[Penang, Malaysia] Modern-Penang cuisine by Communal Table by Gen (根)

Slipping into Communal Table by Gen is like stepping into the future through a time portal: one emerges into a cool, stark , almost antiseptic dining space, away from the din and hustle & bustle of the hawker food scene just outside its glass walls. This little eatery on the corner of the busy McNair Road and Presgrave Street intersection is located right smack in the middle of George Town’s formerly notorious “Chit Tiau Lor” (Seven-Street Precinct), a rough, working-class neighbourhood controlled by Chinese triad gangs. In the old days, perhaps as recent as the 1970s, disagreements and rivalries were often settled by swords and knives here.

These days, The Seven-Street Precinct is undergoing a slow, but sure, process of gentrification, with trendy cafes and B&Bs popping up here and there. The only knives one sees here nowadays are in places like Gen’s open kitchen, where a nifty, young kitchen crew worked efficiently, silently turning out pretty plates of wonderful tasting creations for its audience: basically 10 diners (at full capacity) seated at a long table that ran almost the length of the restaurant. Everyone gets a front row view of the goings-on in the kitchen. Which also means - the kitchen crew has to move with a well-rehearsed, almost balletic grace & sureness: not a drop of sauce carelessly spilt on the counter, no accidental bump between kitchen crew members and, god forbid, no crashing utensil onto the floor.
The silence is golden here - one don’t see a ranting chef de cuisine amidst the Zen-like calm in here.

We started off with a couple of pineapple and lime-flavoured kefir drinks sourced from Pharm Hut. These were refreshing and had a delayed alcohol kick.

Our dinner consisted of:

  1. Mandai (cempedak skin) fritters, coated with kicap sambal and topped with finely-shaved cempedak seed - this is a more refined, upmarket take on the cempedak fritters one gets by the streets of George Town, albeit a savoury version. It was a textural delight.

  1. Rice crackers with “kum heong” mousse and clams, topped with finely-shredded crisped leeks - these were very pretty to look at and, again, had wonderful textures. The “kum heong” sauce lifts up the flavour profile by quite a few notches. This is real, contemporary-Asian cuisine made for modern Asians, not those pseudo-Oriental stuff one gets in over-hyped, overpriced trendy spots in Europe or America.

  1. Shredded black chicken, herbal tea egg, crisped enoki mushrooms, with herbal soup - my favourite dish for the evening was actually this soup course. It exuded all the warmth and comfort of a homemade broth - deep, mellow flavours, the shredded black chicken meat added just the right body to the dish. The perfectly coddled tea egg, with molten yolk, was to-die for.

  1. Watermelon, with ginger flower sorbet and galangal chili - I rather liked this dish: it’s bold, it’s flavoursome, and its taste profile screams Penang-Nyonya. And yet, it looked almost too futuristic, like something which we don’t expect to be created yet, but transported back to us by a time-machine, like a Nyonya dish from the 22nd-century sort of stuff. The sharp, cold watermelon cubes, flavoured by the sorbet, beautifully scented by the galangal and ginger flower (“bunga kantan”) made one reminisce about Penang’s Nyonya “asam pedas”.

  1. Serving out the crispy-skinned roast pork, pickled onion and daikon, with assorted leaf wraps and green chili salsa - this substantial main course was more-ish, and packed with all the traditional Chinese roast pork flavours. Served with fresh leafy vegetables, it (again) takes a leaf out of Penang-Nyonya cuisine’s style of combining savoury filling with fresh, crisp green leaf wraps, e.g. for its “jiu hu char” classic.

  1. Tamarind-glazed skate topped with chopped scallions - this was really good: a generous skate wing, yielding more meat than we’d expected, blanketed by a very sticky-delicious, sour-sweet tamarind glaze. I’d be contented to be here just for this dish.

Desserts:
7) White glutinous rice ice-cream and lime curd - I was more intrigued by the white glutinous rice ice-cream, which had a rich consistency but none of the sticky rice grainy texture I was expecting. Perhaps needed a little tweak to get this right.
The lime curd part was nice - the sour pinch giving my palate a jolt.

  1. Red date cakes - these were served warm, fluffy and sweet. We were actually advised by our waitress to dip the warm cakes into the cold ice-cream/curd for a yin-yang, warm-vs-cold taste sensation, but I rather enjoyed the cakes on their own.

  2. Durian cream puff - durian is in season in Penang right now, albeit at the tail-end (the annual season lasts from end-May to end-July). The cream provided a gentle hint of the durian. Being a durian fiend, I’d selfishly hoped for a more assertive, durian-heavy scent, like the durian ice-cream I had recently at L’Unico Gelateria in Kuala Lumpur.

  3. Cempedak macaron - I enjoyed this much more, despite the subtler-than-I’d-expected flavours of the cempedak, which is also in season at the moment.

A good meal. I like the concept which owner-chef Johnson Wong espoused. He’s still experimenting with new flavour profiles and digging deeper into Malaysia’s culinary roots which, come to think of it, was his reason all along for naming this restaurant “Gen” (根) which, in Chinese, meant “Roots”. Really looking forward what else this young enfant terrible of Penang’s modern culinary scene can conjure up in future.

Address
Communal Table by Gen (根)
68a, Lebuh Presgrave (Presgrave Street)
10300 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Tel: +6 012 578 3323
Opening hours: 6pm to 11pm, Tue to Sun. Closed on Mondays.
Also open for afternoon tea: 2pm to 5.30pm Fri, Sat & Sun.

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Beautiful. I like everything about this place.

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Peter - in my head, I’m eating there. I can feel the atmosphere of the place and I can feel the textures and flavours of the food (although there are things I’ve never eaten). And I just love it. For me, one of your most evocative reviews ever. Mega thanks.

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Thanks, John. Now if you ever do come this way, I’m going to bring you here to eat. :grin: :+1:

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Bravo!

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How are they doing, business-wise? Crowded?

This seems geared to well-heeled foreign/Chinese tourists…will they be able to pull through?

Quite a respectable crowd each evening. Their target market seemed to be the local Chinese crowd, although they seamlessly moved to speaking English, if need be.

That’s great to hear.

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“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold