Gourmet dining with Chef Raymond Tham

Recently while preparing materials to conduct a training session with budding writers, I went through my collection of old paper clips – yes, I collected my published pieces over the years – to pick out some to use as visual aids.

Award-winning Chef Raymond Tham [Back Row
second from Right] with the happy team at the
Elephant and Butterfly, Hard Rock Hotel Desaru Coast
In the pages of the Lifestyle section of the New Sunday Times dated 1 January 2017, I discovered a feature on award-winning chef, Raymond Tham.

I recognised him as the chef being featured in the third instalment of Desaru Coast’s Gourmet Series so I paused to snap a grainy, yellowed photo of the chef from the old article.

I thought, “Our paths were about to cross at Desaru Coast this weekend.”

That was because I had accepted the invitation to join my friends at Desaru Coast for a gourmet dinner prepared by Chef Raymond Tham!

The third instalment of the Desaru Coast Gourmet Series will feature award-winning Chef Raymond Tham, co-owner and executive chef at Skillet At 163 and Beta, an Asian fusion food restaurant-bar in Kuala Lumpur.

A yellowed, grainy shot of Chef Raymond Tham
captured from an old newspaper feature
The menu for the third Gourmet presentation in Desaru Coast themed, A Malaysian Journey: Turn Up Your Senses, would be Chef Raymond’s rendition of tapas style dining for diners to rediscover iconic Malaysian flavours from all around Malaysia in one place.

I was all set to being wowed because this chef from Negeri Sembilan, is reputed to apply creativity and innovation in his dishes and is partial to pushing the boundaries of local cuisine.

Using interesting ingredients paired with unique elements, he aims to take diners on a tasty tour to various parts of our nation.

The evening traffic that day was heavy from Johor Baru, particularly on the stretch before joining the Senai-Desaru Expressway so I phoned our host at Desaru Coast, Shirley Hoo, to inform that I may be delayed.

The light drizzle had abated when I arrived at Hard Rock Hotel Desaru Coast, where the five-course gourmet dinner was held at The Elephant and Butterfly, presented in a unique free-and-easy poolside dining experience with a twist to fine dining.

Course One: Laksa made with liquid nitrogen (Johor)
Being a good host, Shirley was looking out for me and she ushered me into the crowd outside the restaurant, who were then being served the first Course, Laksa made with liquid nitrogen.

I saw fumes of liquid nitrogen rising from the deep pot where the tapas were being spooned out and diners would savour this chilled tapas delicacy, casually – served into their hands – while standing, the way the Spanish would enjoy standing tapas dining experiences.

This was rather mind-boggling. It was the first time ever to taste Laksa Johor in a chilled pellet of meringue, rich with a blend of coconut milk, kerisik, bunga kantan, daun kesum and a hint of chili padi.

Course Two: Appetizers on a bed of Red Beans;
Clockwise (Manjung Perak, Kuala Lumpur, 1Malaysia)
Still savouring this lingering flavour in my mouth, I take my seat in the restaurant and was given the dinner menu, designed on a CD, still clipped within its plastic case.

I read, “A Malaysian Journey: Turn Up Your Senses by Chef Raymond Tham” in the headlines followed by the five-course menu with brief descriptions of each item and its inspiration from which Malaysian state.

A glance at Course One confirmed that the Laksa made with liquid nitrogren was inspired by the distinct taste of our Laksa Johor.

The menu was indeed curated to help diners turn up their senses through tasting the exquisite interpretations of traditional and familiar Malaysian flavours.

A fog rises from the Winged Beans Salad as
Fermented Starfruit Snow was added!
Chief Executive Officer of Desaru Development Holdings One, Roslina Arbak, warmly welcomed me to the event and encouraged me to “turn up my senses” to enjoy the meal in this third instalment of the series of six gourmet dining experiences in Desaru Coast.

“Each instalment features an amazing chef with their own specialties, who will showcase their own representation of Malaysian dishes through ingredients, techniques and presentation,” said Roslina.

Before she left for her table, Roslina hinted that her favourite was the salad dish.

Coming up next, Course Two comprised three appetizer items served on a bed of Red Beans and diners were invited to (again) eat them with their hands.

This pretty presentation warranted more time to admire the platter before picking the appetizers up, to taste one by one.

Part Two of Course Three:
Soft-shell Prawns Masak Lemak
(Negeri Sembilan)
One: Tomatoes from Cameron Highlands soaked in Assam Boi topped with cream cheese and a dollop of caviar, farmed from sturgeon bred in Malaysia.

The way to savour this appetizer (we were told) was to start with the caviar and cheese, followed by the tomatoes for a better burst of flavours within the mouth.

