KOTA KINABALU, Nov 23 – Charcoal grilled steaks are far from a rarity in the Klang Valley but restaurants that cook meat over an open fire might be less common elsewhere.
If you are a steak aficionado in Kota Kinabalu, chances are you would be heading to HEARTH to sate your cravings.
Owned and managed by Emerson Teoh, HEARTH stems from the 25-year-old’s lifelong fascination with barbecued food. Indeed, food cooked in a wood fire oven has a unique taste and aroma.
He shares, "This open-fire style of cooking has always caught my eye, ever since I was a little boy. Eventually that fascination grew into my passion and it became something I wanted to explore.”
In pursuit of his vocation, Teoh started culinary training at Le Cordon Bleu Sunway before working in Hyatt Regency Kota Kinabalu for almost a year.
He then lived in Sydney for almost five years, where he received his restaurant management degree at Le Cordon Bleu Sydney, along with stints working at Sydney Harbour Marriott and Park Hyatt Sydney.
Upon his return to Kota Kinabalu, Teoh wasted no time in opening up his dream restaurant. He says, "I feel the F&B scene here has so much potential and space to introduce new things. I grew up here as well so I can contribute to my hometown in this way.”
A hearth by definition refers to the place around the fireplace. Teoh explains, "Our restaurant has an open kitchen concept, so we designed the dining area to make it feel like you’re around our hearth.”
To begin a meal at HEARTH, one might enjoy some beetroot carpaccio or a luxurious bone marrow toast. But for many, it’s the restaurant’s mains that are a real draw.
One of HEARTH’s signature dishes is their Pandan Chicken. As a nod to traditional pandan chicken, a pandan marinade is used to season the chicken which is then grilled over a wood fire instead of conventional deep frying.
Teoh shares, "Our Pandan Chicken has been with us since our test kitchen days and has become a crowd favourite. The fire brings all the aromatics to another level, and the bits of fat from the chicken dripping on the hot embers brings that extra smoky flavour.”
Truly every element of the Pandan Chicken is elevated by open-fire cooking, from the meat to the smoked pandan chutney and charred chilli. A similar approach is used for their equally popular Duck & Pear, which is served with wood roasted pears and tuhau (wild ginger) beurre blanc.
Teoh says, "Our in-house smoked duck has been smoked over kayu getah (rubber wood) for three hours. As you can imagine, this gives it a smoky aroma that again cannot be replicated with gas cooking.”
Open-fire cooking requires the chefs to really understand the different stages and behaviour of fire. Teoh says that they obsess over key elements daily: "Are the embers too hot or too low. Should I add more wood or charcoal?”
There are endless possibilities, Teoh notes but "there is no button to adjust. When we work with an open fire, there is only one setting and that’s the heat that’s presented in front of you.”
Of course, one would be remiss to visit a restaurant with an open-fire oven and miss out on their charcoal grilled steaks, be it an Australian Wagyu sirloin or a 100-day palm-fed skirt steak. The simplicity of cooking and the raw ingredient is key here, Teoh explains.
"There’s just nothing like meat over an open fire. There’s also nowhere to hide when it comes to this dish. It’s high quality beef that’s handled with a lot of skill and sense by our chefs.”
The chefs are meticulous about their process, with the sous chef taking time to explain the new dishes to the team before launching a new menu, which might contrast small plates with big plates, or seasonal favourites for festivals such as the upcoming Christmas celebrations.
Looking at the restaurant now, one might be forgiven for assuming everything was smooth sailing from the start.
In fact, the reverse was true as Teoh acknowledged it was a bit rough in the beginning, as it is with any new venture.
He adds, "A restaurant that focused on open-fire cooking was a relatively new concept here, so we had a few instances where people didn’t really get it. I think part of the challenge came from me having my own ideas of how I wanted things to be done or from what I experienced overseas. I don’t think I really took into account the importance of catering to local diners.”
Over a year later, Teoh has more experience under his belt, not only with the culinary side of things but – perhaps more crucially – the people aspect.
He has learned that "it’s important to be open-minded and receptive, especially when starting a business. It also helps that I have an amazing team at HEARTH that are great at what they do. We’re always learning from each other and evolving together.”
Moving forward, Teoh and his team are focusing on growing HEARTH’s brand and concept. He says, "We are constantly looking for ways to elevate not just our food but our service as well. We want to stand out as a well-known establishment here in Kota Kinabalu.”
Given the proximity of the coast, HEARTH goes beyond just meat dishes; grilled seafood has its own appeal to certain customers. They return for the Seafood Skillet, which centres around the catch of the day, mussels, prawns and a rich bouillabaisse.
Aside from dine-in service, HEARTH is also exploring introducing their own line of premium smoked products. This would be a way of extending use of their facilities during downtime too. Teoh says, "We’re thinking smoked duck, beef bacon and smoked sausages.”
Perhaps the key to a new restaurant’s survival – and ability to thrive – is its ability to keep things exciting for diners... and the team.
Teoh enthuses, "We’re still as passionate about open-fire cooking as ever. We hope to continue delighting our local market with new and innovative dishes.”
Lot B-G-08, Ground Floor, Lorong Sutera, Sutera Avenue, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Open daily (except Tue closed) 12-2:30pm and 6-10pm
Phone: 012-233 1716
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