[Penang, Malaysia] Modern-Penang cuisine at Gen, Church Street Ghaut

Gēn, the ambitious little eatery that sought to reinterpret traditional Chinese flavours and give them a modern spin, has moved from its erstwhile “rough neighbourhood” location at Presgrave Street to this downtown spot at The Prestige Hotel on Church Street Ghaut.
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The open kitchen concept is maintained, and the youngish team functioned like clockwork.
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We were actually here to try the special durian degustation set menu, but was told that one of the courses which involved tempoyak or fermented durian was not available, so we opted to order a la carte instead.

What we had:

  1. Fruit & Vegetables Medley (pickled beets, pineapple, kohlrabi, pineapple sorbet) - a beautiful cornucopia of micro-greens and tiny edible blooms. I’m not sure which gave me more satisfaction: photographing this dish, or eating it.

  1. Pumpkin Porridge (rice porridge topped with slow-cooked “kampung” egg, crisp-fried “ikan bilis” (anchovies), fish floss, pine nuts, shallots, chopped scallions) - loved the myriad of textures which came from combining all those diverse elements. Flavour-wise, I found it a bit too mild - the saltiness from the anchovies, the slight astringency from the scallions and the toastiness of the shallots stood out, but none of the gingery or soy-inflected assertiveness one might expect.

  1. Hand-pulled Noodles (minced pork, minced herbs, fermented chili sauce and calamansi) - an East-meets-West concoction. The hand-pulled noodles reminded one of Italian pasta, which was then combined with minced pork, cooked Chinese-style. Again, very gentle flavours here - more Continental European than South-east Asian in terms of the balance.

  1. Herbal Duck Rice (with enoki, black pepper sauce, crosnes, herbal soup) - I loved the slight bitter after-taste of the dressing. The duck-meat combined with rice and other condiments again provided that lovely interplay of textures that is the hallmark of Gen’s cooking. I loved this a lot.

  2. Farmer’s Burger (chicken patty, turmeric sauce, hand-cut fries, Indian togarashi) - loved the steamed “mantou” buns. David Chang of Momofuku in New York started this trend of using steamed Chinese buns to make Western-style burgers, and it’s now replicated pretty much everywhere in the world today. The patty could do with more fat/moisture, though, whilst the fries were soggy and limp.
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Desserts:
6) Durian Bread Butter Pudding - not my kind of dessert: I’d expected something rich, luscious and, if durian were to be used, reminiscent of the fruit’s sinfully creamy pulp. This dessert had none of those qualities which I’d have been happy to find.

  1. Batang Kali Chocolate Mousse Cake with Passionfruit Filling - delicate disc with a beautiful chocolate flavour. Passionfruit filling provided a nice tang to undercut the chocolate mousse’ richness. I’d have preferred this served colder and firmer, but that’s just my personal preference.

As always, dining at Gen is a litany of hits-and-misses. On one hand, I do admire the kitchen team’s ambition and courage to test the boundaries of one’s culinary tastes. On the other hand, I do wish their food has more depth of flavour, and more compatibility in the various ingredients they put together. Still, I’ll be back to explore more - hopefully, experience can only make the young team better.

Address
gēn 根 The Prestige Hotel
Unit 6-8, Gat Lebuh Gereja (Church Street Ghaut), 10300 George Town, Penang
Tel: +6012-511 3323
Opening hours: 12-3pm, 6-10pm daily, except Wed.

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I wander what their clients are. Looks like they are seeking French style of equilibrium in terms of flavours. Looks good visually.The soaking fries cannot be forgiven though.

I have tried Thierry Marx’s interrupretation of Asian dishes, especially a Thai dish, tasted alright, good technically, but lacks that punch or something that makes it outstanding. This can be a problem of fusion dish here in France. They are searching equlibium in saveurs. The fusion that works well is Franco-Japanese usually by Japanese chefs. I’m a bit disappointed with William Ledeuil ‘s Franco-Chinese interpretation of Cantonese pork belly and other Franco-Asian dishes here in France…

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That’s pretty reminiscent of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s French-Thai fusion cuisine back in the late-90s. I was working in HK that fall when he opened Vong at the Mandarin Oriental, and I went there on its very first week. I still remembered the wide-eyed look the maître d’ gave me when, after my main meal, I looked at the 5-item dessert menu and told him I’d like to order all of them. Ah, the days of being young and with a high metabolic rate. :joy:
https://www.starchefs.com/JGVong/html/restaurant_08.shtml

