Exploring joy and happiness in food
Words: Claire Matheson
Photos: Monica Tindall
Darren Chin’s latest venture is something wholly unexpected. The man behind one of Kuala Lumpur’s most celebrated dining experiences, DC Restaurant at TTDI, is known for his fusion of French, Malaysian and Thai styles and cuisines. But don’t expect any fancy pants, over-the-top artistry or exaggerated gourmet drama at his newest location. Instead, Bref – meaning ‘brief’ or ‘short’ in French, is a return to his roots: to honest and genuine food lacking pomposity, food that brings joy and happiness to all who share it.
Bref by Darren Chin
One of Malaysia’s most revered chefs, Darren Chin was trained at Le Cordon Bleu and cut his teeth in Parisian Michelin-starred restaurants. He talks openly about his influences, “In fine dining, there is so much pressure to innovate.” While he speaks warmly and with gratitude about the opportunity to experiment on a grand scale with DC – a venue consistently booked out well in advance, he has always wanted to open a bistro-style space to savour simplicity and happiness without complication. With Bref “I wanted to share my memories of what good food could be. I wanted to cook the food that makes me happy, shorn entirely of expectations, where simplicity can create so much joy.”
Bref Restaurant TTDI
As diners trickle in and fill the seats, and the noise level increases to a fun, atmospheric burble of mingled chatting, laughter and enthusiasm. Darren tells us the long red velvet curtains hanging against the grey to pink ombre walls were installed to effectively dampen the noise of heightened conversation. It is telling that his food elicits hearty, open and genuine communication between people, almost as an involuntary response. Bref lacks the intimidation of Darren’s DC restaurant. There is a community feel to the restaurant. It’s loud and fun and everyone’s having a good time. Darren explains he wants Bref to be something of a neighbourhood ‘local’, where you can pop in late at night for a slice of cake or a cup of tea, for a long meal with close friends, or just regularly to see what’s new on the menu.
Like DC, the Bref space is small and intimate, seating only about 56 guests at maximum capacity. In truth, it feels like there are more chefs than diners. The venue is welcoming and accessible, with a focus on quality. Four large round tables with red velvet seats set against dark wood provide a contemporary Chinese feel. The kitchen is open plan, ensconced in a curved polished concrete bar where smaller groups of patrons can dine with a front row view of the action. Miniature garden beds of fresh herbs are displayed on the bar, ready to provide the finishing touches to any dish. A row of properly cooled wine fridges stand behind the bar, and taking pride of place in the centre of the dining space entrance, lies a divine array of small producer sourced European cheeses. There is also a private room available for larger groups of up to 20.
Bref by Darren Chin – The Details
While Darren deviates from expectation at Bref, he has retained many of his most revered truths and priorities. It may be casual in nature, but the service is anything but! Every time we stand to mingle, gaze longingly at the cheese selection or go to have a quick chat with one of the chefs, one of the wait staff appears, quietly and humbly foreseeing the need to pull out our chairs for us when we return to the table. As a team, they are observant of the least little movement, anticipating our every desire and whim, no signalling needed. There is something utterly genuine and friendly about each of the Bref staff – something that is often missing from even the most lavish of restaurants: beautiful, authentic and proactive service.
Darren is not only genuinely loyal to his staff, but also to his producers. Included in the menu is a page dedicated to thanking Bref’s “purveyors and hard-working farmers” – a classy touch. While Darren’s menu calls for the importation of many of his high quality, hard to find ingredients directly from Europe, he tries to source as much of his produce from local farms and growers as possible. Bref’s vegetables are from the Cameron Highlands, the seafood from Pulau Ketam, chocolate is from Pahang, bread from Huckleberry bakery, and free-range chicken from a local KL supplier, all of whom are named and acknowledged. Darren argues that many local producers offer exceptional quality, and flavour is always enhanced when the ingredients are as fresh as possible. With an additional wine list of outstanding small producer wineries from around the world, carefully curated by business partner Julien, there is no doubt Bref by Darren Chin offers one of the best quality restaurant experiences in KL.
