Sauce Magazine – Review: Akar in Clayton

Review: Akar in Clayton

Bernie Lee has his own style. You notice that immediately upon entering Akar, his intimate restaurant at the end of Wydown Boulevard in Clayton. His keen sense of design helps explain the stark decor: a single sconce of flowers protruding from the main wall, textured and glazed in shades of grey; shelves of iron pipe and dark wood with locally made plates, glassware and candles in jars designed by Lee against a subway tile wall; large, fabric-like metal net chandeliers, handmade in Bali to Lee’s specifications, suspended from a tin ceiling. Even the color and texture of the staff aprons reflect Lee’s fashion sense: “It took me a long time to find what I like,” he noted.

And Bernie Lee knows what he likes. Even more so than with his previous restaurant ventures (609, Hiro Asian Kitchen, Hiro Poke Co.), he is now much more interested in sharing those likes than meeting the ever-changing demands and wishes of customers. At Akar, the whole concept, from interior design to menu, is much more personal. “People who know me have said, ‘Oh my God, you brought your living room here,'” Lee explained in a phone interview. Akar also reflects more of his Malaysian roots, so much so that he named it after the Malay word for roots.

akar owner bernie lee // photo by greg rannells

Following Akar’s opening in June 2019, this magazine chose it as one of that year’s top new restaurants, describing it as “a love letter to Lee’s past”, where he gets to cook whatever he wants. Being a chef and owner of their own restaurant who cooks whatever they want might not sound unusual, but it wasn’t that easy for him. “I’ve always designed my other restaurants’ menus for everyone,” he explains.

“I’ve been doing Akar’s menu at home for the past 10 years when I’m entertaining guests, and for years my friends have been saying, ‘Bernie, you need to put this on the menu,'” he explained. But he was concerned about how his ideas would be accepted, especially given Hiro’s popularity, where he had to fill his massive dining room by essentially always meeting customer demand. “So I held back.”

Lee said he is more focused and true to himself now. He wanted to showcase his Malaysian heritage without limiting what has inspired him in his travels around the world. “Akar’s flavor profile and food combination is exactly how I like to eat,” he said. “I designed the whole concept for myself, food for myself and what I would like,” he said. “I share with St. Louis who I am, where I come from and what my history is.”

walnut and pepper dip at akar // photo by greg rannells

Bernie Lee’s started in his grandmother’s kitchen. Lee grew up in the northernmost region of Malaysia in a large household where women did all the cooking. Lee spent a lot of time in the kitchen for two reasons: he wasn’t much into outdoor activities, and more importantly, he knew he could always get something. the first bite for the other children.

Whether he realized it or not, as he sat in that vibrant kitchen surrounded by multiple generations of Lee women cooking and gossiping, he was recording and learning. “I watched them get ready, cook, and talk almost every day,” Lee said. He credits the influence of his mother, grandmothers and great-grandmothers, who all passed down their culinary knowledge, traditions and techniques, as his roots and the inspiration for who he is today, even if all he wanted to do then was to be first.

Lee’s more recent history includes calling St. Louis home for more than 20 years. Not knowing anything about where or what St. Louis was, he moved here to attend UMSL to study business management. He told his school counselor in Malaysia that he wanted to be in a city without a large Asian community so he could push himself to learn the culture and language.

the interior at akar // photo by greg rannells

Akar’s food is infused with much of that same boldness. A plate of fried okra appetizers contained cubes of the golden fried pod tossed with gojuchang sauce, crushed peanuts and scallions. Paired with a glass of prosecco made for the perfect combination of sour sour bubbles cutting through sweet and spicy crunch.

Lee learned from his mother that food nourishes the body and soul and allows people to come together. “Each [dish] that we make and design, when people eat it, they’ll have a kind of comfort and be reminded of something,” he said. His char siu chicken is one such dish: an airplane-cut breast, marinated overnight in rice wine, hoisin, soy, garlic, Chinese five-spice powder, and brown sugar, is seared and roasted, accompanied by black rice and minced garlic, and topped with charred broccolini, pickled Fresno chiles, and candied sunflower seeds.” Many Asian customers tell me that it reminds them of home, reminds them of their mother, or reminds them of somewhere in Asia where they ate,” Lee said.

Lee doesn’t change the menu with the seasons: “I change with feeling when I want,” he said. “People tell me that lamb and duck are autumn and winter dishes. All summer I kept duck and lamb and they sold out every night. It proved to me that food is food. Why would you limit yourself?” A special duck breast available on one visit, pickled in oolong tea and seared to a lovely pink hue with crispy skin, served as a good reminder of that advice.

braised short rib at akar // photo by greg rannells

Lee’s take on Akar hasn’t changed since it opened, but he’s been pleasantly surprised by how well guests have accepted his wide-screen culinary approach by trying new flavors and spices. The gnocchi dish was a fitting example: dumplings tossed in Malaysian curry with an umami-rich mushroom preserve, crunchy chickpeas and chunks of broccoli, all garnished with vibrant purple violet pedals. “I do believe that during the lockdown, people were looking for new ideas and getting to know new foods. We’re all human, we all want to know what’s going on outside, except just fried chicken and steak,” he said.

That idea carries over into Akar’s drink program with a handful of creative cocktails (try the Serai, made with lemongrass-infused tequila, coriander liqueur, and Thai chili syrup), a well-curated wine selection of about 60 bottles of old and new world wines. selections, and, in a rare and welcome touch, about a dozen half (375 ml) bottle choices. “Being an Asian restaurant, I wanted to focus on Asian spirits,” he said. “And half bottles of wine give more freedom to try different wines with different food.”

risotto with roasted turnips, edamame and crispy shallots at akar // photo by greg rannells

It is worth paying attention not only to the food you eat, but also what you eat it from at Akar. Most of the ceramics were designed by Lee and handcrafted by local artist-musician Jeremy Segel-Moss of Cherokee Street Ceramics; these are stamped with Lee’s signature hibiscus logo, Malaysia’s national flower.

Lee opened Akar in June 2019. Eight months later, the world went into lockdown. When asked what he did to change, he explained that as an immigrant your survival instinct kicks in. “I have no family here to support me, I have no partners, I am on my own. I lived in Akar seven days a week for about 15 months. During that time, Lee said he learned to “be true to myself, do what I love and give 110% effort.” With plans to expand next door on track and an extensive champagne selection in the works, Bernie Lee knows how to get the job done.

Editor’s Note: Dishes and their descriptions reflect the menu at the time of the author’s visit. Akar’s menu changes regularly and some dishes are no longer available or are prepared differently.

Where: Akar, 7641 Wydown Blvd., Clayton, MO, 63105, 314.553.9914,
Do not miss dishes: When available: fried okra, short rib, gnocchi, char siu chicken
Appearance: So much sophistication in such a small, tight space. Heated patio seating is also available.
Appetizer prices: $26-$41
When: Tue. – Sunday from 4:00 PM to 9:00 PM

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