Penang’s street food is beyond reproach; lauded internationally and obsessed over locally, it’s become one of the main attractions of this small but mighty island. Fine dining however is another kettle of fish but the young, enthusiastic team at Gēn (根 in Chinese, which means roots in English) is poised to change this. Ironically the co-owners of Gēn, Javi Tan and Johnson Wong have their origins further south but their culinary careers in haute cuisine, spanning Spain, Russia, Denmark and China, has led them back to Malaysia to create an elegant sliver of a restaurant in a restored Presgrave Road shophouse in the heart of Georgetown.
Touted as a Modern Malaysian Community Restaurant, Gēn offers a streamlined a la carte and tasting menu (RM180 with an optional wine pairing at RM120). The menu, which changes periodically according to seasonal local produce, is almost austere at first glance as it only lists ingredients found in the respective dishes, a deliberate gesture which Tan explains gives them the opportunity to find out what the diners enjoy or dislike when they order. It is also a fail-safe for the chef to adjust the method or length of cooking time according to the quality of produce from day to day. Indeed, ingredients are at the heart of Gēn’s cuisine, be it free-range chicken from Balik Pulau, Penang or Sarawak Barrio Salt. These ingredients are then handled and cooked with refined modern European techniques the chefs have gleaned from their stints abroad.
The community aspect of the restaurant could well be from the style of dining where diners eat on a long bar which sits 24 people comfortably facing the open kitchen. The chefs at work have been hand-picked from Penang’s finest young culinary talents. Tan explains that Gēn kitchen lacks the usual hierarchal structure and each chef prepares a dish from start to finish, in order to give them a sense of ownership. This approach is particularly effective as each dish is obviously the result of careful thought and impressive imagination which can only be realised by impeccable technique. This approach is realised in the nuanced flavours of slow-cooked black chicken on a bed of black rice – with a monochrome avant garde appearance which belies its homey taste of childhood. Then, there is the sensorial pleasure of cracking the delicate lime meringue shell encasing a luscious filling of piped soursop mousse, jackfruit sorbet and compressed frozen watermelon. If this is the future of fine dining in Penang, it is in good hands.