If restaurants were contestants in a beauty pageant, Beta would easily be the prettiest one in the line-up.
When you enter the restaurant, you’ll be struck by the multitude of large potted plants scattered throughout, which lend the space an haute botanical vibe. Then there are the colourful Malaysian motifs everywhere – from the Chinese apothecary themed bar to the rattan chairs near the bar area and a large batik masterpiece on a feature wall.
The eatery is the brainchild of head chef Raymond Tham and his group of friends. This is the same team behind modern European restaurant Skillet, which is just a short walk away. Beta refers to both the Greek numeral system, which translates to “2” (since this is the second restaurant for the team) and also to first person pronoun Malaysian kings use to refer themselves, because Tham believes everyone should be able to eat like kings.
“When we set up this restaurant, I asked myself: What is Malaysian cuisine? Many people define it very differently. Some will use local ingredients or local flavours but for me personally, what I really eat is banana leaf rice for lunch, chicken rice for dinner and something else for supper. And for me, that is Malaysian,” says Tham.
With that in mind, at least 80% of the ingredients on the menu at Beta are local and Tham makes a conscious effort to work with local artisanal producers. He even goes to the extent of visiting the market to find hard-to-source produce like belimbing buluh and pucuk petai.
The menu is divided into the main regions in Malaysia – north, south, east and central, with the food imbibing the flavours and offerings prominent in these areas. Most of the dishes on the menu are meant for sharing, echoing the spirit of tapas, albeit couched in distinctly local flavours.
Each dish offers a slice of both the familiar and the unfamiliar – there might be flavours that you’re used to, wrapped in foreign aesthetics. Either way, twists and turns abound, so expect an interesting journey of discovery.
You could start with lighter offerings from the ringan (snacks) section of the menu, like the sago (RM30) which features shrimp, laksa aioli and calamansi. Tham transformed sago into crispy crackers, reminiscent of the local keropok and incorporated Sarawak laksa flavours, in homage to the state’s famous culinary output. It is an interesting take on classic flavours and a nice opener to the restaurant’s bubbling potential.
Then there is the inverted karipap (RM30) which Tham came up with in homage to his childhood love for curry puffs. “In kindergarten, I always sat close to the kitchen and watched the kakak making the curry puffs. The other kids would run out to the field and play but I loved watching how people cooked. Some of my siblings used to say, ‘I don’t think Raymond learnt anything in school apart from how to eat!’” he says, laughing.
The cylindrical deep-fried encasing of this karipap is actually made from potatoes, an experiment which took Tham through two cartons of spuds before he perfected the technique. The filling is a more traditional potato curry that is a little understated and could perhaps be more pronounced.
The ox tongue (RM27) has been devised in tribute to the Negri Sembilan Minangkabau offering of masak lemak which makes use of cili padi, turmeric and coconut cream. The ox tongue itself is perfectly braised and laid atop crispy toast. The entire assembly is jazzed up by the fiery potency of the laksa lemak, so do expect a spicy kick.
From the earth (vegetable) section, try the playful spicy garden (RM32) which is heavily influenced by rojak and features cincalok granita, with cucumber, cherry tomatoes, rose apples and herbs like ulam raja. The cincalok is sourced from a supplier in Melaka and offers a pungency which marries remarkably well with the vegetables and herbs in this constellation. There is crunch, punch and rich bolts of flavour in each mouthful.
The H20 (seafood) section offers selections that include scallops (RM60). The dish has its origins in the humble Penang sotong kangkung but in this iteration, large, supple pan-seared scallops are the star of the show, rounded off with delicious scallop chips on top. The kangkung powder sprinkled on it is just window dressing, but the spicy peanut sauce at the bottom provides additional depth and dimension.
The soft shell crabs (RM45) trace their roots to the ubiquitous chilli crabs and showcase deep-fried soft shell crabs. The sauce that coats the bottom of the plate is made from local flower crabs, so there is plenty of delightful crustacean flavours in it. While this may not ultimately remind you of chilli crabs, it is a really nice dish on its own, with soft shell crabs that are crispy on the outside and yield to tender, juicy flesh inside.
From the land (meat and poultry) section, have a go at the chicken (RM45), which was concocted to highlight the properties of Bentong ginger. “We turn the mild ginger into a pesto. To make the chicken, we brine it, sous vide it and pan-sear it. Some people might find the ginger here a bit too mild, but I prefer something more well-rounded, so it’s balanced,” says Tham.
The result is moist, tender, perfect chicken underscored by gingery undertones from the pesto. This is a dish that is so good, repeat visits are absolutely necessary.
For dessert, try the bird’s nest (RM80) which highlights Pahang-sourced bird’s nest. As Tham started out as a pastry chef, desserts are his forte, (although he has since become equally adept in the hot kitchen). With this dessert, he presents a sphere made out of coconut milk and filled with lychee granita with a bird’s nest that is cooked sous vide-style with red dates and served alongside water chestnuts and goji berry. Overall, the whole dish offers rich coconut flavours and a distinctly tropical feel.
Drinks (of the alcoholic variety) are just as important as the food at Beta and the menu has been designed with care and confidence by manager Alvin Au Yong to complement the victuals on offer.
“The drinks are very similar in a way to the food menu, where we separate Malaysia into regions. We tried to synchronise things rather than separate the bar and restaurant,” says Yong.
The drinks menu is designed as a progression, from lighter drinks designed as after-work messiahs to more potent intoxicants intended for heavy-duty drinking late in the night.
The harvest sour (RM42) is an early evening delight that consists of Genever, rice wine, rambutan, grapefruit, curry leaf and egg white. The drink is light and summery, with traces of fruity rambutan. It’s hard to decipher the curry leaf in this mixture, but perhaps it is meant to be a subtle nuance rather than a pronounced one.
If you’re after something that will have you dreaming of faraway holidays, indulge (and indulge is the word here) in the jungle colada (RM40). The drink has toasted coconut cachaça, pineapple, lemongrass and allspice and is a refreshing, herbaceous beverage that smells and tastes like a sip of nirvana.
The main thing you’ll take away from your gastronomic experience at Beta is how much effort has gone into the food. Each little element goes through multiple processes before the final product emerges on your plate. This dedication to mastering his craft is indicative of Tham’s sincere efforts to show off the versatility of Malaysian cuisine.
“For us, when we run a restaurant, it is all about passion. And of course, it is really, really labour-intensive, because we have to do so many steps to get everything right. But we want to take Malaysian cuisine to another level and highlight local cooking styles with modern techniques. But the most important thing is that customers can feel the love and soul in the food,” says Tham.
163 Fraser Place
10 Jalan Perak
50450 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-2181 2990
Open Tuesday to Sunday: Noon to 3pm; 6pm to 11pm