Bref by Darren Chin Menu – Getting Started
It is my firm belief that every good meal should start with an aperitif – a life philosophy I have openly borrowed from the French and Italians. An Aperol Spritz (RM38) is whisked in front of Monica and I in record time. Strong in bitters and bubbling with sparkling wine, I wholly advocate such a jump start to a degustation.
Darren asks us what we would like to eat tonight, and we respond with the words every chef loves to hear: “Whatever you recommend. You choose!!” This is a method of meal selection I singularly recommend and it has become my mantra, not just for eating, but for life in general. In any bar or restaurant in the world, the staff are the experts, and whilst you may have your favourites, deferring to the chef’s wisdom never disappoints. Not only does it guarantee you the best dish in their repertoire it also introduces an element of suspense and adventure to the meal.
Bowls of antipasto delights are brought out first (prices dependant on order). A caramelised onion jam, its sweetness offset with the salty tartness of lightly marinated kalamata and green olives. Strips of grilled and pickled capsicums offer variation on texture. Two types of fresh house-made sourdough, lightly toasted, provide a base, one in the classic style and one with mixed cereals.
A true progression of wine pairings should commence with a sparkling, move through whites, then reds, increasing in robustness and complexity, before advancing onto a digestif or dessert wine. Our first wine of the evening is a 95 point Larmandier-Bernier Premier Cru Champagne (RM350). Buttery and soft with initial citrus tones, there are also layered peach and melon flavours revealed. Like many of the bottles on Bref’s list, this is an organic, bio-dynamic and sustainable wine. I have come to favour drinking biodynamic wines recently, as fewer chemicals and artificial preservatives mean purer flavours and less of the nasty side-effects. The Larmandier-Bernier is a from low-yield vines, meaning there is a higher concentration of natural sugars, giving it good body and depth.
A spherical mound of Italian Burrata cheese (RM45), the size of a fist and heated with a slight char for a smokey flavour, is displayed on a foundation of buttery piquant hollandaise sauce. Darren reveals his hollandaise is made from mandarin instead of lemon for a sweet-tart contrast. A thick cut of juicy oxheart tomato with fillets of salty pickled sardines add further flavour and a garnish of toasted rye croutons and micro-herbs add crunch and earthiness.
For salads, we try two. Chef Han’s Caesar Salad (RM35) honours the use of fresh cos lettuce, large squares of crisp rye bread croutons and a salty anchovy dressing, but swaps out the traditional Parmigiano Reggiano for buffalo milk based Grana Padano, similar but crumblier and grainier in texture with a lighter taste. For another twist, bacon has been substituted for European imported beef cecina, air dried the prior evening and then deep fried again before serving, ending with a hyper-crunchy beef ‘chip’. It is the first bacon substitute in Malaysia I have encountered that is an improvement. The second salad is the Salt-Baked Beets (RM32), made up of chunks of beetroot glazed with a salty-sweet beetroot jus, arranged in a bed of seasonal frisee along with chunks of exquisite French triple cream Brillat-Savarin named after Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a French epicure, and the first widely recognised gastronomical writer.
A glass of a light white follows, the 2011 Clos Windsbuhl Riesling Domaine Zind Humbrecht from Alsace (RM375), rated 93 points. The Clos Windsbuhl vineyard is located only a few hundred feet away from the Rosacker Grand Cru, where Trimbach’s famous Clos Sainte Hune is located. Its vines are the last harvested in the region, making for a rich and lively palate. At seven years old, it has big fruit and big acid, with pink grapefruit, green apple, lemon and a long, mouthwatering finish. It’s hard to put the glass down.
Moving onto seafood, a fantastical curl of purple-pink smoked Galician Octopus tentacle (RM148) holds back a pool of saffron orange custardy sabayon sauce, made from wine, egg and seafood stock. Indonesian Balado spice is rubbed on the octopus and also scattered across the top enhancing presentation. Cooked using European techniques evocative of Spanish tapas bars, the octopus maintains the authenticity of the flavour with just the right amount of carbon scoring, holding its own against the potency of the spice, supple and springy in texture without elasticity. Rather than use dried spices which lose 30% of their flavour, Darren’s team freeze-dry their own to prevent oxidisation. The octopus represents the North while the spices are the South in this regional medley. On the side, a bundle of frisee and triple cooked chips allow for dipping of any leftover sauce. The chips are blanched, then fired at low temperatures before being fried to allow for a super crunchy exterior and soft pillowy interior.
