D K L E

FLOUR to fold in Bukit Damansara, rise afresh in city centre

December 26, 2019


Not many people have their dreams haunted by gourd and goat meat. But when Yogesh Upadhyay tosses and turns in bed, his wife, Natasha Ng, hears him sleep-talking, mumbling about recipes struggling to break free from his subconscious. Some of those recipes might even make it to the menu of FLOUR, their modern Indian restaurant.

FLOUR has been a boon for KL's culinary landscape since February 2017. But its fans who live or work around Bukit Damansara will soon have reason to mourn its third birthday - before its current tenancy ends in March 2020, it will close and relocate in the city centre. Watch for the revelation of FLOUR's new home on its Facebook page.

GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN

FLOUR's biryani, beautifully layered with meat and moist rice beneath, is the one of its few dishes cooked with more than three spices. "Three, that's when the flavours come - you feel and taste them as you go," Yogesh says, explaining the minimalism. "But for this biryani, it's a hybrid, the bastard child of Lucknow and Hyderabad. From Lucknow, I take the aroma. From Hyderabad, I take the spices and moisture."

It's a miracle that Mumbai-born Yogesh (most call him Yogi) opened FLOUR at all, even though his father began running traditional restaurants in their home city in the mid-1960s, in the year that Indira Gandhi was elected India's fourth prime minister, U.S. planes bombed Hanoi for the first time, and The Sound of Music won five Academy Awards.

Yogi worked in the family business, but when he sought his father's support to modernise their cooking in 2001, he was rebuffed. "I left him after that. I left professional cooking for 16 years and turned to the corporate world," Yogi recalls. "But cooking is cancerous. Once it enters your blood, it keeps coming back, though you push it away."

Even the person who's now closest to Yogi nearly resisted his culinary overtures. When he moved to Malaysia and began courting Natasha in KL, he invited her to his home and cooked the two things she thought she loathed - Indian food and vegetarian food. Pulao, phulka, batata fritters and okra. Then he had her return, sometime in early 2016, for his dosa and chutney. She told him she wouldn't try the dosa - yet she ended up eating a dozen that morning.

"I couldn't stop," Natasha admits. "Oh my God, I'd never had such good Indian food."

The stage was set for FLOUR to open one year later.

BITTER IS THE REMEMBRANCE

"The magic of this stuffed bitter gourd is in the fennel," Yogi insists of this, circled by a roasted capsicum sauce. "The main ingredient is the fennel, not the bitter gourd. If I take the fennel out, the magic is lost. The bitter gourd should remain bitter, since the flavour of the vegetable must be intact, but you can create flavours around its astringency."

FLOUR began in painful crisis. Yogi had planned meticulously far ahead, but the restaurant still confronted a cash crunch, with scarcely 10,000 ringgit in the bank to spare. Natasha fretted they might be forced to close before the first week was even over.

Word of mouth, however, outpaced their fears. Come Saturday night, lines formed outside the restaurant. People were captivated by the food and compelled their friends to try it. From the pomfret to the paneer, FLOUR wasn't like any other Indian restaurant KL had tasted.

Things happen for a reason, Yogi believes. In his mind, FLOUR has been decades in the making, alluded to in his alcohol-fuelled conversations with college friends in the 1990s, when their futures were still unbeknownst to them.

The eatery started out in 2017 as the Indian equivalent of a French bistro - it since evolved into a brasserie, especially in appearance, more formal-looking and perhaps a little less intimate, with increased space for ever-larger crowds and a selection of specialities that keeps swelling.

BUILD ME UP, BUTTERCUP, BABY

"This is a modern version of butter chicken, even though our guests might not realise it. I've changed everything but kept the soul intact, using sauce tomate. You have to cook it for at least two-and-a-half to three hours after you blend the tomatoes, for the sourness to reduce and the sweetness to come out," Yogi says, explaining how he has reinterpreted the popular staple, even as 75 kilograms of tomatoes simmer in a vat in his kitchen.

Just as Parisian jazz plays on FLOUR's speakers, its menu is peppered with French descriptions, from entrees to entremets, poisson to releve. Yogi and Natasha don't even call it a menu - after all, it's a hardcover book with a heartfelt prelude and other introductions composed by Natasha, comprising nearly a hundred glossy pages that will test the patience of patrons seeking curry in a hurry. At FLOUR, there are no half measures.

In their words, both verbal and on paper, Yogi and Natasha are unflaggingly gracious and generous in crediting the people who inspire and fuel them, such as their sous chef Balli, who went from a mechanic's workshop to FLOUR's kitchen. 

Natasha writes with earnest pride about Yogi's prowess; she also declined to be photographed for this piece, installing her husband instead in the spotlight. While he can rhapsodise for hours about cooking, he's candid but not combative, confident though far from condescending. Dogmatic without being domineering.

Their passion for food is as pure as it gets. Yogi wears his love for India literally on his sleeve, with a saffron-white-green flag emblazoned on his chef's uniform. But the ultimate, unshakable evidence of that fervour is in their one-year-old daughter.

Yogi and Natasha have named their first child Indya.

