KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 22 -- In a dining scene peppered with cookie-cutter restaurants, it is refreshing to unearth one that stands out both in its food... and decor.
Adu Sugar Restaurant -- more on the intriguing name later -- is hidden upstairs of a row of nondescript shophouses in Lucky Garden, Bangsar.
This is where some of the most fabulous Malay food in the city is showcased in a beautiful space.
Dining here is like being in an intimate supper club. You know... the kind where you get to spy into your host's life story?
The star of this place is Chef Adu Amran who wears many hats: Dancer, painter, restauranteur, television personality, cookbook author, fashion designer and the list goes on.
His larger-than-life personality spills onto a menu that features laksa Johor, mee Bandung, botok-botok and more.
"I want to be known as a modern Malaysian restaurant that emphasises on Johor food as that is where I come from."
Adu's roots can be traced to Kluang, where he grew up in a plantation. From a young age, the second child in a family of eight picked up basic cooking skills from his mother.
However, a culinary career wasn't ever envisioned. Instead, he dreamt of being a professional dancer.
"Being a chef at that time wasn't a career that people wanted. When it comes to cooking, it was seen as for people who didn't perform well in school," he explained.
His ambition to become a dancer led him to Kuala Lumpur, where he worked at Felda and then Petronas.
Cooking in his rented apartment in Pudu became a necessity to tackle the city's higher cost of living. But soon, he was even hosting dinner parties.
One of his dinner guests included well-known dancer and choreographer Ramli Ibrahim, whom Adu credits as the one who encouraged him to be a chef. With that verbal push, he enrolled at Stamford College to hone his cooking skills.
In 1994, he moved to Langkawi to open his own restaurant, Champor-Champor. It was by chance he visited Langkawi during LIMA and fell in love with the serene surroundings of Pantai Cenang.
After three years, as rapid development changed Langkawi's idyllic island life, Adu sold the restaurant. His next destination? London.
He made a name for himself here with his unique fusion Malaysian fare. After 10-plus years, it was time for a new chapter. He sold the restaurant and came home.
His return in 2011, saw him being invited to teach the bi-lingual masterclass segment for the reality television show, MasterChef Malaysia.
"They (the producers) liked what I did and thought I was a natural. I spoke Malay macam orang Melayu without any slang so they asked me to be in the show."
Later, he was invited to be a judge on the show when Mohd Nadzri Redzuawan (Chef Riz) left.
Till today, people associate Adu with the show where he was a judge for four seasons. Adu explained, "People still ask me when is the next MasterChef Malaysia even though it's been five years since it stopped!"
Since then, he has appeared on various travel shows and a cooking show with Babas (the spice purveyors).
In 2015, he opened The Canteen by Chef Adu at the Textile Museum here; menu favourites from Champor-Champor and Johor dishes were featured.
When their two-year contract ended, he made a decision to look for a new space. "It was too inconvenient as we would have to move out and reapply via a tender for the space," he explained.
Places like Chinatown and even Taman Desa were considered. Just as they were about to sign for a space in Taman Desa, this space once occupied by Ipoh Kitchen fell on their laps.
"I'm not a neighbourhood restaurant so to have an address in Bangsar, it's a bonus." In Adu's opinion, Bangsar is associated to food and going out.
He added, "We used to lepak here." And for him, Lucky Garden and not the Telawi area is the epitome of Bangsar. He added, "This is the real Bangsar."
Open for four months plus, the restaurant has an eclectic vibe with its furniture foraged from vintage markets and music that spans across different genres.
"It's an extension of my culinary spectrum, same as the music and the food. Nothing we do here is to please anybody but to please ourselves first."
Everything here has been given Adu's personal touch, like the service counter decked out in vibrant colours. As he couldn't afford a Tibetan cabinet, he just painted his own!
Taking centre-stage at the restaurant is the bold and beautiful Chinoiserie feature wall. Completely hand painted by Adu -- it took three weeks to finish -- the mural features exotic birds in a magical grove of trees and flowers.
You will find there's an underlying theme of birds in most of Adu's work. Look for paintings he made for an art exhibition and you will notice adorable stick bird-shaped figures, he calls ayam lidi. It seems in his younger days, he used to keep birds as pets since his mother wasn't a fan of cats.
Look a little closer and you will find bunga melur (jasmine) in his paintings. It's a nod to his family history, as his grandmother would often wear that fragrant flower in her hair when she was young.
"Everything I do has a story," explained Adu. Till today, whenever there are events, he will always feature bunga melur.
With his menu, Adu celebrates cultural diversity. "We are too busy to box ourselves into some sort of category and as Malaysians, we should celebrate that diversity. We talk the same language when it comes to food."