Penang’s mainly Chinese client-base - which Gēn (like other fine dining eateries) targetted at - can be basically segmented into two distinct groups: the Chinese-educated and the English-educated ones. I know it sounds odd, but this has been the way Singaporean/Malaysian societies were structured since the British-colonial days. The English-educated segment used to be dominant in the old days but, in the past two to three decades or so, the Chinese-educated segment has taken over the pre-eminent position in terms of spending power, influence and even sheer numbers/headcount. Penang used to have a 80-20 ratio of English-educated vs Chinese-educated in terms of economic/cultural influence for more than two centuries. Today, the situation is totally reversed!

The Chinese-educated segment in Penang is cash-rich, and very much influenced by Taiwan in terms of culinary trends - currently, it’s slow-food, farm-to-table using the freshest, seasonal ingredients, much like what Chef André Chiang is doing in Taipei:

Gēn unabashedly targets the Chinese-educated market. So, service staff here tend to speak Mandarin as a first language, menus are bilingual in Mandarin and English, and serving styles have Oriental touches worked in: sharing bowls, the ever-present rice as the central/pre-eminent component in the dish, or else hovering, omni-present in the background.

Kitchen crew are tightly-disciplined and meticulous, but worked quietly, almost soundlessly.

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Thanks for the explaination of the Penang Chinese and the food trend there. I’ve eaten in an Andre Chang associated French restaurant here a few years ago, Porte 12. It is closed now, his French associate moved on to something else. While food was delicious, but portion was ridiculously small. Have you have eaten a slice of paper thin transparent Comté?

Farm-to-table concept is pretty strong here. Another trend is Ducasse’s natural (healthy) food trend, food has to taste like it is naturally with the least seasonings, no red meat or desserts should be sweeten very lightly.

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Sometimes, I simply marvelled at what Andre Chiang was able to get away with. I remembered coming out from a dinner at his now-defunct Michelin-starred restaurant in Singapore, the eponymously-named Andre, still feeling hungry and S$1,500/US$1,000 (for two persons) poorer.

What does it mean by Chinese-educated, they further their studies in China or Taiwan, or they studied locally in Chinese schools?

They’ll get their college/university education in Taiwan, not China as, historically, the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia are anti-Communist. The sentiments are not as strong nowadays, but the die has been cast, so they’ll usually go to Taiwan.

The Malaysian education system is unique as there are different streams that one can follow: the national school system where the medium of instruction is Malay (it used to be English until 1970) from elementary till high school. There are also parallel education streams where the medium of instruction are in Mandarin or Tamil (for Indians). However, Malaysia do not have locally-accredited Mandarin-medium universities today (for political/nationalistic reasons), so Chinese students who finished their high school in Mandarin would have to go to Taiwan for their tertiary education.

Majority of Chinese-Malaysian students from the national school system will pursue their tertiary studies in the UK, US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Only a very small percentage will remain to study in local/Malaysian universities as they felt the medium of instruction - mainly in Malay - can be too constrictive.

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This reminds me of a comedy film Crazy Rich Asians, I haven’t watched it, but it seems to describe the group of people you mentioned here. Should watch it one day!

I saw that film - it’s funny, a hilarious collection of some truly comical characters. Although the movie was set in Singapore, the main family mansion featured in there was actually in Kuala Lumpur, and some scenes were filmed in Penang, e.g. the mahjong scene towards the end.

Unrecognisable Chinese food but fascinating nonetheless.

How did you get the kitchen crew shots?

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The restaurant’s got an open kitchen - we could go quite near.

BTW, the restaurant has had to reduce its seating capacity by half, to comply with Penang’s COVID-19 social distancing seating requirements for eateries.

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Morning, Peter.

That first dish looks an absolute stunner. I understand about the pleasure you had taking the photos - it really does look like art.

Thanks for the explanation of the education sytem. An interesting divide. My nephew has just finished his Masters course (cinematography) and most of his fellow students are from overseas. His closest associate there is a longterm Dubai resident but of Indian nationality. I presume she would have had the option to study in the UK or India (where there must be a significant “film education” set-up related to Bollywood).

By the by, how’s the distancing working in restaurants? I know it’s early days but are restaurants coming to terms that they have fewer bums on seats each evening? I’m curious as I feel sure we will have a relaxation for restaruants from the beginning of July (although I feel it may still be too early).

