It took me inexplicably long to have a proper sit-down at ATAS Modern Malaysian Eatery, The RuMa Hotel and Residences’ culinary pièce de résistance. My first visit, if you can believe it, was during a CNY media lunch this year. While I did enjoy that experience, it wasn’t a taste of the restaurant’s mainstay menu and was more of a seasonal jaunt for me.
I finally got the chance to have dinner last month at ATAS and I left one satisfied diner. I thoroughly enjoyed the rhythm and vibe of the restaurant and the experience it successfully creates, which its executive chef Tyson Gee notes is “an exciting journey of trial, error, and discovery” for him and his team.
This isn’t my first encounter with Tyson, as I’ve met him on several occasions at events held at The RuMa and have always liked his affable personality. His take on the mod-Malaysian scene, one which he describes as “an outsider’s perspective on what modern Malaysian cuisine can be”, is refreshing and welcoming. At least in my opinion.
ATAS successfully plays with the notion of what mod-Malaysian food can be if untethered by the constraints of nostalgia a local may harbour without compromising respect for ingredients and dishes found across the land.
“We champion local produce to be the star to always take the forefront. In the end, it is just to create simple, uncomplicated tasty food,” says Tyson. And tasty food does ATAS make.
Letting The Food Do The Talking
ATAS' latest menu is only five pages long. Four if you exclude their reasonably priced six-course tasting menu (from RM228 nett per person). While some may see this as a drawback, I see it as a boon. Such focus speaks of confidence and I welcome it.
The menu is divided into four sections – snacks and starters, from the charcoal oven (mains), accompaniments, and desserts. I was fortunate enough to try a decent selection of signature dishes à la carte and got a well-rounded feel of what the restaurant had to offer. Although this wasn't a tasting menu, the menu's focus allowed each dish to successfully riff off each other in winning harmony.
My experience began with four starters – blue tiger prawn, Momotaro tomatoes, raw beef tartare, and ocean trout.
Momotaro tomatoes (RM36), named after the Japanese fable which I've read my son countless times and which Tyson tells me are locally grown Japanese hybrid tomatoes, arrives first. The tomatoes are served with local stracciatella cheese, radish, seaweed, and wild pepper, an invigorating combination that celebrates elegant umami notes.
The tomato's inherent sweetness was complemented by the lightness and creaminess of the stracciatella. At the same time, a dash of herbal oil gave the dish a freshness that really drove home that earthy element, despite the seaweed acting as a counterbalance. This dish was a truly refreshing start that gave the tried and true burrata cheese and heirloom tomato duo a run for its money.
Blue tiger prawn betel leaf "tacos" (RM45) topped with charred coconut sambal (which reminded me of Sri Lankan coconut sambal) came next. ATAS' variation of a Thai staple was appetising. With each chew, my tastebuds attempted to capture the finely balanced flavours of sweetness from the grilled prawn chunks, creaminess from the yoghurt, bitter crunch from the betel leaf, zest from the lime, and heat from the coconut sambal. Experiencing this symphony of flavours is the main draw here, which goes great with a delightful red like a merlot.
I'm a sucker from steak tartare and ATAS' is now one of my favourite renditions in town. The restaurant's beef tartare (RM44), mixed with sambal asam, a medley of local herbs, smoked egg yolk, and fantastic charred rice crackers that tasted like semi-burnt toast, was incredibly gratifying. The dish was perfectly seasoned, especially the balanced sambal asam that did a fantastic job at bolstering the beef's natural flavours without ever taking over.
The use of red sorrel in the dish, which tastes like a wonderful mix between a dark green leafy vegetable and a herb laced with a slight zinginess, balanced the tartare. In fact, the chef has such a liking for the vegetable that I noticed it popping up in the other dishes I tried too throughout the night. And I can see why, it's a great way to introduce a light herbaceous, chlorophyll crunch.
Cured ocean trout (RM52), which is apparently so popular the restaurant kept it on the menu throughout its various iterations, was the last to arrive. While I did enjoy it to some extent, this was a more conservative choice and didn't stand out as much as the other dishes. With that being said, I can understand why it proved popular as it felt comfortingly familiar.
