In June, Akar opened in Clayton under executive chef and owner Bernie Lee, providing “flex-casual” comfort food with its roots in Asian cuisine.

“The whole idea here is to showcase what I like to eat,” Lee says, explaining that akar means “roots” in Malay. “It’s what I like to cook, inspired by experiences from my travels and memories from my motherland, Malaysia. It’s also a different platform to showcase things I’ve never done before. The bottom line is comfort food.”

In May, Lee closed his Hiro Asian Kitchen in St. Louis’ Downtown West neighborhood after six years of operation. His Hiro Poké Co. – Lee’s daytime business, which debuted last year – continues to operate in that municipality’s downtown in The Eatery Food Hall.

At Akar, in the space vacated by Anthony’s Italian Eats, Lee works in the kitchen with chef Samantha Pretto, who previously served as executive chef at The Dark Room in St. Louis’ Covenant Blu-Grand Center neighborhood.

No structural changes took place at the 850-square-foot space, which seats 12 to 14 guests inside and 24 more on a pet-friendly patio. However, the interior design underwent an update to reflect Lee’s personal style, which he describes as “relaxed, laid-back, urban, chic – a boutique restaurant feel.”

Highlights include custom lamp shades from Bali as well as pillowcases by local fashion designer Nina Ganci of SKIF International. Additional work by artisans includes a new bar top made by Goebel & Co. Furniture of St. Louis, serving ware by local artist Jeremy Segel-Moss and specialty candles by Post Pouring Co., also of St. Louis.

Lee’s seasonal menu, which features many vegan and gluten-free dishes, is divided into different day parts. For lunch, counter service includes options like a Malaysian-spiced coconut curry bowl with chicken, a brown rice and quinoa mix, crispy chickpeas, roasted cauliflower, rice chips and pickled green peppercorns.

Another highlight, a modern vegan take on spicy mapo tofu, contains mushroom “mincemeat,” a brown rice and quinoa mix, Sichuan pepper and herbs. A “snack time” menu available from 2 to 5:30 p.m. includes such items as shiitake croquettes with Thai basil pesto, as well as beetroot hummus with rice chips.

A full-service dinner menu starts at 5 p.m. and features such items as tempura soft-shell crab with summer corn and Lee’s mother’s recipe for Singapore chili sauce. Another dish close to Lee’s heart, Mama Lee’s Noodles, takes its inspiration from a vegetarian entrée his mother made annually for the Chinese New Year; his version features a veggie meatball with confit mushrooms, cashew and cured egg yolk bottarga (salted, cured fish roe).

From the bar, guests can choose from a wine list that includes roughly 30 bottle options, as well as a selection of Asian spirits used in specialty cocktails like the Taiyo (Haku Japanese vodka, mandarin and lime juice, and sugar). So whether simply sipping a delightful cocktail or indulging in a full dinner, Akar makes a fine culinary prologue to catching Shakespeare in Love from Insight Theatre Company.

“I’m looking forward to sharing our dishes with everybody,” Lee says. “There are a lot of foodies here who love and appreciate good food.”

Akar, 7641 Wydown Blvd., Clayton, Missouri, 314-553-9914, akarstl.com