PETALING JAYA, Jan 10 — First the server places a large banana leaf on the table. Next comes the scoops of steaming white rice and ladles of curries and dhal, right? Wrong.
Try braised phoenix claws (chicken feet, to use a less poetic name) and seared chicken necks instead. Gizzards too. This is no banana leaf rice restaurant, that’s for sure.
The brainchild of mixologist Steven Heng and his partners, Ampersand by Culinary Rebels is a new bistro in Damansara Uptown focusing on affordable yet creative dishes. Heng’s co-founders are two fellow Taylor University graduates, Gary Lian and Shawn Koh, both of whom are chefs based in Singapore.
According to Heng, the idea for Ampersand first came up during a trip to Singapore last July. He says, “Gary and Shawn took me out to a bar for drinks and we talked about how we always wanted to go into business together. We realised — since we were in a beer bar — that we wanted to create one too, a place to hang out and chill that is also inexpensive.”
Serendipitously, Heng and his former business partner were closing down the primary school-themed École P in October. This freed him up to brainstorm ideas for a new venture with the other Culinary Rebels.
The fourth member, Ray Khor, was their junior at Taylor University and a former chef at Pickle & Fig; he’s now Ampersand’s head chef. Every Culinary Rebel has a nifty moniker: Koh is the Butcher, due to his expertise with meat; Heng is the Magician thanks to his beverage mixing abilities; and it’s an easy guess who G-Man and Rayman are.
“We roped in Ray and targeted to start Ampersand in December,” says Heng. “So we had a very short period to launch it, from the conceptualisation to the bistro renovation, basically only one and a half months. Using the same location where École P was before saved us a lot of time hunting for a new space.”
Unlike École P which had a décor that could be described as “retro clutter”, Ampersand is more spacious and light-filled. Subtle hints of quirkiness, such as stools hanging from the ceiling with letters printed on them (they spell the name of the bistro, in case you’re wondering), remain but this is a decidedly more grown up venue.
The introduction of bottled beers, both European and Japanese in origin, helps of course. The beers go well with their dinner menu, which focuses on ever popular chicken wings and ribs... with a twist.
“Everyone contributes to the recipe creations based on their background,” explains Heng. “Take our chicken wings, for example. Gary, who is more Americanised in his cooking, came up with the Sriracha Buttermilk Wings, which are brined, Southern style. Shawn has a more Asian approach so he created the Devil Wings, which are spicy and charred with scallions and peppercorns. He even drizzles extra Szechuan pepper oil to add more heat!”
A great way to enjoy these chicken wings and three other flavours — Thom Thom Wings (sticky glaze with garlic sauce and garlic chips), CCB Wings (belacan, shrimp sauce and gula Melaka), and Sinful Wings (spicy Nestum sprinkle, crispy pork lard and ulam) — is to order the Wings Platter, which features two of each style.
Ribs by the Culinary Rebels run the gamut from the ever popular BBQ Ribs to a more unusual Fennel Ribs, made using a fennel dry rub. The highlight is Khor’s Cacao Ribs, which has an exotic flavour thanks to the combination of a cacao rub and chilli flakes.
All ribs go through a 12-hour sous-vide and are served with house-made pickles. For some carbs to go with all the meat, try a side of aglio olio spaghetti with bacon bits or chunky Japanese sweet potato with tzatziki.
While Heng is known for his innovative cocktails, he has turned his attention to desserts for Ampersand. He says, “Maybe it’s because of my mixologist training. I’m more daring when it comes to playing with different flavours, and deconstructing them to their basic elements.”
Case in point: His Lolita’s Revenge — a Thai herbs-infused lime panna cotta with “spicy sand”, vanilla ice cream and white chocolate molten lava cake — is inspired by, believe or not, tom yam.
“I figured since I knew how to cook tom yam from scratch why not deconstruct the flavour profile and put it into a dessert. I realised a good tom yam has three elements: the herbal, citrusy and spicy flavours. So I incorporated the first two in the panna cotta by using galangal, kaffir lime and lemongrass while the third is represented by the ‘spicy sand’, which has cayenne pepper, smoked paprika and sweet paprika instead of cili padi.”
For those are steering away from spice, go for the seductively-named Killing Me Softly. Here, Heng has paired a peanut butter Gianduja molten lava cake with chocolate sand, vanilla ice cream and crispy bacon. Half the fun is in piercing the molten lava cake and watching the “lava” flow down onto the rest of the ingredients in the cup (used in lieu of plates, for a lesson in gravity).
On weekdays, Ampersand offers a set lunch but those with more time and bigger appetites will look forward to their weekend brunch. Forget about eggs Benedict or plain old pancakes; Ampersand serves their brunch on... banana leaves.
The aforementioned phoenix claws and chicken necks are part of a Chicken Feast that includes a a fork-tender chicken that has been brined for 24 hours before roasting. Diners have a choice of a half or whole bird; the platter is served with pickled purple cabbage, carrot and daikon, caramelised onion jam and a creamy liver pâté to go with lightly toasted bread. Truly a feast!
For a brunch that is more “traditional”, try their XXXL Breakfast. It has everything you’d expect from an American breakfast: crispy bacon, grilled mushrooms (a mix of portobello, button and shimeji), scrambled eggs, sausages (some German-style bratwursts) and tomatoes (albeit a tomato relish). Lightly buttered pieces of roti canai replace the typical toast for a local touch.
Both brunch platters are meant for communal dining, for groups of two or four, depending on the portions you order. Ampersand is no banana leaf rice restaurant but feel free to dig in using your fingers — the way you would — the way you must — when dining on a banana leaf!
Ampersand by Culinary Rebels
19A Jalan SS21/37, Damansara Utama, Petaling Jaya
Weekdays (except Wed closed) 11am-3pm & 6pm-10pm
Weekends & public holidays 10am-3pm & 6pm-10pm