After weeks of eating solely out of melanine plates and bowls, usually perched on stools at a wobbly plastic table, the sight of a well set table at Macalister Mansion was a welcomed one. Hawker centres hold a special place in my heart but there are also times when one wants to have a meal they can linger over. Preferably without the soundtrack of woks being fired up and pots clanging, and away from the glare of other hungry diners eyeing up your seat. The Dining Room at Macalister Mansion provided this brief oasis; you won’t find any of Penang’s famed street food here but you will find a fine-dining experience good enough to make you think you’re sitting in London’s Mayfair. In a country like Malaysia where hawkers reign supreme, this is a rare find indeed!
Macalister Mansion is named after Sir Norman Macalister, one of the first Governors of Penang. I’m not sure what he would have made of the transformation, but personally I think they have done a marvellous job restoring this colonial mansion into an exclusive eight bedroom boutique hotel in the heart of Georgetown. While each of the unique rooms has a luxurious but sleek approach to their design, the common spaces are where the artistic flair truly shines. We spent our first few moments at Macalister Mansion in their delightful Cellar, sinking into the oversized leather couches, eyes darting around taking in the trinkets carefully placed across the room. Before we got too comfortable, we moved into the Dining Room, another stunning space with tables set around a striking white tree centrepiece. The Penang we already knew felt like a world away…
The canapés that graced our table gave us an exciting insight into the kitchen’s style and ambition; European fine dining with a dash of Malaysian flavour. We were still yabbering on about how good the churros topped with anchovy sambal and Comte cheese filled profiteroles were when the arrival of a vibrant corn soup shocked us into silence. Floating in the soup was a piece of popcorn, a marshmallow, a cube of jelly, and dots of chilli and herb oils… can you blame me for being skeptical? But somehow this curious combination of contrasting flavours and textures worked. A certain someone lapped his up so quickly he didn’t even have the chance to mop up the remains with the coffee bread rolls like I did!
My first course of flower prawns came pressed and lightly torched, their sweetness complimented by the artfully arranged segments of tomatoes and ginger flower. However the magic touch that brought it all together was the tom yum flavoured sauce, so thick and creamy it effortless brought all the elements together into one tidy, delicious mouthful. My smugness was swiftly wiped away though, as the mud crab was even better. This dish was simple yet sophisticated; delicate mud crab sandwiched between slices of daikon and garnished with slivers of apple might not sound original but so perfect was the balance that we didn’t care.
The only dish which didn’t quite knock our socks off was the Hokkaido scallops; the plump morsels had a great sear but we felt that chickpeas and tempeh probably were not the right bedfellows for it. I always think that serving eggs for dinner can be risky… too plain, too boring, too much like the run of the mill meal we had at the start of the day. However, chefs being chefs, they know how to gussy the humble egg up. At Macalister Mansion they slow cook the egg at 55c, serve it with a potato puree, tiny cubes of two other more exotic eggs (salted duck and century) and lapcheong, a intensely salty and flavoursome Chinese cured sausage. This lived up to its reputation as being one of their signature dishes – it was unusual enough to grab my attention and indulgent enough for dinner!
A small pause to cleanse our palates, because this is that kind of place and I loved them for it, then we were into the meaty stuff. My natural prejudice against ordering chicken in these situations almost kept me from one of the best dishes of the night; what a fool I would have been then! I savoured this chicken. I took carefully considered slices of the succulent breast and meticulously paired it with each of the other equally delightful items on the plate. A bit of parsnip? Perfect, but add half a confit grape or a smear of the wild garlic puree and it was even better. I almost felt sorry for a certain someone who had the aged beef fillet because compared to my work of abstract art on a plate, his looked a little dull. But there’s nothing dull about spot on medium rare steak, crispy Brussels sprouts and some charred eel on the side. Nothing at all.
I was worried that a fall from grace was round the corner after the very high bar set by the savoury courses, but dessert met those expectations with vigour! The pistachio cake with ricotta and cherry would win no prizes in the Instagram game but it would get top marks for taste. A fine balance of sweetness and sharpness meant not one was overpowering the other, which could not be said for my chocolate brownie, peanut butter and poached pears. It’s a good thing I have a sweet tooth because everything on this plate was decadent. The pears could have seen more time in the pan but it actually added a breath of freshness which I didn’t mind.
They call this the Discovery Menu and what a discovery it was… fine dining does exist in Malaysia, you just have to come to Penang to find it! The thought and care the chefs put into every dish was obvious. Even the petit fours were excellent; so often an afterthought, at Macalister Mansion they were delicately crafted and utterly delicious. The street food might be what brings people to Penang, but this is the kind of place that will keep enthusiasts like me coming back. I left full to the brim but hungry for more; which I am convinced is the sure sign of a memorable meal!
Have you enjoyed a fine dining experience somewhere you least expected it?
Thank you to Macalister Mansion for an excellent evening of indulgence, but as always, all opinions are mine and mine alone!
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