There is something immediately warm and welcoming about Zoe. The place has a homey charm, spun from an interior that is pretty but doesn’t have that modular textbook quality so common in modern eateries (who presumably hire the same interior designers).
Here, exposed wooden beams criss-cross the ceiling, tables are furnished with fresh flowers and an outdoor area is accentuated with the understated charm of potted plants. In fact, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is a restaurant that has been fashioned out of that most elusive of qualities: tender, loving care.
And this first impression is immediately satisfied when you meet the chef-owner of Zoe, the eponymous Zoe Rai.
Rai is probably the nicest chef you’re likely to meet anywhere. Here is a man whose smile is so wide that it literally feels like the warmth of sunshine, a sensation that is replicated in his cosy eatery as well.
“My restaurant feels like my house, because most of the furniture is from my house or from friends. So it’s a reflection of my own home,” says Rai.
Interestingly, the 40-something Rai is not a career chef. Instead, he spent 14 years working at Bank Negara before deciding to take a leap of faith to pursue a career as a chef, something he had always wanted to do.
“I reached the stage where I was like, ‘Okay, what else can I do in life that I want to do before I kick the bucket?’ On my bucket list, I’d always wanted to be a chef. So I just took the courage and decided to leave everything safe and familiar,” he says.
Rai pursued a culinary arts programme at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Adelaide, Australia and a pastry course at MasterChef Australia-endorsed Savour in Melbourne, before gaining experience at various restaurants like the award-winning Quay in Sydney. After moving back to Kuala Lumpur, he worked as a pastry chef before striking out on his own.
At Zoe, Rai draws inspiration from a confluence of flavours gleaned from both his work experiences abroad as well as his international travels. Although he could easily mix-and-match these different influences, Rai is adamant about preserving the authenticity of the food he serves.
“My food is very authentic, so whatever I do, that is what it’s supposed to be. I don’t do fusion and I don’t Malaysian-ise my food; I try and stay as true to its original intent in whichever country it’s from,” he says.
A meal at Zoe, located in Bangsar, KL, is largely predicated on the time you’re there, as lunch and dinner are totally different animals, with lunch taking on a South-East Asian persona and dinner assuming another alter-ego altogether in the form of a predominantly Western menu.
“People don’t have much time for lunch as they’re always rushing. So the best is Asian food – all the curries … you can take the time to make it, but when the order comes, it’s very fast to plate and send it out. And for dinner, I do Western food because people have more time to sit down and relax,” he says.
If you’re here for lunch, definitely try the northern Thai curry (RM25). Commonly called khao soi, this robustly-flavoured curry noodles features a thick, muddy curry with intensely concentrated flavours that set the stage for a sumptuous, satisfying meal.
The watermelon salad (RM18) or pla haeng taengmo offers an interesting interplay of flavours that sees refreshing watermelon balls juxtaposed against overwhelmingly savoury fish floss. While it sounds a little strange in theory, these two components work surprisingly well in reality, and deftly balance each other out.
Another stand-out from the lunch menu is the fluffy Thai duck egg omelette with crab meat (RM20). Here, a crispy exterior succumbs willingly to an interior that is fluffy and springy to the touch. The only downside is the crab meat, which doesn’t feature strongly in this configuration.
For dinner, expect to do a dramatic pivot to a more global playing field, and indulge in fare like the Peruvian fish ceviche, which features slivers of sashimi-grade raw fish cured in citrus juice and enhanced with pungent pops of wasabi. The entire concoction offers a pleasant complement of flavours, although a slight fishy aftertaste might linger after this meal.
Then there is the muhamarra (RM23), a roasted capsicum dip popular in Turkey that is smooth, creamy and just bursting with the freshness and lusciousness of peppers. As if all this gloriousness isn’t enough, there is the pillowy soft bread provided on the side, which is so plush and cushiony, you might just feel inclined to adopt a position of repose and lie on it.
Perhaps the highlight of the dinner menu is the lamb ragu paccheri (RM48). Here, the lamb has been slow-cooked for hours to elicit a tenderly yielding pliancy. It’s a hearty meal with an innately meaty overture that perfectly showcases juicy slivers of lamb underscored by thick, perfectly cooked ribbons of pasta.
Next up, try the baby octopus and prawn bisque tagliatelle (RM55), an understated meal that features incredibly well-cooked squid that steers clear of that dreaded chewy consistency in favour of fluidly silken tentacles that require little to no mastication. The prawn bisque that coats the pasta is good, with a lightly aquatic quality that does not overpower.
For dessert, submit to the power of the handmade chocolate truffles (RM8), made with 70% dark chocolate and designed to intoxicate the senses. The truffles are little balls of velvety perfection, that offer bursts of cocoa goodness upon contact with the mouth.
In many ways, you’ll quickly deduce that Rai pours his whole heart and soul into his food, something that is reflective of his nurturing personality. So when he tells you what his altruistic next plan is, it makes total sense.
“What I really want to do is open a cooking school for refugees and disenfranchised kids. The restaurant is a place for me to develop my skills and make my name so that when I actually open the school, people will come,” says Rai, who previously taught English to refugee children.
Rai’s hope is that by teaching these children a marketable skill, they will be able to break the cycle of poverty and find good jobs.
“That’s my end goal actually, not a slew of restaurants. Because I’ve learnt that the only thing that you actually take with you in this life is what you give,” he says, that winning smile etched on his face.