pork ribs at akar in clayton photo by greg rannells

Review: Akar in Clayton

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

And Bernie Lee knows what he likes. More so than with his past restaurant ventures (609, Hiro Asian Kitchen, Hiro Poke Co.), he is now much more interested in sharing those likes than trying to meet constantly shifting customer demands and desires. With Akar, the entire concept, from the interior design to the 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 Best New Restaurants, describing it as “a love letter to Lee’s past” where he gets to cook whatever he wants. A chef and owner of their own restaurant cooking whatever they want may not sound unusual, but it wasn’t that easy for him. “I always designed the menus of my other restaurants for everybody else,” he explained.

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

Lee said he’s more focused and truer to himself now. He wanted to showcase his Malaysian heritage without limiting what has inspired him through 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 enjoy,” he said. “I’m sharing with St. Louis who I am, where I’m from and what my history is.”

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

Bernie Lee’s begins in his grandmother’s kitchen. Growing up in the northernmost region of Malaysia in a large household where women did all the cooking, Lee spent a lot time in the kitchen for two reasons: He didn’t much like outdoor activities, and more importantly, he knew he could always get the first bite ahead of the other kids.

Whether he realized it or not, sitting in that vibrant kitchen surrounded by multiple generations of Lee women cooking and gossiping, he was absorbing and learning. “Almost every day I watched how they prep, how they cook, and how they talk,” Lee said. He attributes the influence of his mother, grandmothers and great-grandmothers, all passing down their culinary knowledge, traditions and techniques as his roots and the inspiration for who he is today, even if all he wanted back then was to be first in line.

Lee’s more recent history entails calling St. Louis home for over 20 years. Without knowing anything about where or what St. Louis was, he moved here to attend UMSL to study business management. He told his school advisor 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 bites featured cubes of the golden fried pod tossed with gojuchang sauce, crushed peanuts and scallions. Pairing with a glass prosecco made for the perfect combination of acidic tart bubbles cutting through sweet and spicy crispiness.

Lee learned from his mother that food feeds the body and the soul and allows people to come together. “Every [dish] that we create and design, when people eat it, they will have some sort of comfort and be reminded of something,” he said. His char siu chicken is such a dish: An airline-cut breast, marinated overnight in rice wine, hoisin, soy, garlic, Chinese five-spice powder and brown sugar, is seared and roasted, accompanied with black rice and chopped garlic, and crowned with charred broccolini, pickled Fresno chiles and candied sunflower seeds. “Many Asian clientele tell me that it reminds them of home, reminds them of their mother, or reminds them somewhere they ate in Asia,” Lee said.

Lee doesn’t change the menu with the seasons: “I change with feeling whenever I want,” he said. “People tell me that lamb and duck are fall and winter dishes. The entire summer I ran duck and lamb, and they sold out every night. It proved to me that food is food. Why limit yourself?” A duck breast special available on one visit, brined in oolong tea and seared to a beautiful pink hue with crisp skin, served as a good reminder of that advice.

braised short rib at akar // photo by greg rannells

Lee’s vision for Akar hasn’t changed since opening, but he’s been pleasantly surprised by how well diners have accepted his widescreen culinary approach by trying out new flavors and spices. The gnocchi dish provided a fitting example: dumplings tossed in Malaysian curry with an umami-rich mushroom confit, crispy chickpeas and bits of broccoli all topped with vibrant purple pansy petals. “I really believe that during lockdown, people were searching for new ideas and learned about new foods. We’re all human, we all want to know what’s going out there besides just fried chicken and steak,” he said.

That thinking carries over to Akar’s beverage program with a handful of creative cocktails (try the Serai, made with lemongrass-infused tequila, cilantro liqueur, and Thai chile syrup), a well-curated wine selection of around 60 bottles of old and new world 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 allow more freedom to try different wines with different food.”

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

It's worth paying attention not only to the food you’re eating but also to what you’re eating it off of at Akar. The majority of the ceramic ware was designed by Lee and handmade by local artist-musician Jeremy Segel-Moss of Cherokee Street Ceramics; these are stamped with Lee’s signature hibiscus logo, the national flower of Malaysia.

Lee opened Akar in June 2019. Eight months later the world shut down. When asked what he did to pivot, he explained that as an immigrant, your survival instinct kicks in. “I don’t have family here to back me up, I don’t have partners, I’m on my own. I pretty much lived in Akar seven days a week for 15 months.” In 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 expanded 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 writer’s visit. Akar’s menu changes frequently, and some dishes may no longer be available or may be prepared differently.

Where: Akar, 7641 Wydown Blvd., Clayton, MO, 63105, 314.553.9914, akarstl.com
Don’t Miss Dishes: If available: fried okra, short rib, gnocchi, char siu chicken
Vibe: So much sophistication in such a small, sleek space. Heated patio seating is also available.
Entree Prices: $26-$41
When: Tue. – Sunday, 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.