The first thing that is likely to strike you about Symphony By Chef Jo is the sheer size of the place, which occupies three lots and is sprawling and cavernous.
A walk through the restaurant will take you through different dining spaces, some with padded booths, others with beautiful wooden high tables and chairs, and areas that simply have regular but equally charming wooden tables and chairs. At the centre of the eatery is a large open kitchen, where you can see the chefs in action.
While the restaurant’s size is impressive, it is the warmth and hospitality you get from the place that really makes it special. And at Symphony, that warmth exudes in spades from chef and owner Johari Edrus.
Johari is best known for being the stern-faced judge on MasterChef Malaysia. Diners, however, will discover a whole other side to the man, who after a career spanning 44 years – mostly spent climbing the ladder in the hotel industry in Switzerland, Malaysia and China – finally has a restaurant to call his own.
“Most chefs dream of having their own restaurant, but not every chef can have a restaurant,” Johari says. “To run a restaurant, you must be an entrepreneur. I feel that it is time for me to settle down and have the restaurant that I’ve always dreamt of.”
Because of his fame, Johari gets a fair amount of folks coming to the restaurant just to seek him out, which is why he makes it a point to be there all day long.
“I met one family who came here all the way from Johor for lunch. I asked them, ‘Did you come here for a wedding or special occasion?’ They said, ‘No, we just came here to see you and taste your food!’” he says, laughing.
With Symphony, Johari aims to offer a multifaceted menu that serves diners something new. Because he’s a perfectionist, he strives to make everything from scratch, from the complimentary popcorn to the pizza dough and gelato.
“This is an eclectic restaurant,” he says. “I don’t like fusion because fusion has no roots of the cuisine, whereas eclectic might have an Italian or French base. I always believe in doing something different. I don’t want to follow what others are doing.”
The menu is expansive and trawls from all over the world. But, you would do well to start your meal with the lemongrass and kaffir lime tisane (RM28), which is essentially a fragrant seafood broth accentuated with toppings of crispy cod, scallops, chives and fried shallots.
The clear broth is beautiful – a sharp, aromatic offering that’s a akin to tom yum but with more clarity of flavour. It’s the sort of soup that nourishes your soul on weary, bone-chilling days when something hot is called for.
Then there’s the cleverly-termed dirty laundry (RM45), which features lamb chops encrusted in rice flour, deep-fried and hung from laundry pegs. The chops are deliciously crisp on the outside and tender in the middle. Of the three dipping sauces, the curry mayonnaise is a standout (the other sauces are tartar and mint) and melds remarkably well with the lamb.
The mussel masak lemak (RM45) uses Chilean mussels and split-gill fungus, an addition that was inspired by Johari’s childhood.
“I put that (on the menu) because when I was a boy in my kampung, there was a rubber tree estate next to my ustaz’s house. Every time the trees were felled, you would see this fungus growing on the trunks, so we used to collect it,” he says. “Now I source it from an organic farm. The floret is bigger and chewier.”
The resulting meal is good. The only slight downside is the masak lemak gravy which is a little thin.
The restaurant also serves a host of house-made long, rectangular pizzas dubbed pitzaals. Of these, try the crispy chicken Marmite (RM35) which combines crispy fried chicken with Marmite chilli, pineapples, onions and mozzarella over a cream base.
This is wickedly yummy comfort food. The chicken offers familiar flavours and the pizza is spot-on – not too thick or thin, with just the right amount of bite, chew and crackle.
While many of the meals at Symphony smack of originality and creativity, what really stands out is the spicy chocolate seafood pasta (RM58), which “people either love or hate”, Johari admits.
In this instance, while the amalgamation of chocolate juxtaposed against spicy Korean gojuchang paste offers an interesting flavour dimension, it’s not necessarily an easy one to embrace. The chocolate flavour is just a smidgen too much and this tips the meal into confusing territory, though it speaks volumns of Johari’s commitment to be different.
End your meal with the sweet memories tapai (RM18) which combines fermented sticky rice with vanilla gelato (house-made with Italian milk). The Symphony chefs actually learnt how to make tapai from Johari’s aunt, who hails from Terengganu.
This is one of the restaurant’s star offerings, an unsung hero that has been nailed to perfection, yielding perfectly fermented, lightly sweet rice against a fantastic gelato. If you only eat one thing here, this is it!
Drinks are also a highlight, as the restaurant has its own roasted coffee blend and even makes nitro coffee (RM16.90), a strong caffeine-laced affair perfect for coffee addicts. Meanwhile, the latte ice (RM15.90) is furnished in a takeaway bag and has coffee notes that swim in undercurrents instead of strong waves.
Ultimately, while the restaurant represents Johari’s ultimate dream come true, he’s careful to avoid the pitfalls of getting too comfortable in the job. At 63, he’s wise enough to know that this is a crucial mistake too many chefs make.
“I seldom get any complaints here. Most of the time I get compliments, but I still have to watch out because I cannot get complacent. In MasterChef, after contestants finish their test, I always say, ‘Jangan selesa’. So I too will never get too comfortable,” he promises, flashing his signature warm smile.
SYMPHONY BY CHEF JO
Level 1 Damansara City Mall, Jalan Damanlela, Damansara Heights, 50490 Kuala Lumpur. Open daily noon-10pm. Phone: (03) 2011-7173.