My first encounter with Bertha left quite an impressionable mark. She’s fiery, stands no nonsense and isn’t afraid to fire up when provoked. She takes the spotlight in the kitchen, never shying away from showing off her best potential when it comes to churning out charred meat and fish from her belly. She fills the place up with the most heavenly scent of smoky wood fire burning, lingering in the air to send your stomach grumbling in protest. She’s really all you could wish for in a wood-fire oven.
The sassy lass made her blazing debut in Malaysia last August at Stoked, the latest dining establishment under the Vintry Group replacing the former Ribs by Vintry. Owner Yin-How was inspired by the charcoal driven restaurants that lined the streets of Spain and set out to introduce the concept in Malaysia. To heat things up, Stoked teamed up with John Doe, one of London’s most acclaimed restaurant for four days only and crafted a special pop-up menu for loyal Stoked customers and curious diners alike.
The exciting collaboration featured guest chefs Mark Blatchford and Paul Fox who are also the owners and chefs of John Doe. The unique pop-up experience brought together two dining establishments who are aligned on the same cooking style and values. By fusing John Doe’s eclectic cooking style with the Bertha’s ability to work with charcoal and wood, the boys have curated a degustation menu that showcases the best of both worlds. I learnt that they had taken the opportunity to fly down to Kuala Lumpur a few days earlier to explore the local produce and experiment with the possibility of incorporating it into the degustation menu. To ensure authenticity, a selection of British produce, including the venison haunches, Cornish octopuses and English duck hearts were flown in.
According to Fox, the menu was concocted based on food that works well with fire, paving the way for the ingredients to showcase themselves. We started off with a regular on John Doe’s menu - Ash Roasted Leeks with lentils and tarragon dressing. Light dustings of black char highlighted the smoky aroma on the leeks which proved to be a welcoming warmth to the palate especially in the colder months. The leeks were first steamed then smoked inside Bertha for a succulent charred finish.
Though the British boys focused on showcasing the best of English game-cooking, there was no doubt that they were also strongly influenced by Asian elements as displayed on the menu. A bite of the Grilled Cornish Octopus laced with chickpeas, bold paprika and aioli truly tasted like the ocean’s finest produce. Firm not chewy, the freshness of the seafood was a standout on its own.
What caught us off guard was the Coal-Baked Crab Claws, the winner of the afternoon unanimously agreed by the crowd. Another staple among John Doe’s loyal patrons, the crab claws will resonate well within the Malaysian crowd, paired with a rich Keralan curry topped on rice and a side of refreshing salsa with generous coconut shaving. The harmony between all the elements in the dish were strikingly balanced, a stark surprise as I had high expectations for the native inspired dish. It evoked childhood memories of comfort food yet elevated to a fine dining standard. Still on an Asian roll, the boys fearlessly took on the challenge of creating their own version of Brined Chicken Satay with wood-roasted peanut sauce. Delicious tender chicken meat with enough crisp on the outside paired with a thick smooth sauce definitely did this Malaysian traditional dish justice. The meat was brined on high heat to keep the moisture in to ensure we won’t end up with overcooked dried meat on our plates.
If this is what raw and honest cooking is like, we’re definitely in for the next round.