After 11 years as head chef at the respected Lanterne Rooms in Campbell, Daniel Mark was ready for a new challenge. Last week, he made good on his intent, opening pop-up My Sabor in the Sydney Building’s Verity Lane food precinct, taking over the tenancy recently vacated by Gerald Wong’s Project Enoki.
Sabor is the Spanish word for flavour, which seems apt. Daniel was born and raised in Malaysia, his mum is Portuguese and his dad is Indian. His food takes its cues from the centuries-old Peranakan cuisine which combines Chinese cooking styles and ingredients with the flavours and spices of other South-East Asian nations and culinary flourishes reflecting Malaysia’s colonial past.
Ask Daniel what his cooking style is, though, and he simply says “comfort food”.
“My whole family cooked, and my mum was always about ‘the flavour, the flavour’,” he says.
“For us, it was about bringing comfort food to the next level … blending Asian and Western techniques into one.”
Daniel’s idea of comfort food looks a little different from the average Joe’s staples of mac and cheese or chicken noodle soup, but there’s a subtle hint in dishes such as Balinese spiced grilled chicken, which is complemented by a serve of mash.
His menu of share plates doesn’t limit itself to a single culinary playlist, with the inclusion of fried crumbed taleggio olives and a dish of baby cos, cured yolk, anchovies and hazelnuts that wouldn’t be out of place in an Italian trattoria sitting alongside boldly Asian offerings.
The My Sabor team may need to take out a restraining order on me now that I’ve tried the XO truffle oil steamed egg tofu, a snack-sized cup of what could be described as a pimped-up chawanmushi. The custardy steamed egg tofu is topped with a spoonful of spicy XO sauce, bonito soy and truffle oil and flecked with tiny pieces of crunchy asparagus. It packs some heat and the flavours are perfectly balanced.
I contemplate ordering another as I scrape the last bits of custard from the cup, but that would be sheer gluttony. And I’ve got another starter – a bite-sized serve of beef short rib rendang atop a piece of pita bread flavoured with a light spread of tzatziki – to get through yet.
The flamed Fremantle octopus is also highly recommended, its tenderness the result of overnight brining in water flavoured with juniper seeds, salt, sugar, oil, chilli, garlic and bay leaves before being cooked in the brine and tossed quickly in the wok.
“The secret to the octopus is the gremolata made of Asian summer herbs like Vietnamese mint, Thai basil and coriander. And also shrimp paste, which gives people that hit in the nose that makes them think, ‘I want to eat this’,” says Daniel.
Happily for him, people do want to eat the food Daniel and his former Lanterne Rooms colleague Jay Yew, now sous chef at My Sabor, are producing at the pop-up.
“We’ve already had return customers who came on the Thursday we opened, then on the Saturday and back again yesterday. It’s every chef’s dream, having someone who comes back to eat your food,” he says.
The beauty of going it alone and running a much smaller operation is the ability to interact directly with customers, he says, and to be the master of his own destiny.
Daniel sees My Sabor as his ‘test lab’, the precursor to opening his own, permanent place somewhere in Canberra’s inner south once the six-month Verity Lane tenancy is up.
“At My Sabor, I can get one-on-one instant feedback, see what people want from me,” he says. “You can’t do that when you’re [working in a larger restaurant as part of a large team]. It’s nerve-racking opening up your own place, your brain doesn’t stop, and I’m pretty sure I’m dreaming it at night, but it’s been so much fun.”
The compact My Sabor menu (currently comprising four snacks, six mains and a single dessert of baked tapioca and coconut cake with Amaretto sabayon) will change regularly as the team tweak and rotate dishes according to customer feedback.
As for what lies ahead, Daniel has his eye on a couple of locations for a full-time gig.
“I’d love to do something in Griffith, or Kingston or Manuka. I really like that area and, in Kingston with the new Supabarn, the parking is easy, but finding a place isn’t so easy. If anybody has an empty shop, call me first!”
My Sabor joins Ramen Daddy, Super Bao Canberra, Pizza Artigiana, Pasta Artigiana and Miss Wu Jianbing in Verity Lane in the city centre Sydney Building. It’s open for dinner from 5:00 pm Tuesday to Saturday, and lunch from 12:00 noon to 2:00 pm Thursday to Saturday.