PETALING JAYA, Feb 7 – Like a scene from a Beatles song, Stalin is rocking a party hat and a parasol drink while Chairman Mao mans the turntables. This turns out to be a poster at Lou Shang Bar and Café, but as part of an eclectic décor that includes mismatched furniture and a mounted deer head plaque (that is actually a stuffed toy), it certainly sets the scene for this first-floor (lou shang means “upstairs” in Mandarin) cocktail bar.
Located in Damansara Uptown, Lou Shang is the brainchild of Manfred Sam, an electrical engineer by day and a bartender by night, and his wife Ai Peng Lee, co-founder of The Red Beanbag, a popular Melbourne-influenced café in KL.
Manfred started bartending during his university days in Sydney. He says, “Many of my university friends were also working part-time jobs in restaurants so I felt compelled to do the same, but I specifically wanted to be behind the bar. Since bars are in abundance in Sydney, I went looking for a bar job and ended up in a little cocktail bar called Madame Fling Flongs for two-and-a-half years .”
The passionate bartender admits he wasn’t an immediate success when he first started at Madame Fling Flongs. “I was absolutely rubbish at my job as I had no experience whatsoever, and was quickly demoted to waiter. I spent six months waiting tables and washing dishes but I was determined to get back behind the bar so I bought my own books to study and even bought my own equipment and liquors to practise with.”
His efforts paid off as he convinced the owner to give him another chance; within a year he was the bar manager and running the entire bar.
The most important lesson for a bartender, according to Manfred, is to realise that he or she is there to mix the drink the way the customer likes it. “Too many bartenders are behind the bar to boost their egos and parade their creations. A drink is very subjective and no two people will fully agree on their favourite drink.
“A good bartender should always ask their customer what they like, make the drink to suit, and follow up with the customer after the drink is served and ask if they can tweak the drink to make it better. This is definitely one of the golden rules at Lou Shang.”
As proper as this may sound, Manfred believes that bartending should be fun too. “A drink is just a drink at the end of the day and some people take it too seriously. For example, that a cocktail should only be made according to a certain recipe. You should have your drink any way you want it.
“People go to bars to relax and let loose after all. At Lou Shang, we believe drinking should be a joyous occasion, hence the laid-back, casual ambience, tongue-in-cheek cocktail names, witty descriptions and our friendly staff.”
The team at Lou Shang is led by head bartender Demitria Dana Paramita, a silver medalist at the 2015 Culinaire Malaysia Bartending competition and champion of the 2014 Monin Creativity Cup challenge in the mocktail category. From time to time, Lou Shang hosts guest bartenders too.
“Guest bartenders are an excellent way for bartenders to come together, bounce ideas off each other and learn from each other,” says Ai Peng. “Every bartender is different with their own strengths and weaknesses. You’d be surprised how much you learn from spending a few hours with someone behind the bar.”
Lou Shang’s casual, neighbourhood cocktail bar ambience attracts a clientele who appreciates a good drink without having to dress up. Ai Peng says, “We built a welcoming, unpretentious environment where the amateur drinker who is moving on from cheap beers and club mixers can come in, sit at the bar and ask the bartenders as many questions as they like.
“Cocktails can be very intimidating for someone who has never ordered one before; even more so in a serious, upscale environment which most cocktail bars are in.”
For regulars, the cocktail specials on the blackboard have become hot favourites. These are rotated monthly or according to the occasion, such as Chinese New Year. “Health”, for instance, a merry blend of Bacardi Gold, kumquat and bell peppers, served with a dragon fruit “ball-cicle”, is specially concocted for the festive season, promising the drinker good health, virility and long life.
Signature cocktails are popular too, such as My Sassy Bini, a mix of Bombay Sapphire, dragon fruit, strawberry, pomegranate liqueur, lime juice and kaffir lime leaf. Sweet with a prickly bite.
Manfred says, “It’s our chance to do something quirky and unexpected. Our customers can’t wait to see what surprises we come up with, whether it’s in the flavour of the drink or presentation. I believe in letting the spirits speak for itself. There are so many quality spirits on the market now there is really no need to drown them out with too many ingredients.”
Beside cocktails, the food menu created by Ai Peng, who studied the basics of French cooking at the William Angliss Institute in Sydney, also impresses. She recalls, “There was as much discussion on the latest food trends (such as composting, farm to table, using as much local produce as possible) as there was on classic French techniques. It’s all about not taking short cuts, but making use of as many fresh ingredients you can get your hands on. It’s also a lot about flavour and texture pairing.”
Armed with her new-found knowledge of cooking, Ai Peng crafted a menu at Lou Shang which focused on using quality products within a budget, such as hot dogs, fried chicken and tacos.
“Tacos are such fun food, one we thought would go well with cocktails,” she says. “They are small enough to be able to hold with one hand, but filling enough to satiate the appetites of those with the munchies.”
Inspired by David Chang and the KoMex (Korean Mexican) revolution happening across the United States, Ai Peng came up with char siu tacos, filled with tender slow-roasted pork belly, as her ode to Malaysia and interpreted the KoMex cuisine with beef bulgogi tacos. Both arrive in a dim sum steamer basket, which keeps the tacos warm while you nurse your drinks.
Sourcing the right tortillas for the tacos, however, proved to be a challenge for Ai Peng.
“I really wanted to use authentic corn tortillas made out of masa, because that’s exactly what the Mexicans use. However, masa, especially freshly milled ones and not the dried powdered form, can’t be found in Malaysia. I found a brand of flour tortilla imported from a Mexican company. The tortilla itself is thin and not doughy. It’s still soft even when lightly toasted.”
Along the way, Ai Peng has learned a lot about running an F&B business as she was originally from a banking background. She explains, “While running The Red Beanbag, I picked up a lot of useful contacts especially in terms of suppliers. It made the job of sourcing for everything, from kitchen equipment to restaurant licensing easier than say, starting from scratch. Other common challenges in this industry include finding reliable service staff. Therefore, when we started Lou Shang, we placed a lot of emphasis on finding good staff.”
Manfred agrees, adding that Lou Shang is a project of love. “The cocktail scene in Malaysia is really taking off. There are so many bars popping up every month. With each bar trying to set itself apart from the rest, you’ll get a lot of diversity in terms of bar concept and ambience which is great for the consumer.”
The couple reveal that the cocktail scene is a tightly-knit community in Malaysia; most of the established bartenders know one another and are very supportive of each other. Ultimately, Manfred believes that cocktail bars should “elevate the knowledge of drinkers and appreciation for spirits, not just to make a quick buck.”
Lou Shang Bar & Café
10M, Jalan SS21/58, Damansara Utama, Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Open Sun-Thu (except Mon closed) 5pm-12am; Fri-Sat 5pm-2am
Tel: 03-7731 8870