The French-Malaysian Connection
Updated: May 20, 2021
James Won introduces a new casual-luxe dining concept under the Enfin banner with Bouchon Enfin, a restaurant that continues to express the chef's two culinary identities in one spirit. I've been a fan of James' cooking ever since I first worked with him during a Hennessy X.O dining collaboration called Appreciation Grows that he did with Accursio Craparo, one of Sicily's most prominent chefs, in 2014 at Carcosa Seri Negara.
I've been following James' work from Brasserie Enfin (his training grounds) to Enfin (his flagship) since my early days as a writer. Throughout the years, I have had several memorable dinners and dishes at his restaurant and insightful conversations with the man himself on the evolving KL food scene. I also had an incredibly magical dinner with Harumi back in 2016, but that is a story for another time. I've seen his style evolve to embrace more and more local influences over time, with Bouchon Enfin perhaps being the gastronomical apex of his French and Malaysian heritage explored in a relaxed and approachable setting. Where Enfin strives to provide a gourmet experience for the connoisseur, Bouchon Enfin instead focuses on full-flavoured delights for the everyday foodie.
Situated at Pavilion KL, right near the walkway entrance leading to KLCC, I see Bouchon Enfin as the creative playground for James to unleash more of his inner Malaysian palate without compromising his roots in French cooking at a more accessible level than that of Enfin. It's not to say that Enfin doesn't take creative liberties when it comes to contemporary cuisine, on the contrary...just look at the restaurant's aloe nigiri or Hakka yong tau foo, for starters. After tasting a good selection of Bouchon Enfin's menu, it's clear that the restaurant isn't afraid to go bolder and bigger with its flavours as compared to the elegant, haute cuisine experience Enfin curates. It's a different expression of the same chef.
"We wanted to extrapolate our vision of supporting local artisan, producers, and ingredients with Bouchon Enfin at a cosy space with good exposure along a strip with other F&B outlets," said James. "The Lyonnaise Bouchon concept is very close to the Malaysian idea of dining out – a convivial atmosphere that fosters a personal relationship with the owner. The non-halal menu fuses Malaysian and French influences, evoking familiarity with a twist."
Just like his other ventures, James intends to put a spotlight on Malaysian-made produce and ingredients. "By featuring local artists and designers, we bring together not just food but the culture from all walks of life. We work closely with social enterprises like Langit, who bridge the gap between the producers in unreachable areas in East Malaysia with us here in the cities," he says.
The restaurant also plays a social role. "We would like to contribute back to society in a more holistic manner by giving back to those in need with the support of our customers with a portion of every dish sold," James adds.
Bouchon Enfin, from now on referred to as BE for brevity, is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There's a lot to cover, so let's get right to it.
Spam fries (RM28) and edamame cooked in spiced miso butter (RM19.50) kicked things off. While technically coming under the menu's accompaniments section, these small plate treats make for fantastic light bites and appetisers.
The "spam" served here is made and smoked in house from a mix of pure prime pork mince that's lightly seasoned before being breaded and deep-fried. I've had spam fries from a few different places in my day, but this one wins hands down. Where other eateries use luncheon meat, BE uses quality meat that you can actually taste and feel. This is especially evident when your palate doesn't feel oversaturated, and you don't feel heavy with your appetite spoilt because you're not snacking on sodium-rich lunch meats.
If you're in the mood for a cool, crisp beer, the spam fries will do the trick. If, however, you find yourself wanting something leaner and greener to go with your aperitif, there's the edamame in spiced miso butter. Healthy and flavourful with a nice umami kick, the dish comes deshelled for easy enjoyment.
For something fail-safe, opt for the sourdough and French butter (RM9), it's a no-brainer winner that BE nails. James' kitchen always makes consistently fantastic bread, and I can attest to that after having dined at Enfin for years and always asking for a second serving when it comes to the bread selection.
We veer into French territory with chicken liver parfait (RM22), served with charred toasts and a layer of wine rine jelly on top. Smooth, with a two-note boldness coming from the iron-rich chicken liver and the tannin-tasting red wine jelly, the pâté is an excellent choice if you, like me, enjoy intense gamey flavours. I recommend having this with a glass of dry white wine or an Aperol spritz.
BE has a decent selection of wines and cocktails (classic and contemporary), as well as a dedicated section in the drinks menu to gin and tonics and highballs, the perfect sundowners.
What will undoubtedly be a hit with the masses is BE's house platter of smoked and cured meats (RM78). Each platter comes with pork sausages, guanciale (pork jowl), Scottish cheese, house-made spam, and bacon sourced from PY Kuan (a charcuterie expert). It is served with dried fruits, mature cheddar, crostini, and acar (which isn't pictured in the photo above).
I especially enjoyed the guanciale, spam, and bacon – no wild guesses as to why. Order a bottle of wine, and you've got a straightforward afternoon delight. Unless of course, you're vegetarian.
What surprised me the most was that the pork used at BE is a local breed. "It is just local Malaysian pork. It's not a special breed, just healthy animals with good husbandry and diet that contributes to the fantastic texture and slight sweetness you get with the meat," said James. Those adverse to pork, usually due to a strong smell, can take some comfort knowing that isn't the case with the restaurant's pork-heavy offerings.
