Brave and unpretentious

I often learn about new restaurants in the city through word-of-mouth and when I hear rave reviews about Sprout from two different sources on the same day, I know it’s time for my own dining experience.

Chef Mui, in his element, preparing a plate to serve
At Sprout, I meet Chef Mui, 25, a Hakka who hails from Kulai, who is earning a reputation for his menu of sophisticated food created from wild-caught fish and locally farmed meat and vegetables.  He is always finding new and creative ways to cook local produce and the menu will often change, depending on what ingredients he can source fresh from the farm or sea.  

Listening to the passion in his voice, I’m impressed with his concept of sustainable eating right here in Johor Baru, where the freshest ingredients can be sourced from farms in Kempas, Kulai and Cameron Highlands and the seas off Pontian and Mersing.

Facade of Sprout at JB's Kim Teng Park
The menu is a small folded card with tiny selections listed under Snacks, Soil, Sea, Land and Desserts and a Manifest that reads: “Eliminate your prejudice on local produce, Sprout is using the freshest local produce available.”  

It didn’t take long for me to pick my choices for an elegant 3-course set meal with Snacks on-the-house and I sit back, waiting to be wowed. 

There’s something brave and resolute about Mui and his culinary team of Joseph Teoh and Wenny Lee, who opened this unpretentious little restaurant for modern European food in JB’s oldest residential area.  I guess it’s probably to keep overhead costs low so that they can focus on creating a delightful dining experience for discerning diners.

Snacks and Soil

Quinoa Salad
Who would have thought that our humble pumpkin can be turned into a tasty and interesting snack?  A slice of toasted pumpkin topped with bacon jam is certainly an appetizer that signals more exciting dishes to follow.

As I admire the pretty plating of my Quinoa Salad (RM27), I know a great deal of thought went into creating the balance of textures and tastes with fresh and cured ingredients.  Before I dig in, I look closer at the compressed and pickled cucumber sitting on a bed of quinoa with a side of broccoli puree and confit tomatoes, drizzled with sourdough crumble and fermented melon dressing.  

Cold cucumber gazpacho being drizzled
on the Asparagus Salad 
Then I take my time to enjoy the nice crunch of the tasty quinoa that perfectly complements the tangy taste of the fresh and preserved vegetables.

I watch as cold cucumber gazpacho is being drizzled on the warm vegetables of the Asparagus Salad (RM27) served at the table and learn that it’s an interesting mix of warm and cold.  Slivers of asparagus and baby gem leaves tastes refreshing with dollops of an odd blend of walnut jam and salted egg yolk!

Sea and Land

While fans of fine dining may expect a menu of air-flown or exotic ingredients, Chef Mui is educating diners on new ways to appreciate local fresh produce.  My Garoupa (RM50) choice from the Sea menu is an exciting dish he created using garoupa and squid from Pontian and micro vegetables from Kempas.  

A delightful serving of garoupa and squid 
The tasty texture of fresh fish topped with black olive crumbs complements the side of squid confit and cauliflower couscous along with bouillabaisse sauce – a rich foam created from fish, chicken and shellfish stock.

The Pork Belly (RM42) from the Land menu, made up of two types of meat – belly and trotter – changed my mind about what these should look like.  The hours of preparation that went into making the crispy coated confit of meats did not disappoint because I can taste its distinct gelatinous goodness in each mouthful.  The rich meat flavours are balanced by sour apple, mustard aioli, radish and charred spring onion, topped with a crunchy slice of crackling!

Desserts and Details
         
The cosy restaurant that seats up to 20 guests includes a row of seats at the bar where casual diners can watch as the chefs prepare and plate their meals.  While space is limited in the kitchen, Mui and his team move around with dexterity, much like bats with built-in sensors as they exchange places between the oven, stove and various spots along the narrow path.

Smooth chocolate mousse with mint sorbet
As each dish is served, Mui or Teoh will describe the ingredients and its preparation, if it was a confit, tartare, infused, cured, fermented or foamed, and may even suggest how I can start savouring the exquisite composition for the best effect on my palate.

For instance, Mui suggests that I nibble the candied mint leaves followed by a lick of lemon gel before tasting the smooth Chocolate mousse (RM27) with a side of mint sorbet and cookie crumbles.  Another popular dessert choice here is the Banana (RM25) with olive oil sponge, sesame paste and lime yoghurt.  The attention to detail, not only in food preparation and plating but also in personably presenting it to diners, is something that simply distinguishes Sprout from others.

WHERE
Sprout (Non-Halal)
61 Jalan Tebrau
80300 Johor Baru, Johor
Tel: +6011 – 2181 6118
FB and Instagram: Sprout.JB

OPENING HOURS
Daily 6pm to 10pm
Saturday & Sunday also from 11.30am to 2.30pm

GETTING THERE
Drive down Jalan Tebrau towards the city, keeping left as you near Kim Teng Park residential area; Slow down to find Sprout in the first unit of the only row of shops parallel to the road.

WHAT’S COOKING
Modern European cuisine using local produce

MUST TRY
From starters, salads, mains to desserts – all are must-try items!

YOU’LL PAY
Corkage RM20/bottle and service charge; No GST charges as yet

ATMOSPHERE
Fine dining in a relaxed ambience

FACILITIES
Disabled-friendly
High chair
Kids’ dining set
No Smoking
No Pets
Credit card facilities

THE LOO
Brightly lit modern toilets in a vintage building

SERVICE
English-speaking staff who will describe your food in exquisite detail!

OVERALL VERDICT
Go give it a try

A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 24 February 2016

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