sensed brimming potential from chef Raymond and his team. My enthusiasm for Beta wasn't at all undermined by what I would call a fairly positive experience.

Curry focaccia and sambal butter

The Revisit

Raymond recently invited me to make a return trip to Beta and sample his latest tasting menu. I was all too happy to accept, especially since I couldn't recall my last trip to the restaurant.

I am glad to report that my experience was nothing short of fantastic. Gone is the inflated menu, replaced by two focused tasting menus (a five- and six-course) instead. This distillation of Beta's culinary ethos into two focused dining experiences was a show of confidence and focus, which I admired.

I had the Tour of Malaysia (RM300) with cocktail pairings (RM128), which I highly recommend if you're looking to indulge in the gastronomic bounties of our country's rich cuisine. And four well-crafted tipples to sweeten that experience.

Note: the more accessible Taste of Beta (RM128) menu also has the option of cocktail pairings (RM99)

The Amuse

The meal began with five delicious and flavour-packed one-bite "snacks", and an equally palatable curry foccacia with sambal butter. Drinks-wise Pollo-me marked the first cocktail, made using pomelo-infused gin, green chartreuse, mint syrup, and lime.

The snacks were designed to be eaten in a specific order, from lightest to heaviest in flavour. First up was the wing bean salad tart, topped with budu aioli (a fermented Kelantanese anchovy sauce), fried anchovies, lime and sengkuang (jícama). Savoury with a nice crunch, the umami-packed budu and anchovy combo elevated the cleaner-tasting wing bean and sengkuang. At the back of the palate, the lime's tartness worked its magic, balancing out the flavours. Sips of the cocktail helped to inflame the lime's faint acidity, effectively refreshing my tastebuds before the next snack.

Next was a Kedah-inspired treat – cucur udang with coriander sauce. Crispy around the edges and fluffy everywhere else, Beta's version of this ubiquitous street snack was as authentic as it could get. The first thing that hit me was the taste of the fritter, followed by the prawn's inherent sweetness, the melange of herbs, and finally the lightness of the coriander sauce, resulting in a balanced mouthful.

Malaysia may be devoid of the truffles the world of haute cuisine prizes so much, but that doesn't mean there aren't decent alternatives. Encased in a black sphere resembling the outer casing of arancini, an incredible and earthy mix of shiitake and split gill mushrooms awaited inside.

My appreciation for the Pollo-me cocktail at the beginning of the meal grew with each snack, going so far as to say that it was essential, due to all the oily, flavour-rich treats I was enjoying. The drink's blend of lime, pomelo, and mint provided much-needed relief before flavour saturation on the palate occurred.

I should note that all the cocktails have the benefit of being crafted by Raymond and not a mixologist, therefore having the advantage of a single unifying theme under one chef's vision.

The last two snacks, the rendang bao and inverted karipap (curry puff), were rightfully reserved until the end. Think of a cream puff's hollow shell and creamy filling and you've nailed the general idea of the rendang bao. The bao's outer shell is a spiced choux au craquelin with a rendang chicken liver pate and foie gras mixture at its core. Although I initially speculated that the three potent ingredients would certainly clash, it did just the opposite, harmonising into a spicy yet gamey morsel which highlighted the best of Malaysian and French influences.

Inspired by Brickfields' famous curry puff, Beta's version playfully does away with much of the "puff" in favour of a thin, crispy peel potato shell. This made up the "inverted" part of the curry puff. Resting inside was a curry chicken filling that accurately tasted like the Brickfields famous pastries of which it took inspiration from, ending the first portion of the meal with a spicy hurrah.

The Buildup

This was when the meal began firing on all fronts, kicking off with a dish of contrasts inspired by the island state of Penang. The course was served cold and featured sous-vide clams as its pièce de résistance. On the lighter side of the flavour spectrum was kedondong (ambarella) fruit granita, delicate ribbons of white radish, and ulam raja (king's salad). Heavier flavours from uncooked, seasoned clams and pickled seaweed lay beneath, completing the dish.

Each bite was pure enjoyment – a purposeful mixture of refreshing lightness from the radish, sour notes from the granita, and strong, briny flavours of the sea. It quickly became apparent with each bite that if one were to remove even one ingredient from the composition of the dish, it would fail. This dish was a masterful balancing act, the presence of white radish and ulam raja adding floral touches to an otherwise seafood-forward flavour profile.

After a superb first drink, it was no surprise that the second cocktail of the night was equally, if not more, enjoyable. I'd go so far as to say that it was my favourite drink of the evening. Fittingly called Paddy Terroir and inspired by the rice fields of Kedah, the cocktail was made using house-made rice wine (inspired by Raymond's grandma's recipe), Malibu, lime, egg white, and coconut shavings, which lined the rim. Although the cocktail gave off a coconut-dominant aesthetic, the taste rightfully leaned more on the rice wine, which had just the right amount of sweetness, followed by a punchy, slightly clean and earthy rice flavour, and a creamy finish.