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Cool. Thanks.

I have also eaten at places with open kitchen in China. Many times.

:laughing:

PS: it’s surprisingly hard to search for the village of Diping in English. It’s in the mountain, in the area of Zhaoxing. Beautiful mountainous settings (lots of rice terraces) with Zhaoxing village being the most famous. We were there independently. whereas others came via private packaged tours. I shall never forget all the harrowing, white-knuckle bus journeys in mountainous China.

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Here in Paris (red zone), the restaurants are just allowed to open on the street level, no indoors seatings (imagine the rainy days). Green zones in other parts of France, like in Penang, seating capacity has to reduce to half, tough for the very small restaurants. Restaurants in red zone will be opened end of June. A bit earlier than in UK.

I see, I thought the spaciousness is due to the style of place! LOL

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That is what is nice about street food and also in remote places. Although I don’t know if I’m be able to travel in China…

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Good morning, John.

It’s not been easy on the restaurants owners here, but then, what choice do they have? It’s either halving their capacity (and earnings), or not being allowed to operate at all.

There have been quite a few cases of recalcitrant restaurants or food courts - mostly in the more isolated towns or hamlets, that knowingly chose to risk ignoring the new SOPs. The police came down fast and hard on them, with fines and forced periods of closure as a penalty.

It’s worse in Singapore at the moment - no dining-in allowed at all. Only take-outs. The restaurants are bleeding. Rents and other overheads in Singapore are also much higher than Penang or Kuala Lumpur, so one can imagine how bad things are going to be there.

BTW, I just saw the news on TV just now that Madrid and Barcelona will allow outdoor dining from next Monday. So, we do see light at the end of the tunnel. I’m pretty sure British cities will be able to do likewise soon.

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You’re very brave. I can never, ever dare take those bus-rides. :joy:

We couldn’t resist going back to Gēn, this time for dinner, last night, as it was the eve of Malaysia’s next phase of relaxation of COVID restrictions. Inter-state travel within Malaysia will be allowed from Wed, June 10 onwards. So, we reckoned that we’d better hit the more popular restaurants before the inter-state crowds return (or maybe we were being too optimistic with regards to people wanting to resume their dining out activities).

Anyhoo, we were the only table yesterday evening, so I could actually indulge myself with a bit of photo-taking, which I’m very loath to do if there had been a single other customer in the restaurant (I know how “annoying” photo-taking can be to some people, which see it as quite distracting)

Gēn’s more “formal” degustation dinner menu featured smaller, more refined, and very aesthetically-pleasing plates - definitely plated with more finesse than its lunch-time offerings. First, some bubbly Spanish cava to accompany a trio of "bunga kantan" (torch ginger)-inflected comestibles which made up our Amuse-geule 1.

"Bunga kantan" (torch ginger flower)-scented fish floss:

"Bunga kantan" -flavoured crackers sandwiching pickled watermelon jam:

"Bunga-kantan"-flavoured fish broth with Vietnamese coriander leaf oil:

We then progressed to the Amuse-geule 2 - Boneless chicken wing with fried rice stuffing. This was delicious: delicately deboned chicken wing - the morsel was a just mouthful, but packed big flavours. Very prettily-presented, too, capped with a nasturtium leaves and tiny edible blooms.

Amuse-geule 3 was egg-white roti prata, drizzled with salted duck’s egg yolk curry sauce. it was more-rish, though I thought it looked far prettier than its taste.

Appetiser 1: Blimbi custard with jicama discs and kaffir lime. “Bilimbi” is a small, tangy fruit often used in this part of the world as a souring agent. I’d always found “bilimbi” to be too extreme for my taste: imagine puckered lips at the taste of a mere drop of it. But here, Chef Johnson Wong expertly balanced the extreme sourness of the “bilimbi” with the milky richness of the custard. The wafer-thin, round jicama discs provided a textural crunch to the dish, and the kaffir lime leaf’s citrusy scent rounded off the dish perfectly. It was ethereally light - my favourite item for the evening:

Next up, Appetiser 2: Ulam with condiments (clockwise from top-left): budu (fermented anchovy sauce), kerisik (toasted, dessicated coconut), calamansi lime, chili-soy sauce, anchovy-mayo, and tamarind:

Ulam” is a Malay-style fresh, raw salad, which can be a collection of whatever seasonal or available vegetables available. The one we had this evening consisted of cashew leaves, pea eggplant, wingbean, long bean, “ulam raja” (a fragrant local herb) and various edible flowers. This was accompanied by batons of grilled threadfin fish fillets. Very traditional Malay-style of serving.

