Mission: To respond thoughtfully and responsibly to my experiences of drinking and dining at restaurants with regard to the quality, service, preparation, presentation and overall experience received thereat. The standpoint is one who respects the crafts of the chef and sommelier and who seeks to understand their choices in the kitchen and cellar and grow in knowledge. In this, I will seek to be fair, reasoned, direct and constructive and aim to keep my ego in check on our mutual journeys through the worlds of food and wine.

Monday, November 30, 2015

IWFS at A Li Yaa - Serious Yum!

Restaurant Signage
November 28th 2015

Oh man, what a blow out these last four days. Thursday was A Li Yaa, Friday was clearing out a friend's wine fridge whilst feasting on roast duck and pork, Saturday was Old World New World at the Doubletree and Sunday saw us at Dengkil for our Tai Chi sifu's birthday. Belly feels totally busted and a bit dizzy from lack of solid sleep. Bit creasy in the gut as well, lot of different wines and acidities. And it ain't over - got a requiem house party for our Dr Gan tonight at the family home, though hopefully will be less boozy than these last beanos. Phoooooo. [sidenote - it was less boozy - one bottle covered a table of eight and one glass for Gan on the Prayer Table - cheers Doc.]

Not sure if all will get reported, but we should start at the beginning. A LI YAA has become one of the leading restaurants in KL for Sri Lankan cuisine. It has recently undergone both renovation and expansion and now sports a spanky black and white interior punctuated by toned photo prints to add atmosphere. Those who know their restaurant history would remember it as the Aria and one of the chain of eateries operated by the Bangkung Boys but which presumably did not fit with long term plans. Some conversation on the night seemed to suggest it had been taken over as a hobby project by one of the local gourmands to entertain his friends, though naturally this would be hearsay and not for present reporting. Will look to firm this up soonest.

A Li Yaa interior
Doc Rajan and Doc Bachan had been championing the A Li Yaa for some time at IWFS Committee and ended up negotiating a very good deal with the restaurant for an event. Docs Rajan and Stephen and not Doc May had found some very tasty wines for matching and suddenly we had a very attractive wine dinner at a very affordable RM238 all in. Some still felt it was a bit stiff and might be a tough sell, but response was brisk and we even had a waiting list at the end. It was billed as a "Masterclass" in Sri Lankan cuisine with an appearance by guest chef and food writer Chef Sapna Anand who would helm the kitchen for the night and serve up the menu that the restaurant offered for the recent Malaysian International Gourmet Festival. Also, parking would be free around the Plaza Damansara after 7pm. So goes the theory...

As said, the IWFS A Li Yaa had proved surprising in its take up by the members and a full house of 48 was for some reason quickly absorbed. Normally our Indian cuisine events prove a tough sell but this one delightfully surprised on the upside. It might have been the price point coupled with some lovely wines and the prospect of a Master chef of Sinhalese cuisine in the kitchen. Or more likely all of these. It seems the restaurant name actually means "elephant" in the Sinhalese language, which seemed quite apt for Malaysia since there are often many of them in any one room. Though on the night I did not see many. Perhaps they were all hiding. If so, they were very good at it. 

It was a wet Thursday evening of rain and diverted roads that marked the start of the night which did little to set a friendly mood, having taken near on an hour to cover what would usually take fifteen minutes. This was thanks to a serious diversion consequent on roadworks closing off the Jalan Johar turnoff which is our main artery to the Plaza Damansara. These closures may be announced, but we rarely get such memos. It was dismal slow driving in the incessant soul sapping rain. The city is really like a total building site and pretty much has been for the last twenty years. Like the rain, it just never seems to stop, with some other project always being necessitated by progress. Like living in an eternal state of roadworks. 

John and Pushpa
I dropped Lenglui at the restaurant door and scuttled off to illegally park at the other end of the Plaza Damansara on the main road. Of late, parking has become a real bear in this area - so many food outlets and most of them extremely well patronised. Time was there was no problem finding a space - clearly the bars and restaurants here are doing all right. Walking along the row of pubs and eateries proved this so, with lots of expat and young enterpreneur types parked with beer and snacks. And smoking. Ahhhhh…. that explains it - most of the outlets here are open air style and people still need a smoke with a beer. Me? No - not for ten years and counting. 

