Isadora Chai has a lot on her plate. Every day, she juggles the day-to-day operations of her three restaurants – Bistro à Table, Antara Restaurant and Anson Colonial Café, dashing between suburban Petaling Jaya and central Kuala Lumpur to make sure everything is in order on both ends. She is being stretched very thin, to say the least.
“I think I’m currently operating on about two hours of sleep a day,” she says, less a complaint than a statement of fact. But then, Chai has always been driven and determined, a quality which led to the success of her first restaurant Bistro à Table, a French eatery which has nabbed accolades aplenty and in 2015, was ranked the third best restaurant in Malaysia by the Miele Guide.
Her two new eateries mark a return to the homeland. While Antara is an adventurous exploration of Malaysian cuisine in a fine-dining setting, Anson Colonial Café represents a modern reworking of colonial Hainanese fare. And Chai isn’t shy about alluding to the iconic Coliseum Café’s impact on the formation of Anson.
“Yeah, I am inspired by Coliseum. This is like an homage to Coliseum food. I used to go there when I was younger, and the sizzling steak and chops are things I remember!” she says.
The restaurant is on the ground floor of a 98-year-old, two-storey building which also houses Antara (which is upstairs). The interior harkens back to a nostalgic bygone era, and is quaint, homey and deeply evocative of old world-style colonial restaurants (and kopitiams).
In fact, Chai was so devoted to getting the anachronistic details just right in the eatery that furniture from her own house can be found at Anson – from an antique chest to marble tables and chairs. She even nicked a couple of kitschy light fixtures from her aunt’s house!
It is in this same vein that she has drawn inspiration for the restaurant’s food, harnessing memories of her family’s special sojourns to Coliseum and The Ship as well as childhood activities that revolved around food.
Like making popiah for instance, which was a much-treasured weekend activity in her household. “This popiah thing is like an event, like a popiah party. You would go to an aunt’s house and all the extended family would come to roll the popiah. And this was like a Sunday afternoon weekend lunch affair – it was a staple,” she says.
This led to the creation of her dried scallop popiah (RM38 for a minimum four pieces). There are some theatrics involved in this popiah, as ingredients are stacked in old-fashioned tiffin carriers, so there is a bit of intrigue involved in the layer-by-layer reveal of individual elements.
You’ll find quite a constellation of components from deep-fried taufu pok to beans with dried scallop, shredded cucumber, shredded chicken and omelette as well as the requisite chilli and sweet pastes to spread on the base of the spring roll. The popiah skin itself is paper-thin and has been hand-crafted by an aunt who has been making it for 40 years. “I tried doing it myself, but I can’t get it this thin,” says Chai.
There’s a lot of appeal to assembling your own popiah, spooning ingredients onto the wrap until you’re ready to roll and eat it. Flavour-wise, it packs quite a punch (so long as you’re generous with your ingredient layering), as the assembly of ingredients produces a smorgasbord of textural contrasts and flavours that serve to create delicious mouthfuls.
Then there is the Marmite chicken rice (RM28) which Isadora says straddles the chicken rice divide beautifully. “When you order roast chicken with your chicken rice, the skin is great but the meat can sometimes be dry. With the steamed chicken, you only order it because of the meat but the skin is rubbery. So I don’t like that. So I thought what if you have the best of both worlds? So we steam the chicken, then we rip off the skin and deep-fry it” she says.
The Marmite reference builds on Chai’s love of Marmite chicken, which is why she incorporated a Marmite sauce, instead of kicap manis to go with the requisite hot, fiery chilli and ginger sauces.
The result is really delicious – the chicken meat is tender and juicy, with crispy shards of chicken skin atop it (although a tad on the oily side), the rice is delicate and fragrant, and the sauces that go with the chicken make quite an explosive combination when they come together – punchy, bold and slightly sweet.
The curry and parmesan chicken chop (RM28) is another one of Chai’s tributes, this time specifically to the famed Yut Kee chicken chop. Chai’s chicken chop is divine – a crunchy crust on the outside that yields to juicy, succulent meat on the inside. The sauce that accompanies it makes a great sidekick, but it’s the chicken that’s the true hero here.
Then there is the sizzling F1 wagyu ribeye with shiitake mushrooms and herb butter (RM135 for 350g), an ode to Coliseum’s iconic sizzling steak.
And what a steak this is! Surely the star in Anson’s line-up, the wagyu is melt-in-the-mouth tender and oozing with flavour. The melted herb butter gives it rich, opulent notes and the generous selection of shiitake and straw mushrooms arranged prettily on top add crunch and bite to each mouthful. If you’re of a carnivorous leaning, there’s a good chance you’ll discover your soulmeat in this steak.
If you’re after something small and petite, the baked crab gruyere gratin (RM25) offers lots of cheesy flavours stuffed into cute little pots. The cheese forms a hard crust that gives way to a satiny smooth, cheesy inside interspersed with fluffy crab meat, although the ratio of cheese vs crustacean leans more heavily in the direction of the former.
For dessert, try the caramelised guava tart tartin with balsamic ice cream (RM18). This is basically Chai’s take on guava with assam boi and is an interesting reinterpretation of the original classic. The guava pieces are soft and supple, and the pastry base is silken and malleable. And it all pairs beautifully together with the addition of the slightly acidic balsamic ice cream which wards off what could otherwise be cloying richness.
Chai has high hopes for Anson, as it is her attempt to bring back the great old colonial cafes of yore, which she thinks are slowly being wiped out by modernisation.
“I don’t know why these restaurants are dying out, but it’s part of our food culture, too. I hope to bring it back. Seriously, I only open up restaurants where I want to eat my own food. These are things I want to eat and hopefully, I share it with everyone, and they want to eat it too!” she says earnestly.
Anson Colonial Café
2 Lorong Raja Chulan
50200 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-2078 8882
Open daily: Noon to 3pm; 6pm to 11pm