Two: Beta Truffles, made with chopped cendawan kukur or splitgill mushrooms, rolled in bamboo charcoal for an even dark coating and topped with a flake of edible 24K gold.

Served warm, I discovered that this little globe was packed solid with fragrant chopped mushrooms as I take my time to savour each earthy, tasty bite.

Three: Kuih Loyang was topped with three blobs of salted egg yolk cream and garnished with deep-fried curry leaves for an enticing, aromatic fragrance.

I figured that the only way to savour this was to bite through each creamy blob to the dark crispy base.

In the subtle lighting, I took a closer look and was pleasantly surprised to see that the base was a crisp made with a traditional Kueh Rose mould and it tasted savoury instead of the usual, sweet!

This is the way to savour the prawns on skewers!
All three appetizers on this platter worked well to whet my appetite for more as I eagerly anticipated the next items on the menu.

The salad in Course Three was made with winged beans or kacang botol, drizzled in budu aioli and served with a topping of fermented starfruit snow.

For the uninitiated, budu is a type of sauce made from pickled anchovies which is eaten as a delicacy by people in the East Coast of Malaysia.

As the serving staff poured the topping onto the salad, a tiny fog rose from the platter!

Course Four: Lamb Loin drizzled in Herbal Bone Soup
He encouraged us to toss the salad quickly and to eat it without delay.

So Shirley wasted no time in tossing the salad and serving up our shared portion.

As I munched the crunchy salad, I recalled Roslina’s comments about this dish and agreed with her that its refreshing flavour with a slight spicy aftertaste, was indeed very agreeable!

With my tastebuds tuned up and ready for more, the next item on the menu was served: Soft-shell prawns coated in prawn dust and mounted on skewers.

These skewers of prawns were presented, stuck on a fresh whole coconut with a side dish of spicy lemak sauce – a specialty from Negeri Sembilan.

I overheard someone comment rather loudly, “Udang Panjat,” and my thoughts flashed to how prawns on skewers were traditionally presented (stuck) on whole pineapples to the bride and groom at Malay wedding banquets.

There was really no elegant way to eat the prawns but to pluck the skewers off the coconut, dip the prawns in the rich sauce and chew them – shells and all – from the skewers…

Forgetting any inhibitions, it was so much fun to tuck into the plump prawns, soaked in spicy lemak sauce!

Course Five: Musang King Durian with Dark Chocolate
Then it was time for the main course in Course Four: Lamb Loin topped with roasted garlic and a stalk of spring onion, and drizzled in Herbal Bone Soup. This meat is paired with a side of Yam croquette.

As the serving staff tipped the jar to drizzle the Herbal Bone Soup on the Lamb Loin, its tantalizing fragrance hinted of the familiar flavour of traditional Bak Kut Teh but instead, this brew was prepared in the traditional recipe using lamb.

While the Lamb Loin was freshly grilled to serve, I learnt that this herbal reduction sauce was created from two days of careful preparation.

The pleasure of admiring and tasting the first three courses of appetizers and salad had almost filled me up but the tender lamb, grilled Medium to Medium-Well, was just right.

So bite-by-tender-bite, I actually finished the entire portion!

Photo memento: [Left to Right] Florence, Shirley and I
I privately congratulated myself for doing justice to Chef Raymond’s well-crafted meal, particularly because I only had space left for his first-class gourmet dessert: Musang King Durian topped with Dark Chocolate.

Fresh durian? This was really unusual – for a hotel.

Chef Raymond managed to break the rule of No Durians in the hotel because I guess his Malaysian Journey gourmet meal could not be complete without a taste of fresh local durians from Pahang!

In fact, the locally grown cocoa pods were sourced by the Semai indigenous people to create a fine quality dark chocolate that paired perfectly with this delightful dessert.

Chef Raymond Tham and I
Served on a bed of coconut crumble, the way to savour the durian sorbet was to roll the durian in the crispy crumble and spoon it into my mouth. Before it melted away, I take a bite of the dark chocolate flake to enjoy its contrasting flavours. Mmm…

With the meal successfully served, it was time for diners to meet the chef.

It was also my opportunity to tell Chef Raymond about my uncanny experience in discovering his photo from an old newspaper article!

Amid words of commendation and compliments, Chef Raymond paused to pose for photos with diners to mark the close of a thoroughly satisfying third installment of the Desaru Coast Gourmet Series.

The Desaru Coast Gourmet Series is part of the Desaru Coast Live Series, a curation of events that focuses on sports, lifestyle and entertainment. For more info on the next exciting event in the Gourmet Series, visit the Desaru Coast website and Facebook page.

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