Gēn 根 Modern Contemporary Restaurant Penang
Gēn 根, a Modern Contemporary Restaurant in Penang offers a Chef’s Table experience up close and personal at the unlikely precinct of Penang’s Presgrave Street. The word 根 means roots in English.
Predominately a Chinese enclave, Presgrave Street is located at the Seven Street Precinct. The surrounding streets run parallel to Magazine Road and are known locally as the 1st, 2nd, 3rd until the 7th Street. The Seven Street Precinct was notorious for the gang wars fought in the early 19th century.
A stroll down the streets today, reveals the taste buds of the blue-collar Chinese migrant workers of the early 20th century Penang. The area has a bustling wet market, old Godowns, shophouses and homes built in the architectural style of the day; the ornate Straits Eclectic style. Some of these shophouses still hum with cottage industries inside. In the 1970s songs and news from the Hokkien Rediffusion can be heard as you walk by the five-foot ways.
The nearby Cecil Street Market is famous for fresh fish, vegetable, roast pork and street food served cheaply and in large quantities to feed hungry tummies.
Across the street, Gēn 根 faces two Chinese Kopitiams full of dinner and supper crowds used to chowing down on street food. Everything else seems to have changed little since the settlement’s earliest days. Except for Gēn 根 which screams modern quiet elegance.
Modern Contemporary Restaurant
Penangites are naturally curious about this new restaurant, its concept, and locality. It’s definitely new and already making its mark on social media. Chef Johnson Wong is celebrated and remembered fondly when he helmed the Dining Room at Macalister mansion.
This image is juxtapositioned against Gēn’s 根 minimalist almost functional deco. A long dining table, probably the longest in Penang, sits 24 diners comfortably. There is the no barrier from the dining area to the open kitchen.
Open Kitchen Concept
Chef Johnson presides over an open kitchen, as his fellow chefs work under scrutiny to serve the diners up close and personal. Everything is orderly and the chefs work in unison, quietly whispering orders and glide smoothly to prepare and cook the dishes. Diners get to witness the entire process from prep, cooking, plating and serving.
Each chef has a Stainless Steel Offset Tweezer in front of his Bib Apron. They all wear black, hair is slicked back. There are no tall hats here. The team is remarkably youthful and incredibly good looking. Chef Johnson is the oldest member of the crew. The youngest is barely 18. They are all bright-eyed, enthusiastic; their zeal and zest are infectious.
I asked Chef Johnson, how the young chefs deal with customers watching them work. There is no barrier to separate the kitchen from the dining area except air.
“They are young and they learn fast to adapt. My chefs have no preconception of other kitchens, so we set the culture of working together,” he said.
The chefs double up and help each other out and rotate around the kitchen. They take the orders, serve, and explain the food, its tastes, and nuances under Chef Johnson’s watchful eye. They even gamely take your photos for you upon request.
When I look at their faces, I see earnestness and vigor. It is so heartening to watch these youths who spend up to 12 hours on their feet each day cooking. Day in day out, creating recipes, testing, cooking, and serving.
Everything is orderly and the chefs work in unison, quietly whispering orders and glide smoothly to prepare and cook the dishes.
Chef Johnson’s forte is preparing the food based on the freshest local produce available. He goes marketing daily. Each dish has up to 6 to 7 elements. The total ingredients used are in the region of a hundred daily. Some of the dishes are deconstructed and presented creatively to highlight the taste and essence of each dish.
I listened intently to the narrative of the ingredients. Half the time, I wished to be blindfolded just before I lift the morsel to my mouth. I want to have the ability to taste or smell without distraction. Much of my excitement was waiting eagerly for the next dish. The menu’s font size is a little too small to read without my reading glasses, so I left the selection to Chef’s discretion. I find the familiar taste of spice comforting in each mouthful. It’s a wonderful part of my dining experiences.
Each recipe is tested again and again. I watched Chef Johnson taste and adjust before the dishes are plated and presented.