BRINJALS FOR BEGINNERS

"Indians and Italians are the two nationalities in the world that have mastered baby brinjals, the art of roasting and preparing them," Yogi says of eggplant, our favourite FLOUR dish, swathed in tempered tomatoes, onions and garlic, fresh and finely chopped. "There's only one spice in this, ajwain, a family of carom seeds. It's bitter, pungent salty."

Imagination and originality reign at FLOUR, as Yogi has scant fascination for what he calls run-of-the-mill fare. 

"You don't come here to eat paratha or aloo gobi," he argues. "Chicken tikka doesn't exist here. You come here to eat mango chicken (thigh meat marinated in raw mango sauce), tandoor-cooked snake gourd, mushrooms stuffed with olives and water chestnuts, and ajwaini baingan, the baby brinjals.

"The brinjals you're eating are a creation that comes from understanding spices, maintaining the flavours of the vegetable, and then creating flavours around it. This is modernising Indian food."

He stresses, too, that chillies should be considered only one part of the spice spectrum, not its primary character. "Malaysia is very chilli-based. But we should not use chillies to burn our tongues, to numb our tongues."

THE G.O.A.T.

"People who don't like goat meat have been converted through this dish," Yogi says of the lasooni ghost, served in a garlic-infused onion sauce. "Lasooni ghost is the new rogan josh at FLOUR. We use eight-kilogram goat carcasses, instead of the 18-kilogram carcasses often used in Malaysia that are no longer tender. Eight kilograms means the flavour isn't too strong and the fat is good fat. I won't touch goats that are heavier than eight kilograms."

Yogi recently learned of Massimo Bottura from his wife, who believes his philosophies and perspectives echo the Italian restaurateur's. Like Bottura, Yogi strives to push boundaries and rewrite the rules of his home country's cuisine.

"He changed Italian food forever, he made it modern. I want that respect for Indian cuisine. I don't think the world - or even India - was ready before for modern Indian cuisine. But I think today we are.

"Like Natasha, many who've dined at FLOUR say they never liked Indian cuisine before," Yogi elaborates, revelling in the diversity of his customers. "We're an Indian restaurant filled with Malaysians every night. Among other Asians, our largest clientele is Japanese. Our largest European clientele is French. We have reservations by travellers from Guam for next week. This food is meant for global citizens."

"FLOUR is not important," Yogi says, not once but three times. "The food, the cuisine, is what's important."

IN THE SPRING BECOMES THE ROSE

"Our gulab jamun has a sugar content of less than five percent and is dipped in rose water and saffron - I'm an emotional man, I show my love through the rose. The yin and the yang on the base of the plate, strawberry puree and reduced milk, represent the influence of my wife's Chinese culture," Yogi says, explaining two gorgeously plated desserts. "Then there's the chocolate truffles - leave them on your tongue and let them melt in your mouth. The soft truffle is made with saffron and cinnamon, the hard truffle with white chocolate, green cardamom and rose."

When FLOUR reopens in the city centre within the next two or three months, it'll be in a space that's very different from Bukit Damansara's shop-lot.

While the team and the main menu will remain the same, with prices staying steady too, customers can expect even more at FLOUR 2.0, potentially including monthly tasting dinners to showcase the most ambitious of Yogi's efforts.

"The idea is to upgrade the experience," Yogi says. "I've already been planning our menu for the next 15 years. Food has to evolve, to move. In the past three years, we've been happy to walk, but with the new place, it's time to run."

FOIE FOR MY FATHER

"In India, we don't understand 'foie gras.' We understand 'kaleji,' which literally means liver," Yogi says of this standout. "You can see mint and ginger on the liver, which must be perfectly seared, but we never tell anyone what's in the sauce - that's our secret. Foie gras is very close to the hearts of the French, so when I receive a compliment from them about this, I'm very happy."

Natasha asserts that FLOUR will always be a family affair. But for the past three years, one member of that family has been missing, though his presence looms large with an inscription on FLOUR's wall dedicated to Keshavlal Upadhyay, Yogi's father.

FLOUR refers to Keshavlal as the Maharaj, or a guru of great skill. "It is because of him that I understand spices and herbs. Without him, I wouldn't have this depth, these flavours, to give you," Yogi acknowledges.

Keshavlal, now in his eighties, has not travelled to KL to visit FLOUR. Yogi says he will, once the restaurant has moved to the city.

So we ask Yogi - after all this time, what do you hope your father will think about FLOUR's food?

"No hopes. Absolutely no hopes."

And then, a few seconds later, he continues. "I don't expect him to comment about things like texture. But what will he say about the spice balance? Because that's what I learned from him, my sifu in spices.

"I don't want him to say 'good.' I don't need him to say 'wah.' But if he says 'OK,' that's the one word I want to hear. If Papa says 'OK,' that's done - I'm on the right track."

Many thanks to FLOUR for having us here.

FLOUR

Until February or March 2020: 69 and 71G, Jalan Medan Setia 1, Bukit Damansara, 50490 Kuala Lumpur. Tel: 012-960-0053