a dome of freshly whipped cream conceals a generous layer of durians, drizzled with sticky toffee, that sits on a base of baked digestive biscuits. cut through the cream and that unmistakable aroma assails the nostrils and the immediate surrounds. for fans of the king of fruits, it’s often love at first bite upon sinking their teeth into the duffee pie at the humble pie cafe, which opened on mother’s day weekend this past may. humble bills itself as an artisanal dessert cafe where the namesake pastry takes centre stage, complemented by illy coffees, tea concoctions and a growing menu of hot food.
unsurprisingly, the duffee is gaining firm popularity among durian fans, who get to satiate their cravings while enjoying a new way to indulge in the thorny delight. if you tend to run a mile from the pungent fruit, however, you can try humble’s other signature and originator of the duffee: the banoffee pie, with bananas in place of durians and presented the same way. the sweetness of the bananas and toffee is balanced out by the buttery, crumbly base while a dusting of ground illy coffee powder over the non-sweet cream gives the pie just a hint of bitterness.
what you get is honest-to-goodness comforting in every mouthful or perhaps like their name, humble is the more appropriate word for it. “our pies are not fancy, decorative or pretentious. in fact, some people have told us they are not very good looking!” says co-owner eugene ng, a former magazine editor who left a 18-year career in the publishing industry to realise his culinary dream. while writing and editing were his professional forte, eugene had always harboured a passion for cooking. “i’ve always been quite adventurous in the kitchen. i didn’t care if the dish failed; the adventure is part of the process.”
the banoffee was one of his most successful recipes, which he arrived at after testing and combining several different ones until every component was exactly how he wanted it. “i tasted my first banoffee pie when i was studying in the uk, it was my favourite comfort food,” he recalls. “when i came back to malaysia, i couldn’t find a good one so i decided to make my own.”
friends who tried his pie gave their thumbs up and encouraged him to turn into a business. he began taking orders while baking from home, about three years ago, but it was an informal set up that relied solely on word of mouth. when humble began taking shape, naturally the menu was built around the banoffee. “the pies as they are served at humble today are how i’ve always made them. i wanted to serve them as they are, hence our name.”
eugene runs the kitchen and operations at humble while his business partner, ex-banker angela tan, manages the front of house and the finances. the two met through mutual friends and poker games five years ago but it was only in the middle of last year that the idea of going into business together came up. angela had quit her job and was at a crossroads, while eugene had grown weary of working in magazines and was looking for a new career path.
the two teamed up with a silent partner and the humble pie co was born. neither angela nor eugene had any prior experience in running a food outlet so every step was a learning curve – and still is – but that didn’t stop them from taking a hands-on approach into every aspect of the start up, including sourcing for the furnishings. one of angela’s ideas was to use kitchen equipment as decor items and a trip to a kitchen supply store provided the answer. they found gigantic whisks (it’s not clear who actually uses them!) which they fashioned into lamps that now hang above the counter; oversized ‘tea strainers’ on chains – actually, two colanders sealed at the edges – light up the al fresco dining area while rows of rolling pins form a room divider. the fun details add a touch of whimsy to humble’s design, which leans towards a fuss-free aesthetic in muted shades, punctuated by a bright orange facade.
humble’s approach to food mirrors that simplicity, focusing on good flavours prepared properly using fresh and quality produce. all the sauces and condiments are made in-house.
the hot food menu began with five light and rustic dishes that, like the pies, are recipes that began as eugene’s personal favourites and dinner party hits. recreating them at humble means repeated testing and tasting to ensure consistency, and not every dish has been successfully adapted.
the ones that have include a silky, mildly gamey chicken liver pate served with house-made onion jam on toast that has proven to be a surprise hit. “i wasn’t sure how many people would like it as chicken liver is an acquired taste, but it’s selling very well. we’ve even seen young children enjoying it.” the roast chicken is another bestseller; the skin is well flavoured with herbs and you would want more of the garlic-enriched gravy. it’s available as a single portion of a quarter chicken and also a whole chicken, for groups of three to four, with advance orders.
the hidden star of the menu is the fried chicken bites, six pieces of tender meat that’s marinated overnight in a sweet and salty seasoning, then deep-fried to golden brown perfection. the crispy skin is a joy to bite into while the meat is moist and full of flavour. there are two savoury pies at the moment – chicken & mushroom, covered in a pastry crust, and steak & onion, topped with mashed potatoes – with a seafood option on its way.
they are all easy, traditional favourites but the simplest food is often the hardest to get right. to achieve perfection in every dish requires a strict attention to detail and at humble, it begins from the ingredients. the banoffee features a specific type of banana that was decided on after eugene had tried countless variants. for the duffee, a slightly bitter durian was chosen to cut through the sweetness. a strawberry variant completes the troika of sweet pie offerings, featuring juicy plumes that are a tad sour for flavour balance. nothing further is added to the fruits so as to retain their natural tastes and all three pies come in single portions as well as 7- and 9-inch sizes.
when they first opened, they only had those three pies for desserts and now there’s also carrot cake (moist and well spiced), chocolate mousse (served in mini coffee mugs, only six portions are available at any one time) and a light and airy humblest cheesecake.
humble is also making it a point to work with local artisanal food producers. bella luca’s homemade fresh pastas, for example, have found their way into two dishes: the rigatoni is tossed in humble’s aromatic pesto and topped with roast chicken, while the pumpkin ravioli is paired with a flavourful chunky tomato-basil sauce and served with a juicy spicy beef or lamb sausage by langkawi-based sailor’s gourmet sausages. “i like the idea of food that’s done with care and love,” eugene explains. “they are producing quality food and not generic ones that are over processed. incorporating their products into our dishes makes everything a little bit unique.”
it does, however, mean that their cost and subsequently their price point are higher than if they were to use generic brands. “we can cut down the cost if we use other produce, but they won’t taste as good,” says eugene. he is currently testing out joey’s homemade peanut butter and there’s also an ice-cream dessert in the pipeline.
from meeting magazine deadlines to rushing lunch hour orders, is the chef’s hat one that he wears comfortably? eugene had once asked anthony bourdain, during a magazine interview, if at 30 he was too old to become a chef. the celebrity chef had answered yes. more than a decade on, he is almost proving bourdain wrong – almost, as he does not consider himself one. “a chef is someone who has gone through formal culinary training and worked in professional kitchens,” he says. “i am an amateur chef at best. if i keep doing this and in five years time i have improved enough, maybe then i will consider myself a chef.” humble, indeed.
the humble pie co 11 jalan 17/45, section 17, 46400 petaling jaya, selangor tel +603 7932 1793 opens 11am-10pm, tue-fri; 10.30am-11pm, sat-sun www.facebook.com/thehumblepiecokl
this article was first published in crave, the lifestyle pullout of the sunday mail, and the malay mail online on 29 june 2014