Having umbrella-ed my way back to the A Li Yaa I got directed to the upstairs where the dinner was to take place. I remember once having an Austrian wine tasting and an Italian G D Vajra tasting in this section when it was the Aria. At that time it was bright and somewhat gay, with daylight streaming through curtained windows. Now it looked like the Batcave, all shadow and rock and a long narrow dimly lit tunnel leading to the toilets and kitchen. There was an open section to the kitchen which would later get utilised for a souffle like dessert but for the moment it was closed off. There was a separate room into which everyone had been ushered to sup the fizz and mingle prior to the eagerly awaited chow down. As ever, the members refuse to go deep into such rooms, preferring to mob around the door and the bar where the fizz was being poured. Experienced IWFS drinkers know that the fizz rarely makes it past the first three rows of thirsty hordes. I parked in the second row, being unable to go deeper due to the, er, third row being in the way...

Our fizz time seemed to go quite quickly but pleasantly with a delightfully perfumed prosecco that was light and fluffy and had a charming gaiety about it. My note says it was a bit like drinking pillows that had been fragranced with Turkish Delight. Not one that had too much complexity about it, but when you are in need of cheer after an hour on the awful roads it was excellent. It was also being served with some pretty fierce appetizers! There was a mutton kind of thing with hot sauce alongside some tortilla chicken wrap. Both were very good with the fizz, letting the bubbles soothe the hot pain that the food was inflicting on the tastebuds.

We were called to order and shepherded back into the Batcave, which would prove dark and hot and not really geared to take large numbers. The seating was eight tables of six people each, and two of these tables were parked at the other end of the long narrow bar that took up half the width of the room. People were shoehorned into their seats to leave just enough room for the waiting staff to squeeze through with the courses and the wine. 

The narrow hard walls made for reverberating conversation that made hearing what was being said across the table virtually impossible for the borderline deaf like myself. And trying to get up and say hello to neighbours was not initially possible - we were all trapped in our seats in this echo chamber of a room. The venue may have a future as a recording studio, but as a restaurant it needs sound absorbing drapes or some sound traps to disrupt the echo and reverb. Yes, I know my audio.

David got the evening underway with Thank Yous to those involved in putting the evening together. He also brought out Chef Sapna to talk a little about the food. Seems Chef is an accomplished graduate from Le Cordon Bleu Bangkok and is acclaimed for her private dinners with ‘My Test Kitchen’ sessions. She has also authored the cookbook ‘New Indian Kitchen’ and, in collaboration with A Li Yaa, presented the 7- course specially crafted dinner that would take us through a variety of authentic and titillating flavours presented in a modern style. She spoke well and quickly and got out of the way to let Rajan talk about the wines. He quickly got drowned out by the reverberating conversation and moved swiftly to a close to save his voice. Smart move.

The wine was pretty fast in getting poured though the food felt a bit slow in getting from kitchen to the table. Though once it did start coming it all came out pretty much at the same time - kudos to the kitchen for getting this right. 

Our first white wine was the Wolftrap, a South African Viogner blend of Viogner, Chenin Blanc and Grenache Blanc which gave the wine a crunchy Rhone like texture. Like the Prosecco, the Wolftrap had a floral nose, with a firm and weighty punch in the mouth and a whipcrack salty lash across the tongue and cheeks. 

The Vermicelli Crusted Fish Cake, er, Croquette
It was being matched with the Vermicelli Fish Croquette, which was essentially a cold yet crunchy fishcake which made for a pleasantly solid bite of potato through which the wine melted into clean sweet freedom. Coating the croquette with vermicelli and deep frying made for a wonderfully crispy bite, and the smooth filling contrasted well - it felt like eating crusty mashed potato mixed with lots of fishy flakes. The side of vegetables added a lemongrass vinaigrette kick which was intensified by what felt like pops of pomegranete - nice and zingy on the tongue. 

Prawn and the excellent Rasam
The whole was total bliss - crusty crunch carbo with seafood smooth set against zing and lemon. And nicely underseasoned, which would become a characteristic touch all night. I grew up on fishcake and chips as a kid and this was a brilliant reminder of some of the best from that time though with the addition of the superb vermicelli crunch. Great starter. And an intelligent choice to pair with something as low to mid weighty as the Wolftrap - as the Doc's wine notes said, a lovely food wine that indeed partnered without masking the food. 

