As we chew on chef Lim Heng Kit's tomato-bombed take on the Melanau umai, steamed egg custard infiltrated by ikan bilis, and Italian-Indian unification of gnocchi and palak paneer, it's natural to wonder: Why hadn't Heng Kit and LI Restaurant done this sooner?
To be fair, Heng Kit and LI’s two other founders, Lim Yee Rui and Lee Ziyan, have been busy ever since this Damansara Jaya neighbourhood eatery was born in February 2016.
Over five eventful years, LI has spawned a sister bakery (the equally beloved Provisions next door) and weathered a complete physical makeover. In 2020, its hardworking lineup sent out hundreds of rice bowls, fresh-baked bread and house-made kaya jars to home-bound customers.
Still, Heng Kit needed an encouraging push to launch LI's latest initiative: The LI-NEAGE tasting menu that spotlights local produce and culture. Right now, you'll find heirloom rice and heirloom tomatoes from the highlands of Sarawak and Pahang respectively, cottage cheese made with milk from a Kuala Selangor dairy farm, and raw honey from Malacca, to name a few ingredients, applied in ambitious creations.
Heng Kit credits his partners and the team at LI for motivating him towards this menu. It's another milestone for the tight-knit, exuberant crew whom our friends at Tatler Malaysia named among The Top 20 Restaurants in Malaysia in 2021.
The LI-NEAGE five-course menu (RM150++) is now available for dinner, by a booking of three days in advance for most evenings, with limited servings for walk-ins Fridays and Saturdays.
The menu is expected to evolve monthly, best savoured at LI's new Chef's Table, with fewer than five seats that offer a close-up view of your food being prepared and a chance to chat with the kitchen brigade throughout the night - though you can choose a regular table elsewhere in the restaurant if you prefer.
LI has consistently been a casual, everyone's-welcome space, without dress codes or decorum, fuss or finickiness.
The chef's table preserves that philosophy - this is one of the Klang Valley's few tasting menus where you can feel comfortable to come in shorts and slippers, keeping the focus on the food.
Heng Kit and his team express themselves through understated subtleties, skipping the flamboyance that sometimes saturates similar experiences.
Still, meticulous mindfulness leavens the cooking. Bread, for example, is a platform for Langit Collective's Borneo-cultivated Beras Sia, blended and strained into rice water that's steeped overnight, in lieu of plain water in the baking of the bread.
Any mild, mellow pulut aroma could easily be overlooked as we crunch on the carbs with sea salt butter. But LI understands how modest details can propel a meal from good to great - even the unseen use of rice harvested once a year in unpolluted paddy soil, fed by clear streams amid pristine mountain air.
April's first LI-NEAGE course combines a fisherman's catch and farmer's crops in nearly-raw, natural clarity.
Locally sourced seafood - barramundi one week, snapper another - is cured with citrus juices, kombu and salt, a modern tribute to the Melanau native speciality of umai, Malaysia's equivalent of ceviche, luscious and lightly zesty.
A sweet, full-bodied balance surfaces from a medley of pesticide-free Cameron Highlands heirloom tomatoes. Cucumber, Thai basil and pickled shallots bolster the liveliness of this juicy ensemble, with grated cured egg yolk contributing extra hints of savouriness.
Underneath it all, there's the bright punch of a garden-hued patch of lime juice with green chillies - inspired by the marinade for another ceviche-style recipe, Mexico's aguachile - adding to a scintillating, palate-reviving plate.
A total change in temperature and texture comes with LI-NEAGE's second course, which straddles the line between classic Chinese steamed eggs and Japanese chawanmushi, promising comforting, creamy warmth - beauty in a bowl to soothe the soul.
Again, LI's behind-the-curtain creativity champions sourced-in-Malaysia ingredients - swapping out bonito-based dashi stock that's de rigueur for chawanmushi, the kitchen makes its own ikan bilis stock, a showcase for local anchovies instead of Japanese skipjack tuna.
This egg custard conceals nothing, with everything proudly turned into a topping instead of being buried within. Vegetable elements of edamame and sugar snap peas emerge pure and unseasoned. Tiger prawns come wild-caught from the Straits of Malacca, secured from Fish For It! Nine-month-fermented soy sauce by third-generation brewer Mu Artisan finishes things up with a delicately soulful drizzle.
The pasta course looks like gnocchi alla Genovese, but it's as much Goa as Genoa, taking an Indian route to Italy.
LI's paneer gnocchi, as its name suggests, is a South Asian-inspired cottage cheese remake of ricotta gnocchi. The kitchen crafts this cheese from the curd of local Bright Cow milk, rolling it with lots of egg yolk and flour into delicious dumplings - firm to the bite but not stodgy, tender to the chew with a tangy undercurrent, pan-fried with brown butter and curry leaves.
The quintessential paneer preparation is palak paneer, with pureed spinach paste. This playful reinterpretation edges towards spinach salsa verde, buoying the gnocchi with fresh greens and fragrant spices.
The meat course is presented practically frills-free, centred on little more than protein with sauce.
Local duck breast is cured with five-spice and a smidgeon of salt, with most of its fat rendered out before it's oven-cooked to a medium doneness, liberatingly unvarnished.
There's a double dose of duck here - duck bones are slow-simmered into a stock that's laced with soy, onions and cinnamon, reduced with a puree of roselle shrubs into a deep, dark sauce reminiscent of LI's regular menu's char siu glaze.
It's a potent one-two poultry punch, an Asian play perhaps on duck l'orange, robust in its own rich way.
We wrap up with LI's teahouse-worthy take on strawberries and cream.
Nectarously macerated Chitose strawberries from Cameron, with Bright Cow whipped Greek yogurt - vibrantly red and white over liquid gold of BubbaBee raw honey extracted directly from honeycombs, sprinkled with basil, hazelnuts and sea salt. Pretty much the perfect dessert that everyone can enjoy - a brilliant concoction for a small, sweltering kitchen that can't work with ice cream or cold treats.
With everything on LI-NEAGE, the produce changes regularly: It's strawberries this week, but it could be figs next week. If you enjoy the ingredients - such as the rice, soy sauce or honey - you can even purchase some of them from Provisions next door, in support of these independent local sources.
A welcome drink of house-made passionfruit enzyme ferment is a beverage with a quenching kick, but if you favour stronger stuff, LI's friendly team can recommend wines and craft beers to pair with your dinner. The Laroche Rosé La Chevalière (mercifully available by the glass) is reputedly a winner with the tomato umai.
All in all, LI-NEAGE offers the opportunity to get to know a terrific Malaysian restaurateur a bit better - sit at the chef's table, and you might learn more not only about Heng Kit's food but about how he grew up in Damansara Jaya, how his staging stint in Victoria's Brae restaurant and organic farm informs his professional perspective, and how his cherished eateries in KL are the most hospitable ones that serve simple but satisfying fare, like Cheras' Ebony & Ivory.
Even if you take a table farther from the kitchen, beside the walls lined with photographer Annice Lyn's portraits of traditional local businesses, the food on its own is merits a visit - as soon as we finished our dinner, we recommended it to a friend who made a booking the following week.
And if you believe that everything happens for a reason at the right time, it makes sense that LI is only now embarking on this new effort, with a mature and capable team in place, with reliable artisanal suppliers rising, and with more customers increasingly receptive to a meal like this, a gem of this genre. Many thanks to LI for having us here.
47, Jalan SS 22/23, SS 22, Damansara Jaya, 47400 Petaling Jaya, Selangor. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 1130am-4pm, 6pm-10pm. Tel: 03-7733-7692