Anyone wondering if the wood-fire cooking trend could truly be translated into a Malaysian context will find that question answered at Bonfire, in Starling Mall in Damansara Utama, Selangor.
Wood-fired cooking evokes depth and flavour, a comforting sense of home and hearth, and the kind of back-to-basics kitchen philosophy that is awfully attractive in today’s often over-complicated world. But it also suggests heat and smoke, less appealing in our tropical heat shimmer.
Bonfire makes it work, giving diners the former and omitting the latter – your clothes may have a gentle smoky scent when you leave, but it’s neither overpowering nor unpleasant (or sit outside, and it’s a moot point). A powerful double ventilation system in the central open kitchen means that hanging out at Bonfire won’t leave you yearning for fresh air.
This foray into wood-fire cooking is thanks to sisters and co-owners Lee Ai Peng and Lee Poh Peng, who exude a genuine sense of warmth, and are always on-site and hands-on. While Bonfire is Poh Peng’s first venture in the restaurant world, Ai Peng and her brother opened the popular Red Beanbag in Publika, Kuala Lumpur, in 2011.
“After that, I went to Melbourne to take a culinary course. Poh Peng came to visit, and we went to this restaurant called Porteno,” said Ai Peng. The Surry Hills restaurant is a fire-fuelled, Argentinian barbecue, meat-lovers’ dream, and the sisters found their own hearts aflame and imaginations on fire.
“We wanted to recreate something like that here, but with a Malaysian identity,” she said. “And the aroma of grilling and roasting food is all part of the ambience.”
That’s thanks to a custom-made one-tonne oven fed on local rubberwood, and a menu with a modern Australian feel showcasing unmistakably Asian touches, from the incorporation of a herbed coconut milk sauce for the grilled snapper to grilled squid stuffed with otak-otak.
While Bonfire’s dining room is understatedly masculine, accented with log slices, wooden tables, and modern metal chandeliers, the entire aesthetic is completely softened by the Bonfire Girl – the unapologetically pretty and wonderfully whimsical mural that takes up the feature wall.
Heading the kitchen is chef Shahrul Amin Mansor, who has come up with small, focused menus; lunch sees lighter, more individual dishes, while the dinner menu shines a spotlight on shared platters, with some individual orders.
From the lunch menu, the grilled chicken burger with caramelised pineapple, salsa, and thick-cut chips (RM24) stands thighs and wings above a sea of chicken burgers in the Klang Valley. The tender chicken thigh boasts so much juicy flavour that it doesn’t even really need the piquant salsa, and a well-grilled ring of ripe pineapple adds even more sweet depth to the burger. I like my chips fat, crisp outside and fluffy within, so these hit the spot for me.
The smoked lamb tenderloin salad with kerabu salad and calamansi dressing (RM25) is available for lunch and dinner. The lamb is lightly grilled, just to the point of pinkness, with a hearty smoke note; it’s ably supported by a crunchy, piquant salad with pointed citrus notes. Another dish pulling double duty, the soft shell crab pasta with blue swimmer crab jus (RM28) is a solid order, with a concentrated shellfish flavour, a hint of chilli, and crisp crab oozing briny juice.
Bonfire’s blazing stars, however, are the grill items, most of which are available for dinner, which can be ordered individually (ranging from beef ribs at RM60 to wagyu skirt steak at RM80) or combined in great-value platters.
Choose two items from the list of meat or seafood for RM135 (recommended for two people) or three items for RM175 (for three to four). We had a combination of wagyu skirt steak, served with an intense, piquant beef jus, tender lamb rack with a jug of lamb jus, and a whole grilled snapper served with a coconut beurre blanc. On the side, a Mediterranean salad.
The meats were lovely, juices-running-down-the-throat faultless. But the fish! This is henceforth the standard all grilled fish will have to aspire to, for me. A crisp skin giving way to the flaky, tasty flesh – snapper is a flavourful fish on its own – with moisture intact. The sauce was quite revelatory as well, wonderfully thick with santan and aromatised with herbs.
We also had an individual order of squid done two ways (RM65). The freshness of the squid, served whole, was irreproachable, but the charred, nicely grilled squid went down better than the one stuffed with otak-otak paste – while the flavour was on point, the stuffing remained too mushy because it was encased in the squid. Perhaps a prior steaming would have firmed it up more – the accompanying stuffed chillies also had an otak-otak filling which was nice and firm.
A host of sides can also be ordered separately, ranging from creamy, classic Potato Dauphinoise (RM18) with Parmesan to sweet cubes of grilled watermelon in a salad (RM18), given added depth by a brushing of balsamic just prior to grilling.
The dessert menu is small and will change every four months. Recommended for sharing, The Big Bonfire (RM26) is quite the show-stopper. The restaurant’s luxe version of campfire staple S’mores, it’s a bowlful of Nutella cream topped with a thick layer of meringue that is torched at the table (you can opt out of the sprinkling of alcohol – you’ll just get torched marshmallow that doesn’t actually catch on fire). Surrounding the bowl are gingerbread shortbread cookie sticks, for dipping, as well as crunchy cocoa soil and berries.
The same amount of thought that has gone into the list of food offerings has obviously been applied to the drinks menu, whether cocktail (served after 5pm) or mocktail.
It’s easy to fall in love with the Demi Cinta Laksa (RM45); the Tanqueray gin-based cocktail is spiked with torch ginger flower petals, lime, tamarind, ginger, and pineapple. It does taste like you’re drinking a sweet-sour laksa broth, with the astringent edge of the gin and the fun elements of cucumber ice cubes and sweet jelly noodles – it’s an experiment that totally pays off.
If you don’t want alcohol though, the Xiang Pian Tea Spritzer (RM16) is a complex mocktail, with freshly-brewed Xiang Pian tea and notes of passionfruit, lime, chrysanthemum, and asam boi.
Bonfire is a place for repeat visits, a restaurant that combines a welcoming, cosy atmosphere with careful cooking and great ideas.
G-032, The Starling Mall
Tel: 018-919 8226
Open Sundays to Thursdays, 11am to midnight, and Fridays and Saturdays, 11am to 1am