Next out was the Prawn and Rasam which was oh so good. The Rasam I get in the food stalls is usually a complete assault of salt which rips the tongue and cheeks to shreds whilst getting the blood pressure to pop off the mercury scale. This one retained the salt but in far less quantity so that the spice could actually be tasted. Full marks on this one. The remains of the Wolftrap didn't really do much to aid the Rasam but it cut the excellent and juicy prawn a treat.

The Gisselbrecht Riesling came out quickly and proved to be a belter - sleek texture, with crisp lemons and laid back Granny Smith apple fruit that wedded to produce a frisky finish. For me it came across as more Sauvignon Blanc than Riesling, though the characteristic crisp sweetness kept it within the frame. It was an excellent match to counteract the afterburn and afterburp of the remains of the Rasam. Got the air moving well, acting as kind of like an Alka Seltzer digestif for this aspect of the Sri Lankan cuisine. 

Stuffed Chili Crab with Pepper Coriander Crust
The Chili Crab was excellent. Perhaps a shade oversalted, yet so, so fresh with a chili nip, a cilantro zip and a cardomom pod pop. The Riesling proved a perfect match - the crab cut the acidity so sweetly whilst letting the chili zap the tongue with a surefire but mellowed hit. Got lychee and longan and crunchy tropical fruit with the food. This was total love at first bite and sip - double star excellent. 

String Hoppers with Sea Bass
The Sea Bass came out swimming in a bowl of deliciously spiced soup that was like a liquid kurma that had been lashed with butter creamy oil and delicately ground fresh spices. I was hoping for some crusty French bread to help soak the sucker up but no such luck - that would have been brilliant. There were lots of tastes and textures with this one. The fish I found a shade dry and the onions somewhat overcaramelised whilst the string hopper kothu (rice flour noodles) leaned a bit toward the stodgy. It all ended up as kind of a sweet butter smooth gunge with a pepper fire over a firm dry fish. Odd but interesting mouth sensations with this one. 

It was being paired with the Wooing Tree Beetlejuice Pinot which unusually proved somewhat forgettable on this showing. The Beetlejuice has shone at previous IWFS outings with Nyonya style food, but for some reason didn't quite make it to the notebook. It must have been good - perhaps a bit overpowered by the combo of intermingling tastes and textures of the fish and rendered somewhat forgettable to me. It was clearly drinkable because it got swept away. Just could not stand up to the food. I will have to look for and crack a bottle to check.

Cylone Lamb with Lemon Rice - yum
The Lamb was next and the accompanying rice would prove lovely with its big nosewhack of lemon and cilantro. I got light textured grains in combo with a kind of muruku spicy crunch and total masala spice blast across the roof. The Cylone lamb gravy was perfect - smooth yet firm and not overpowering with the spice. Together the lamb and rice became a filling clean mouthful of wonderful spice, taste and texture. Magnificent. 

Paired with the Belleruche, again the wine seemed to fade into submission. A tasty enough Cotes du Rhone on its own, it seemed to lose its character in the face of the tastes and textures of this amazing lamb and rice. A good partner but somehow not really bringing anything memorable to the table. I have had the Bellercuche on a previous occasion with a solid beef rendang and it was delightful in rendering the meat fibres into a decent spicy chew whilst adding a hit of firm fruit. Not tonight. Perhaps there is a context missing here - the senses had been pretty battered with such a massive array of sensations so much so that something somewhere had to give. At least neither red was a tongue ripping tannic monster that would have stunned an elephant. So on this level the matches were good. 

Orange Blossom Paysam with Rose Ice Cream - hmmm...
The Ice Cream dessert had that whiffy rosepetal sicky cream taste that somehow sets my throat and tongue on edge. Too much delicate perfume in the mouth for me with this style - puts me in mind of a harem for some reason, all stinky sweet perfume and pastel face cake powder that feels somehow unmanly and not for consumption. Must be just me - others sucked the thing down without a second breath. Not that I have ever visited a harem. That I can remember. Change the subject. We also got given some kind of coconut drink to wash the thing down and which I remember as being more perfume in the mouth. Mine got left on the table. 

One of the Appam - I stole two.
We got treated by the restaurant to some late night Appam, an Indian crepe made fresh and hot in the pan and which was brilliantly tasty - light coconut, crisp and crunchy skin with an egg souffle centre that slipped down without a second thought. Wonderful texture, nice salt and sweet combo. A great way to end the evening.