On why pork takes such prominence on most dishes on the menu, the chef himself had this to tell me, "pork has a unique quality in contributing to the body of a dish. It can provide the unctuous quality in slow-braised and roasted recipes. The savouriness is of its own that cannot be replicated."
Good For One
The most memorable dishes of my tasting experience are the mains. My personal favourite is the wild rice bowl (RM39), a satisfying mix of Salleh and Rumie rice from the Sarawakian highlands in a clay pot topped with onsen kampung egg, guanciale, spring onions, and seasoned with superior soy. This dish is incredibly delicious, the rice (sourced from Langit) a delicate earthy mix, the guanciale a fatty delight, further richness from the onsen-style egg, and the elegant umami-packed goodness the soy provides coming together in harmonious waves of flavour with each spoonful. This is a clear homage to the Malaysian foods James enjoys, a spectacular treat that I would gladly come back just to have it again just for myself. If there's only one thing you can order here...it's this.
Here's an inventive take on the two types of Sarawakian rice used in the previous dish – Burgandy escargots, watercress, arugula rocket, layo (ground ginger), Salleh and Rumie rice, crème fraîche, pecorino, house-cured smoked bacon, and fried lard (RM58). This has a lot going for it, with an earthy and herbal dominant flavour profile that I found strong and punchy. While I enjoy what the mix of escargot and bacon brings to the table, I'm susceptible to things I don't like, such as coriander and rocket, of which the latter is present. If you enjoy bold flavours and are looking for a well-cooked, original tasting risotto, this may be for you.
Vongole is an Italian classic, one that I grew up eating as it was one of my father's favourite things to eat. As such, I was ecstatic to try James' take on one of my beloved dishes. Chilli belacan vongole (RM43), as its name suggests, introduces belacan to a mix of spaghetti, seasonal clams, garlic, and smoked pork lard. With the help of the belacan, the dish is a strikingly Malaysian creation, as the boldness of the chilli takes precedence before allowing the clam and garlic to sing its own tune. Generous lashings of pork lard further up the flavour scale. Just like the risotto, this was yet another fresh take that, if you enjoy intense flavours, may be right up your alley.
What is it about a burger that always seems to call out to me whenever I spot it on the menu? It's more often the least risky dish on the menu, but when it's done right, it hits a sweet spot that really gratifies. Such was the case with BE's hamburger (RM49), a mouth-watering mix of pork lard, an Australian beef patty, onion marmalade, cheddar, tomato, and lettuce served with triple-fried shoestring fries and dipping aioli. There's also the option to add a piece of house-cured smoked bacon (RM7) should you genuinely wish to indulge.
You only need to take one bite to know that it's a satisfying sandwich. The patty is juicy and flavourful, the cheese distinct enough to stand out and support the prominent onion marmalade. The pork fat adds flavour to an already flavourful cast, and the fresh vegetables are there to balance the scales with freshness. The fries are sinfully good, and while I did enjoy the aioli, I prefer to have my fries with ketchup and mustard.
Here's a fun fact: James used to own an American-styled diner called Bad Boy Cooks and the burgers were a crowd favourite.
Something that I anticipate will also be rather popular is BE's pork tomahawk (RM138), a chunky pork rib cutlet with crispy skin cooked on the bone and served with tabbouleh, apple and five-spice chutney, and a few slivers of spam fries. This is a fantastic alternative to the usual beef tomahawks you see many steakhouses selling for over a thousand for one-tenth of the that. Just nice for two as a main, the meat is succulent, the flavour subtle yet impactful, and the skin addictively sticky in a different way to say siew yoke. The sides do an admirable job of cutting through that meatiness with greens and spice, but the slab of meat is definitely the star here.
This was another of my personal favourites, braised pork (RM58) made using a chef's selected pork belly cut, raw sugar caramel, smoked garlic, star anise, cinnamon, bean salad, and toasted white bread with butter. The pork's skin had a lovely sticky texture that gave way to incredibly soft meat, with a taste that leaned more towards Nyonya braised pork belly made with European cooking finesse. The salas introduces a lightness to the overall dish, while buttered toasts is a surprisingly fantastic accompaniment to soak up that delicious sauce.
While the previous dish hits that homely sweet spot for Malaysians, coq au vin is one of my favourite French comfort foods that I find is under-appreciated here in KL. Or it could be perhaps most places can't seem to make a decent version. BE's coq au vin (RM58) braises half a spring chicken, mushrooms, house-cured smoked bacon, shallots, and carrots in a clay pot together with a suitable substitute for Burgundy wine – Fook Chow red rice wine. The use of rice wine really balances the dish's earthy profile in a way a Burgundy can't, making it unique in my books. Add smooth pomme purée on the side and you've got an easy rainy day special to drive the blues away when it's chilly out.
On A High Note
This dessert (RM49) has James' signature style written over it – taking an iconic French dessert, tarte tatin, and using Sarawakian pineapple and peppercorn, along with vanilla parfait glace, to give it a local twist. Rich, slightly spicy, sweet, and sour with a tangy bitterness, this had it all. It's a dish created to share around the table, with a slice just being the right amount to end the meal on a high note. And it doesn't hurt to include a scoop of vanilla ice cream for good measure.