The dish tasted intensely briny (intensified by the occasional burst of ikura), which was seemingly grounded by the use of sorrel, herb oil, pomelo, and black pepper tapioca crisps. The trout itself was meaty, had a nice to-the-tooth texture and was quite pleasant. Still, the overall flavour profile crept too close towards the salty sea for me at that point in my meal to fully appreciate it after having an already heavy tartare dish. Have I had this in place of the tartare, that might have probably been a different story.
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Firing On All Cylinders
Everyone's favourite cyanide-laced fruit sits in the front seat for ATAS' Ipoh-bred cornfed chicken main (RM78). Chef Tyson tells me that this is the most challenging dish to cook on the menu as it requires the kitchen to properly handle and utilise the buah keluak, debone an entire chicken, gently cook it, and plate it in an appetising fashion.
The result? Perfectly tender and succulent chicken pieces, with crispy seared skin I might add, doused in a thick and creamy keluak and fermented chilli sauce duo. The duality of the sauces proved to be a potent mix, yet it never overpowered. Tiny baby okra adds a different kind of crunch and a delicate balance to an otherwise bold dish.
Poultry is followed up by divine bovine – a wagyu striploin served with a mushroom mix, sorrel, and spiced jus on the side (RM198). This was also delicious. Thanks to a beautiful sear the striploin's fats were rendered semi-crispy, enhancing the delectable meat with its natural juices. The mushrooms had a wonderfully clean, tofu-like taste (don't ask me why) that hit the back of the palate, while the rich jus increases the rich savoury taste of already masterfully cooked slices of beef. If you do order this, I highly recommend you taste a piece without the jus on the first try.
To accompany my mains, there was the excellent jasmine rice salad and charred baby corn. Rather than merely being an empty vessel, like white rice, the jasmine rice salad featured peanuts, chilli, spring onion, chicken skin, sesame, XO sauce, pomelo, shallots, torch ginger flower and cucumber. Even with so many ingredients arranged visually pleasing, the dish manages to hold its own when taken with the chicken and beef. And the key to this is I think a fine balance of fresh flavours, allowing it to stand on its own and bolster the mains, like it's supposed to. Now that's finesse.
The baby corn, on the other hand, was overshadowed by the jasmine rice salad in my opinion. The corn used pecorino cheese and coconut to try to introduce a sharp and nutty element to the dish, and while it succeeds in some aspects, I felt that it was held back due to my fondness for the rice salad. Both do a fantastic job as "accompaniments", but we all know who my clear winner is now do we.
The Home Stretch
Many restaurants tout their durian desserts as being the real McCoy, but ATAS' durian ice cream sundae (RM42) sits proudly high atop the pantheon of durian desserts. First, there's the ice cream itself, which incredibly feels like I'm eating real cold durian flesh, flavour, texture, and everything. No exaggeration here, it literally feels like I'm eating durian.
So why go to the trouble of turning the king of fruits into ice cream and not just serve the real thing? Because that would be boring, of course! That and turning durian into ice cream gives the kitchen team room to add items like a honeycomb cookie, for an eggy depth, gula melaka, for an umami-sugary spike, pistachio, for nuttiness, and homemade nata de coco, which is just awesome on its own. Every element, save for the pistachios, is a beloved Malaysian ingredient. And to see it all come together to enhance what is arguably the most iconic local fruit we have it a thing of beauty.
Now, I'm not gaga for durian, and I like it just as much as the next Malaysian, but I can safely say this dessert ticked all the right boxes.
Sustainability is a core tenet of the ATAS ethos. "Malaysia has an amazing terroir and grows some of the best produce you can find!" says Tyson. "I would say more than 80 per cent of the ingredients we use are sourced locally, except for our beef, lamb, and a few other small goods. All of our herbs, vegetables, soy sauce, chocolate, and even caviar are locally sourced."
With the chef being Canadian, I was curious to peek behind the curtain and ask him what went behind the research process of ATAS' menu and dishes. Tyson tells me that it's as simple as finding a new ingredient or product that excites him and figuring it out how to incorporate into the menu and play nice with the rest of the team's creations.
What excites him the most when it comes to creating ATAS' take on mod-Malaysian cuisine? "(Re)discovering and breathing new life into forgotten ingredients and ingredients which are considered 'kampung'," he says.
Doesn't that sound like another acclaimed mod-Malaysian restaurant? Sure, but it's marvellous that more chefs are taking the locavore approach. Besides, ATAS definitely does things to its own tune and I for one love that about it.