Doc Su Kim, Doc Stephen, Chef Sapna, Chef David Morris and Michelle Morris
Chef came out at the end to get thanked by David and said a few words. One of our guests on the night was Chef David Morris who oversees the Cordon Bleu school at Sunway, so both he and chef are alumni. He said Chef Sapna really rocked the kitchen on the night. Absolutely. 

In all, a pretty good wine dinner. The food was well on point, with brilliant spicy tastes across a range of textures and combinations. The whites and pairing were excellent, though for some reason the reds fell a bit flat. The venue was a bit dark and dim and darn noisy thanks to hard walls and low ceilings and its narrow echo chamber of a room. Parking was not so easy, and neither was getting there.

I saw an elephant! It was Pink! 
Once the roads are sorted, I would definitely go back - the food was delightful and well worth the car parking pain. In fairness, the regular menu looks very different from the MIGF but the members in the know had already said that this was one event not to miss. The food is that good. Not sure what is the corkage policy is or the calibre of the wine list. But no matter, just bring your own and negotiate. As said, the only downside is the parking - it has got grim with distances between park up and destination getting longer. Next time maybe just take the Uber. Or a taxi, if you can get one. And who knows where you live and wants to go to there. And which doesn't smell cheesy. And whose driver doesn't open his door and hawk. And who will go by the meter. Haven't taken one for years. Good luck!

Who needs elephants? 
A Li Yaa Island and Restaurant Bar
Plaza Damansara
48 G&M Jalan Medan Setia 2
Bukit Damansara
54090 Kuala Lumpur
Tel +603 2092 5378


Cocktail Canap├ęs
Lamb cutlet & Chicken Tortilla wrap
murukku & cashew nut  
Prosecco Villa Sandi

Wolftrap Viognier/Chenin Blanc/Grenache Blanc 2013


Main Course I
Gisselbrect Riesling 2013

Main Course II
Wooing Tree Beetlejuice 2012

Main Course III
M Chapoutier Belleruche


Prosecco Villa Sandi NV
Prosecco has a quality revival on and this sparkling wine is part of that. It is crafted in a gently sparkling and off-dry style. Very pale in colour, with floral and citrus fragrances. The wine is crisp and clean with small bubbles and aromas of pear and honeydew melon. The fruit and freshness will carry the cuisine and open the evening with lingering bubbles

Wolftrap Viognier/Chenin Blanc/Grenache Blanc 2013
This South African blend draws from older Chenin Blanc and adds Rhone aromatics with the perfumed Viognier and more weighty Grenache Blanc. This drink-now wine has sweetness and hints of lemon zest in a balanced, fresh combination .It should partner spices without masking the flavours. From Boekenhoutskloof, Platters South Africa Winery of the Year 2012.

Gisselbrect Riesling 2013
This elegant wine from a long established family has won gold medals at Alsace and Macon major wine shows. Like wine judges we will enjoy fruit, acidity and a length greater than one expects from some other examples of this noble variety. Alsace Riesling has its own individual style, richer and more generous than those made in Germany. This is made possible by the region's sunny, dry mesoclimate and the shelter provided by the Vosges Mountains. The family winery produces a fine example here.

Wooing Tree Beetlejuice 2012
Don't call me Jumbo...
Don’t be put off by the memorable labelling; named after the critically endangered Cromwell Chafer Beetle, which is found in only one place in the world, Cromwell,Otago. The 81 hectare site has now been set aside as the Cromwell Chafer Beetle Nature Reserve to monitor and protect their habitat.
Ripe hand-picked fruit, gentle winemaking and maturation in French oak, 27% new, have resulted in a very approachable wine, with aromas of ripe cherries, raspberries and black plums .It has,a rich and smooth palate with fine grainy tannins to match the fruit with some savouriness after a couple of years in bottle. This vintage won Air New Zealand Wine Show Gold.

M Chapoutier Belleruche  
Michel Chapoutier’s team craft an accessible Rhone blend which pairs with spices due to the fruit and peppery notes of component grapes of Syrah and Grenache. Aromas of red fruits (mainly morello cherries) and spices such as pepper and anise are integrated in this fruity, well-structured Cote de Rhone.


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