My Gastronomic Journey
My gastronomic journey began with two Appetizers with different contrasts in texture.
Chicken Liver Toast, Spices, Pink Guava, Nutmeg [Amuse-Bouche]
Clam, Chili, Mayo, Seaweed Jelly [Amuse-Bouche]
Chicken, Curry, Mango, Sweet Corn, Basil Flower RM25
62,5c Egg, Local Greens, Yam Bean, Lemongrass, Ginger Torch RM20
Catch of the Day, Ginger, Fermented Bean Curd, Kaffir Lime RM50
Flower Crab, Tomato, Coriander, Rice Wine, Baby Cameron Apple RM30
Duck, Five Spices, Beetroot, Mandarin, Cilantro RM50
And ended with four desserts!
White Chocolate Mousse with Pickled Guava, Sour Plum Powder and Frozen White Chocolate Flakes [Dessert]
Rose Yogurt, Cardamon, Brown Rice Pudding, Calamansi [Dessert] RM20
Pandan, Condensed Milk, Palm Sugar, Coconut Milk, Tropical Fruits [Dessert] RM20
Cempedak Macarons and Durian Profiteroles [Petit Four]
Chef’s Tasting Menu
“What happens when a customer returns a plate unfinished?” I asked Chef Johnson after I push away a duck dish that I found to be slightly chewy. The Penangite in me was accustomed to 5 spiced braised Teochew style duck.
I noticed that the young chefs barely glanced in my direction. There was no alarm sounding. Everyone remained calm. There was a little discussion at a corner between the head chef and the chef who created the dish. Everything else in the kitchen went on smoothly.
A little birthday cake was delivered to the couple celebrating.
The Duck was discussed later with much amusement on my part. Easily solved with a sharper knife for thinner slices. Old teeth and all. LOL.
My favorite dessert has all the ingredients of my childhood. The dessert has Pandan, Condensed Milk, Palm Sugar, Coconut Milk in a coconut husk bowl! I enjoyed it immensely.
After dinner, Chef Johnson and I chatted about the tasting menu, often perceived as an expensive experience by locals. The beautiful plating and delicate food best sums up this exclusive dining experience. Gēn 根 aims to serve local produce in a modern contemporary restaurant. Many customers are still unfamiliar with the new concept of the restaurant.
Chef Johnson explained his vision is to highlight the taste of local produce, sustainable farming, and fresh seafood. Many think that fine dining is all about Foie gras or Wagyu Beef. It’s relatively “easier” to get the taste down pat if a chef uses expensive imported ingredients or uses heavy spices.
Gēn 根 is a modern contemporary restaurant which takes fresh locally sourced produce to the next level. More than 90% of their ingredients are sourced from the local wet markets. The challenge is to raise the awareness of the uniqueness and diversity of local produce in this gastronomic journey.
Chef Johnson trained at Le Cordon Bleu Sydney and has worked in some of the most recognized restaurants globally. He notes that Penang has a strong food culture. There is a big potential for the contemporary and upper scale dining scene. Chef Johnson continuously pushes the boundaries to create dishes that best highlight the delicate essence of each element.
The Chef’s Tasting Menu is the best way to sample the highlights as the monthly menu changes. Although there is a list of Ala-carte items, many were tempted to try the Chef’s Tasting Menu. The price range is from RM 100 to RM 200 Wine Pairing from RM60 to RM120.
The Menu Choice
The business community, chefs, foodies, families celebrating happy occasions, young couples courting and even the neighbors’ troop in the doors. On the night I dined, I met several leading architects from the fraternity.
SmartDory takes delight in the dining experience and notes the passion that yields a harvest of textures and unique layering of flavors in celebration of local produce. The restaurant continues to draw a steady stream of curious diners, keen to discover the distinct flavors of Gēn 根. The restaurant opens daily from 6 pm till 11 pm. It is closed every Monday. Do book ahead on their FB Page.
Gēn 根 | 68A Lebuh Presgrave, 10300 George Town, Penang
Tel: 012-578 3323
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