Of the condiments offered, the most striking inclusion must be the “budu”, a noxious-smelling, salty fermented anchovy sauce originating from the northeastern Malaysian state of Kelantan. Kelantan used to be part of the Cham Empire, which also covered Cambodia. Kelantan “budu” shares the same origins as Cambodian “prahok”, which has been known to send foreigners into death throes upon an unfortunate whiff of it. :joy:

The Appetiser 3: Durian and crab with Chinese dough stick was prettily-presented - two beige orbs filled with durian sambal (just a faint hint) and topped with sun-dried tomato paste and crisp-fried crabstick “noodles”.

At this juncture, we were informed that the mains would be served next. Oh wow, I was getting a bit full from the procession of tapas-like dishes served to us.

Main 1: Threadfin and grated daikon with fermented cabbage broth, sawtooth coriander oil - this was very nice: thick, fresh threadfin fillet bathed in a savoury- sourish broth, reminiscent of Filipino sinigang. Copious amounts of finely-grated, almost vermicelli-like daikon, provided a pleasant crunch.

Main 2: Tempoyak baked fish - threadfin seemed to be the order of the day. Here, the fish steak was covered with “tempoyak”, which is, get this, fermented durian.

To foreigners who deemed durian as nature’s answer to mustard gas warfare, “tempoyak” is where ethnic Malays (not the Chinese-Malaysians or Indian-Malaysians) would ferment leftover durians, for use as a condiment. The fermentation process dulls the extraordinary smell of the durian (so your neighbours won’t think you have a leaking gas pipe in your house and spark an evacuation of the neighbourhood), but the sour-ish fermented “tempoyak” has a dull, bitter-sour note which the Malays love.

I actually have a phobia for anything with “tempoyak” in it, having tasted this condiment twice in 7 years whilst I was living in Kuala Lumpur - both times, I thought I was poisoned :joy:. So, I was absolutely amazed to find a main dish containing “tempoyak” in a restaurant like Gen, which serves cutting-edge modern cuisine. So, curious cat that I am, I decided to give it a try.

Verdict?: It’s not too bad at all. I won’t go back specifically for it, but it’s subtly flavoured, like all the dishes which Chef Johnson and his team produce, and looked almost too pretty to eat.

Main 3: Shredded duck wrapped in crepe, topped with mushrooms, in a Sarawak peppercorn sauce - this is almost like an reinterpretation of Peking duck, but where pulled duck confit was wrapped in a gossamer-thin crepe with the resilience of Vietnamese rice paper-wrapper, topped with a scale-patterned arrangement of thinly-sliced braised mushrooms. Sarawak, the East Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, is well-known for the quality of its pepper. The peppercorn sauce, in this case, was actually the star, and lifted what would have been an ordinary duck crepe dish to the sublime.

The duck-bones were used to prepare a deeply-flavoured duck broth, served with crosnes, white mushrooms and crisp-fried enoki mushrooms.

We did feel quite sated by then. The dessert courses came next.

Dessert 1: Pineapple sorbet, atop chopped pineapples with soy sauce and chili - it was cold, sweet and spicy. Pretty interesting combination, and surprisingly refreshing, though my tongue was tingling for a few minutes afterwards from the habanero pepper used!

Dessert 2: Plum-mango pudding, topped with mandarin orange segments & marigold petals, served with cinnamon-scented “Boh” chai - it was delish: the creamy pudding provided a nice foil to the sharp flavours from the mandarin orange. The cinnamon-scented chilled tea complemented the other components very well. Edible marigold petals dot the mandarin segments.

Dinner closed with the petit four: 3 types of chilled truffles with rather local flavours: guava-sour plum, rose-scented, and deep-fried truffle with pandan-scented filling. These were served in a three-tiered box on separate drawers:

Lovely dining experience. Very glad we decided to do this yesterday evening.

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I would be a regular customer!

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Don’t you think their creations looked too beautiful to eat? :joy:

I asked Chef Johnson when he’s going to revise his current menu which, I think, had remained static since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown back in March, understandably.

He said he’ll do it next month! :grin: