The French food revolution in Malaysia

The French food revolution in Malaysia
What's more French than escargot?

These days, if you want to go French, the pickings are not so lean anymore. The pace for the generation of French restaurants - and appetite for French food - has picked up.

In the last five years, we have seen a steady roll out of French restaurants in the Klang Valley.

The numbers are modest - three to four a year - but they add up and today, we have choices when it comes to French food.

They join stalwarts Lafite at the Shangri-la Hotel and Cilantro at the Micasa Hotel to offer more variety - from fine dining to casual, and classic to French fusion. And, more importantly, French meals at various price points.

The first restaurant in Kuala Lumpur to bear a French name was the Le Coq D'or (1958-2001).

It was the place for Western food, with some French dishes on the menu like Steak a la Diane, Steak au Poivre (steak with black pepper sauce), and Crepes Suzette.

However, the first French restaurant, according to its owner Shukri Shafie (Chef Shuk), was Rive Gauche in Jalan Ampang, opened in 1983 (now closed).

The benchmark for fine French food for a long time was set by Lafite (since 1985), a fine dining establishment with an excellent wine list and sommelier service.

It was patronised in the early days by society's uppercrust.

In 2001, Frangipani, a modern European fine diner with strong French leanings opened on Changkat Bukit Bintang, headed by the talented self-taught chef Chris Bauer.

In November of the same year, Frenchman Philippe Le Francois opened Le Bouchon across the road.

Le Bouchon's offerings were more rustic, and KL-lites got their first taste of traditional French food.

The start of the "French revolution" happened nearly a decade later, led by restaurants like Nathalie's Gourmet Studio (2010), Bistro à Table (2011), La Vie En Rose (2011), Yeast Bistronomy (2012) and Maison Francaise (2013).

Isadora Chai's Bistro à Table opened in the more residential neighbourhood of Petaling Jaya, which at the time was considered a daring move as PJ was not known as a market for French food nor expensive restaurants.

Chai's gamble worked, and soon after, many more restaurants with French food on the menu started to open away from the city centre and expatriate enclaves.

Restaurants like Yeast, Top Shelf, La Creperie de Caroline, Rendezvous and Bistro Enfin, signal the third wave of French restaurants in Malaysia.

They are much more accessible, being pocket-friendly restaurants that are also located close to the people. Their casual spirit appeals to those who loathe to fuss over their dressing when they go out in balmy weather.

French cuisine has finally taken root in this country. It has been a slow struggle; the pioneer restaurants were expensive and out of the reach of the ordinary Malaysian.

Their complex, chef-driven menus were also not easy to understand and the unpronounceable names of the dishes didn't help either.

For two decades, French cuisine lagged behind Italian and Japanese, and even Korean restaurants managed to make good progress during this time.

Today, food loving and culinarily adventurous Malaysians are tucking into plates of pâte and stuffed snails (escargot), sometimes accompanied by a glass of French wine.

The opening of French cooking schools in the Klang Valley such as Le Cordon Bleu at the Sunway University and The French Culinary School in Asia could explain why so many chefs now know how to cook and appreciate French food.

In the same period too, several pastry schools run by professional French patissiers such as the Academy of Pastry Arts Malaysia started in the Klang Valley; one could now be completely schooled in the French culinary techniques without going out of the country.

The opening of French-style pastry shops and boulangeries (bread shops) such as Les Deux Garcons, Yeast, Tous Les Jours, Loaf and Bonjour further support this gastronomic trend and supply us with flaky and buttery croissants and crusty loaves.

The difference

One of the things that will strike you in a good French restaurant is the rich and flavourful quality of the sauces accompanying a steak or fish, which are naturally thick without the addition of thickeners like flour.

Sauces are derived from brown or white stocks, which also form the base of soups and stews.

Auguste Escoffier, considered the father of modern French cooking in his seminal guide to French cooking, Le Guide Culinaire, wrote that sauces represent one of the most important components of cookery.

"It is they that have inspired and sustained the universal predominance of French cuisine."

The other is the use of high quality ingredients. French chefs have what is known as the "cult for good ingredients" - a culinary culture also shared by the Japanese.

That means that they will strive to buy only the best ingredients for use in the kitchen and this is why French food cannot be cheap.

Cooking food right is also a hallmark. Don't be surprised if you are politely asked to choose another dish when you order a steak done well - a sacrilege to most French chefs.

French cuisine

French cuisine is extraordinarily diverse, and has been compared to Chinese cuisine in its diversity. Like the Chinese, they eat everything, from frog legs to fattened goose liver or foie gras.

Almost all the famous French dishes are regional specialties, such as duck confit from the South-West, a dish of salt-cured duck slow-cooked in its own fat until it is meltingly tender and beef bourguignon, a rich and unctuous stew of beef cooked in red wine originating from the wine-producing Burgundy region.

In a French home, duck confit may be made into cassoulet or used to flavour dishes.

At the restaurants, duck confit is usually just the duck leg, pan-fried or roasted to crisp its skin, and beef bourguignon is often made with beef cheeks, a non-prime cut with a lot of gelatine to give a silky and smooth mouthfeel.

Many of these traditional classics are on the menu of the French restaurants here, sometimes presented in creative ways.

At home, French people enjoy not only their traditional cuisine but also popular food such as pasta, pizza, burger and ham sandwiches.

They are also particularly fond of Moroccan food, Spanish paella and Japanese sushi. So don't be surprised to find couscous and tagine sometimes appearing on French menus - though probably not sushi.

The French ambassador to Malaysia, Christophe Penot says: "French cuisine is very open and chefs like to use products from other countries.

It is also about innovation - when chefs prepare traditional food, they add something their own to it. The tendency today is also to do lighter food and use environmentally friendly products.

"It's also about values, quality, pleasure of the senses and good presentation - what we call 'art of the table'."

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