Bref by Darren Chin – Pasta and Noodles
The Fresh Egg Tagliatelle Carbonara Pasta with Hokkaido Scallops (RM78) is next. Fresh homemade egg pasta is smothered in a briny sauce, rich with the flavours of leek and fennel, crested with over-large opulent seared Hokkaido scallops and a garnish of micro herbs. Perfectly cooked and balanced, the shellfish are fat and succulent. A plate of thick cut Garoupa steak (RM75), pan roasted in butter with a salty, soy sauce crust is set down. The fish is almost meaty, doused in a white wine gravy. Mushrooms, ribbons of Lebanese cucumber, miniature carrots and more delicate tendrils of frisee lettuce finish off the plate.
What looks like a dish of angel hair pasta is set alongside, but our eyes deceive us, for this is in fact ‘DC’s Signature’ (RM75), cold somen noodles on a roasted celeriac puree. Continuing our shellfish theme, these distinctly wheaty noodles are topped with Hokkaido Bafun Uni, the pinnacle of sea urchin, and Japanese Snow Crab or Zuwagani, one of the strongest tasting, and most record-breaking priced crabs in the world. The crab and sea urchin are overpowering in the best possible way. One small morsel of each can wind their flavour through a fistful of noodles. To round out the dish, salty and pure large salmon roe dance their way through the mound garnished with fresh mild sprigs of parsley, all smothered in a citrusy ponzu dressing.
Bref by Darren Chin Menu – Mains Meant for Sharing
With seafood dishes complete, we progress onto the red wines. With a soft and mellow leading palate with well-defined plum notes the 93 point 2015 Chateau La Haye Saint-Estephe Famille Cardon from Bordeaux (RM280) builds in intensity to reach a complex and elegant crescendo. As it rests, the wine softens and lengthens, its smooth finish becoming even more sultry. This bottle is blended from the four noble Bordeaux grapes, its full body revealing hints of roses, spices, cocoa, tobacco and vanilla. Delayed ripening times and high acidity means this wine is rich in colour and flavour. This is a bottle that ages beautifully.
Delicately pink in the middle and gently seared on the outer is the Australian Grass Fed Rib-Eye Steak Au Poivre (RM120) with black pepper sauce. For all those believing of the undeserving marketing hype and watered down grain-fed flavour surrounding wagyu, let Darren introduce you to a true, proper steak. This is the way beef is supposed to taste. Grass-fed steak is unadulterated, undiluted and utterly wholesome. Not for the faint-hearted, it is almost game-like in the intensity of its flavour. Enlivened through a spotlight of fried Thai peppercorns, the meat is accompanied by buttered kale and a soft and cheesy roasted celeriac cream, winding its liquorice overtones through the palate.
The climax of the evening meal is a dish we have heard rumours of. Darren’s Shanshui Free Range Chicken Slow Roasted in Hay (RM138). Served in its own enamel-coated cast-iron pot, as the lid is lifted an astonishing aroma of toasted hay wafts across the table and through the restaurant. Inside is revealed half a chicken nestled in a bed of fresh hay from one of Darren’s local farm producers. The scent is warmth and comfort embodied, evoking fresh air, countryside and sprawling farmland. The chicken is served with cauliflower florets, couscous emboldened with fragrant hay and chopped tomatoes, and a mushroom gravy sauce based on French Jura mountain wine (vin jaune – oxidised yellow wine). I highly recommend having his dish with the Riesling. Taken separately, they are both excellent, taken together, the wine is a ‘Wow!’ Moment. The charred hay bringing out hidden tones, like putting on a pair of glasses after being blind for years. Suddenly the flavour profile separates into 20 different layers, like a secret code unravelling in front of your eyes.