Aubergine à la masak lemak came next. Even though my attention focused on the perfectly grilled eggplant on the plate, it was the toppings that created a colourful and appealing visual. A layer of thickened turmeric coconut curry, sourdough crumbs, toasted quinoa, pickled shallots, and finely diced cucumber gave the dish textural and flavour variation. The first thing that hit me before even tucking in was the dish's inviting bouquet of aromas, one that masked the curry's savoury-spicy punch. The eggplant itself had that desirable a melt-in-your-mouth texture and just the right hint of smokiness. It was a bold dish, one that kept to the spirit of Malay cooking and the full-bodied flavours Malaysians love.

Crab, custard, chilli crab foam

The third dish paid homage to another local favourite – chilli crab. It liberally took cues from chawanmushi and presented it with a Beta twist. Fish muruku, made from grounded fish powder, flour, egg white, butter, and fashioned in the shape of a crab, playfully beckoned. What I did not expect, however, was a nice punchy surprise in the form of a dollop of chilli oil hiding underneath the cracker. The main act – a silky egg custard, coriander, quinoa, torch ginger flower, lemongrass, blue swimmer crab meat, and chilli crab foam medley – was delightful from start to finish. The foam itself was particularly praiseworthy, an espuma created from roasted blue swimmer crab shells and other vital herbs and spices.

To accompany the flavour-rich aubergine and crab segment of the meal, Raymond created the BOH (Beast of Highland) cocktail. Fashioned from vodka, kombucha, strawberry, rose and egg white, the cocktail's dominant rose and strawberry tastes proved to be the perfect counter to such heavy dishes. The clean taste of vodka was the perfect vessel for the sourness of strawberry and the boldness of kombucha to take centre stage, before being usurped by the presence of rose as it stole the finish.

The Climax

Diners have three choices for their main: fish, lamb, or wagyu. After it came highly recommended by Raymond, I went for the lamb, and I quickly found out why. He had snuck in something extra for me – pan-seared foie gras. The shio koji (fermented grain) marinated lamb itself was perfectly charred and tender, with a rosy hue in the middle. Those averse to lamb's naturally gamey smell will be glad to know that this marination of dish resulted in only slight hints of game. The accompanying raisin jus provided a slightly sweet lift and a dollop of roasted garlic concentrate introduced an umami element. Add foie gras to each bite and my palate was satisfied for the week.

Each main course has its own cocktail pairing. My entrée came with the bak kut teh cocktail. Yes, you read that right, bak kut teh (BKT). Unfortunately, this was the weakest part of the meal for me, although I could admire what it was trying to accomplish. Such a hearty course demanded a stiff drink to tame the multitude of flavours fighting for my attention. The BKT attempted to do just that with a concoction of bourbon whisky, rum, and a soy and garlic reduction, finished with vodka-infused mushrooms. Even though the flavour combination didn't sit well with me, I did enjoy the drink's heady qualities.

The Finish

The palate cleanser before dessert – bird's nest, frozen coconut shards, lychee granita, and lime – came just in time. The various textures – crunchiness from the coconut, the gelatinous nature of bird's nest, and the crystalline consistency of granita – made for one of the more memorable palate cleansers I've had in recent memory. Especially since it successfully reinterpreted a traditional Chinese dessert into a modern context.

Diners do not get a choice of dessert for the Tour of Malaysia menu, so you're out of luck if you dislike durian. Suppose you so happen to find durian repulsive. In that case, you can nicely ask the kitchen if they could swap out the dish for dessert on the other menu – coffee and kaya. Fortunately for me, I like durian.

Musang King durian, sourced from Raymond's friend farm in Pahang, came shaped into a dome with a hard outer shell and a creamy centre. A thin Pringles-like wafer made from single origin dark chocolate, also from Pahang and procured by Chocolate Concierge, topped the dome. Roasted peanuts dipped in caramel, milk chocolate, and gold dust, as well as a single gold leaf, completed dessert. Advised to eat the dessert from top to bottom, I followed suit, enjoying the bitterness of the chocolate and the sweetness of the peanuts which preluded the earthy, bitter, and sweet musang king. I'm no durian connoisseur, but I could certainly tell that the particular durian used was of quality.

The cherry on top of the cake was the glass of Hennessy VSOP cognac (this was extra) which Raymond insisted that I had. The cognac's spicy notes and caramel quality did complement the musang king to my pleasant surprise, bookending a fantastic meal. And despite me consuming alcohol while eating durian, I'm still alive to tell the tale, so take that conventional wisdom!

My past work with Raymond:


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