Hence, you will find braised salted duck meat coconut porridge next to rendang and satay. Or a soft shell crab and tenggiri fish roe salad with a very Malaysian dressing of cincalok and calamansi!
You will find a sprinkle of Thai here and there too. Grilled duck breast is paired with a luscious red curry sauce with dried longans served with a salad topped with decadent crispy duck skin "croutons."
There is even chicken mousse tortellini with creamy green curry. Adu explained, "I am like a tree. I have to have my roots to basically stand straight against the wind and the typhoons. Religiously I am Muslim but culturally I celebrate everything."
One thing Adu doesn't forget is his roots, which includes Gujerati Indian, Chinese, Yemeni and Bugis ancestors. He celebrates with classic dishes like laksa Johor, mee Bandung and rendang.
No tweaking is done here as he follows the classic rules of cooking. Rest assured that every thing is made from scratch, just like it would be in Adu's family home. "We don't buy ready made chilli paste and we make our own kerisik, so you can get the authentic taste."
The laksa Johor has a lovely creamy texture, thanks to the use of ikan parang, just like how they do it down south. The flesh from the bony fish is meticulously picked in their kitchen.
As Adu explains, "I don't take shortcuts." There's also ikan kurau and prawn meat in the sauce that lends it a sweetness.
What you won't find is the typical garnish of pickled radish crowning your laksa. It seems Adu's mother wasn't a fan of this, hence it was omitted in their family recipe.
It's rare to get a good mee Bandung in the Klang Valley so it's a treat to get to taste the real deal.
Anchoring this dish is a dark brown broth made from beef and dried prawns. Here it is thickened with the use of sweet potatoes and crushed peanuts.
Break the poached egg that tops the dish to relish the delicious broth mixed with the creamy yolk. To keep it authentic, Adu went back to Muar for one week to taste the versions served there, adjusting his own recipe until it tasted right.
Back in the days when fusion was the trend, Adu came up with his roti canai tortilla at his Champor-Champor restaurant.
It's been brought back upon the request of customers. It's a straightforward interpretation -- flatbread filled with melted cheese (mozzarella and Cheddar) paired with a mango mayonnaise and served with a refreshing tomato salsa.
Don't forget dessert here. You have the unusual pairing of pisang salai or smoked bananas in a brownie, which adds a lovely depth of flavour to the dark chocolate dessert.
During his school holidays, Adu used to help his grandmother smoke bananas; this dessert is his tribute to her. At the restaurant, they make their own pisang salai, using the pisang nangka variant.
There is also their onde onde cake, where the Malaysian kuih is interpreted in a cake form with pandan genoise and coconut flavoured cream. For a final touch, it is drizzled with syrup made from palm jaggery.
His customers have asked for more kuih, so he has added lempeng dadar with an unusual filling of caramelised coconut and jackfruit. And there is also bubur pulut hitam, which his regulars clamour for.
Starting this month they have streamlined their opening menu. Previously they offered starters, mains and desserts for lunch and dinner.
What Adu realised after observing his diners is the fact everyone preferred to share the dishes a la Asian style.
So they now offer one menu that allows you to mix and match what you like. Just let them know how the dishes should be served, whether you prefer them course by course or otherwise.
For his botok-botok dish, Adu has replaced the salmon with ikan patin. The meaty fish is usually associated with tempoyak but Adu wants to change diners' perceptions with this version, which is roasted in duck fat and served with pickled aubergine and tamarind jam.
While the food here is influenced by the cooking of his mother and aunts, the name of the restaurant is a tribute to his father Hassan whose nickname was "Ah Tan Gula" because he toppled a pot of hot sugar syrup onto himself when he was a child!
Adu has also injected a fashion element into the restaurant. All the wait staff are decked out in French linen aprons from his own fashion line -- Aduh! by Adu.
In the next few months, a new collection will drop. Expect new clothes and even home decor items. You can already see some of these items in a corner of the restaurant.
Stay tuned on what's next for Adu. Even though he is now concentrating on the restaurant and postponed his television work until next year, he is still creating new things.
Another project involves a cookbook that co-relates with pantuns. He also hopes to introduce a menu of forgotten Bugis dishes. Judging from what we see and taste at Adu Sugar Restaurant... we wait with bated breaths.
Adu Sugar Restaurant, 10A (First Floor), Lorong Ara Kiri 2, Lucky Garden, Bangsar, KL. Tel: 03-2201 1441. Open: 12pm to 3pm, 6pm to 10.30pm (Tuesday to Sunday). Closed on Monday. https://www.facebook.com/adusugar.bangsar/