The Famous Cheese Tray at Bref by Darren Chin
Before dessert, we are invited to sample some cheeses from Bref’s in-house cheese station (RM45 for a three cheese selection and RM75 for a five cheese selection). We select five varietals, starting with the concentrated milk flavour of the Matusc Misto Capra from Lombardia, before moving onto the smooth and refined, yet tangy and slightly sour Saint Maure de Touraine ashed goat cheese. The Brin d’Amour from Corsica has a strong herbed crust. Aged with thyme and other regional herbs, the cheese softens and is infused with herbs over time. One of France’s oldest traditional cheeses, the Fourne d’Ambert from Auvergne is a light, mid-range blue with a creamy, clean finish, and powerful veins while the fern-leaf wrapped Fougerus from the Loire is soft, strong, powerful and pungent. Like a strong blue but with a white, smokey mould, it is a standout. The cheese platter is served with apricots, raisins, crackers, skinned almonds and freshly harvested Chiang Mai honeycomb cut from an oozing slab on the kitchen bar.
Dessert at Bref by Darren Chin
Our final wine of the evening is the much awarded and lauded 92 point Graham’s 2012 Late-Bottled Vintage Port from Douro in Portugal (RM300). Served slightly chilled, it’s nose is soft and subtle. As a dessert wine of 20% alcohol, it retains some sweetness but is not cloying. Matured and seasoned in oak casks, there’s a certain spiciness, a heat on the tongue that carries accents of aniseed, black cherry and a smoky mystique. With pronounced tannins, and an intense, thick finish, it is complex and glorious. Notes of candied fruit, tobacco, florals and sugar cane allow it to perfectly match with both cheese and dark chocolate, a wonderful segue from mains to dessert.
For dessert we are treated to a trio of dishes, and we each switch between sampling mouthfuls and taking sips of the different wines of the evening, unearthing new flavour combinations. The first plate, titled ‘Chocolate’ (RM35), is an ode to cacao. Genoise sponge is soaked in the juices from a layer of Grand Marnier macerated cherries, covered with 60% dark chocolate mousse, laden with a chocolate mirror glaze and 70% dark chocolate ice cream with caramel tuile wafer on top. Rich and decadent, this chocolate cake packs a punch!
Next is the Tarte Fine Aux Poires (RM35), a pear tart made from almond meal and coconut with Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream, served with a black olive caramel and tonka bean coulis. If like me, you haven’t heard of tonka bean, it is regarded as the most delicious ingredient in the world. Containing extremely high levels of coumarin, also found in vanilla, lavender and cherries, it is toxic in high levels and concentrations, leading to its ban in many countries, including the United States. This is a must try for all adventurous foodies, and is utterly divine when eaten between mouthfuls of Port.
Our final dessert is the Seasonal Fruit (RM35), a bowl of poached peaches with a lovely, light, sugary strawberry sorbet and thick, creamy cheesecake ice cream. Muesli crumble adds an element of texture. Pure in flavour, this is an honest and gorgeous dish. It too becomes elevated when alternating mouthfuls with sips of port or riesling.
Bref by Darren Chin Review
Bref by Darren Chin’s menu is fundamentally French in nature whilst combining ingredients and preparations methods from across Europe and Asia Pacific, the sauces tying the flavours of each plate together. All the trimmings and offcuts are added to the stock at the end of each night – if possible nothing is thrown away, and the team are constantly coming up with new ways to draw out flavour profiles and eliminate waste.
Dining at Bref by Darren Chin is something of a communal experience. Guests are encouraged to bring their families and friends, and plates are intended for sharing. Order a wide selection and pass them around. Try a little bit of everything and steal mouthfuls off each other’s plates, remembering to balance the give and take. This is how meals were intended and should always be. We recommend you step outside your comfort zone and order something new. Currently, the Bref team is showcasing their Autumn/Winter 2018 menu, but each day’s produce depends on what is freshly available so dishes change on a daily basis, with new little seasonal variations and twists each time you visit.
Reasons to visit Bref by Darren Chin: There are no bad orders, but we particularly loved the octopus, the cold somen, the Australian rib-eye, hay-roasted chicken, and the pear tart. Each bottle of wine on their list is a joy to drink.
Bref by Darren Chin
26A, Lorong Datuk Sulaiman 1
Taman Tun Dr Ismail
60000 Kuala Lumpur
Bref by Darren Chin Opening Hours:
Monday – Saturday from 7 pm until midnight. Last orders are at 11 pm but later sittings at 9 or 9.30 pm are available with many guests popping in and sitting at the kitchen bar for a single dish and beverage,