From Malaysian seafood joints to old-school Chinese restaurants and elegant French-style cuisine, Kuala Lumpur’s dining scene will delight visitors with its diversity and dedication to excellence.
With 14 years in the Kuala Lumpur restaurant business, the formidable and successful Jenifer Kuah is a force to be reckoned with. In 2013, a chance meeting with visiting Scottish chef Christian Recomio, who is also the co-owner of Moonfish Café in Aberdeen, led to them opening Sitka restaurant in 2014, followed by Sitka Studio in 2016. Both restaurants are leaders in the scene, with Sitka serving casual, modern Asian food; and the award-winning, hard-to-get-into Studio dishing up contemporary tasting menus driven by local produce.
“Kuala Lumpur, and in fact Malaysia, is a melting pot of cultures and cuisines,” shares Jenifer. “Beyond Malay, Malaysian-Chinese and Indian food (northern and southern), you will easily find decent French, Italian, Syrian, Thai, Sri Lankan food and more – conversations here begin and revolve around food.”
Kuala Lumpur-based writer Aja Ng spoke to Jenifer and Christian for their recommendations of the top restaurants to dine (and take visitors to) in Kuala Lumpur.
Many deem Oversea the best Chinese restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, and for good reason. The restaurant has expanded throughout the years – first in size, then by branching out to different parts of the country. “It is known for its consistently delicious char siu (caramelised barbecued pork),” says Christian. Other must-order dishes include the ham yue fah lam poh (sliced pork belly braised until tender with salted fish and soy), steamed silver catfish and stir-fried lily bulbs with lotus roots and macadamia nuts. Dishes are normally accompanied with steamed rice and served family-style in the semi-casual dining room. “It’s great for a welcome feast in this city,” he adds.
Having a “banana leaf” lunch is a unique and enjoyable experience in Kuala Lumpur, and for this Jenifer and Christian recommend Bala’s. A large piece of banana leaf is placed in front of each guest, acting as their plate; then servers come around with vegetables – spinach, cucumber with yoghurt, beetroot with mustard seeds – after this, they serve curries – lentils, fish, chicken and crab – filling up the ‘plate’ and finishing it off with a steaming mound of basmati rice. Succulent, deep-fried, turmeric-coated squid, pomfret, mullet or mackerel are also available for ordering, as well as mutton varuval, crispy pappadam and fried bitter gourd. The casual restaurant is spacious and well-ventilated, ideal for a hot curry lunch in these climes.
“For a true Malaysian breakfast, brunch or lunch we always take our friends to this kopitiam (casual local coffee shop with a collection of food hawkers) in Lucky Gardens. The diversity of food here, freshly cooked and so affordable, is mind-blowing,” explains Jenifer. Hainanese chicken rice, char kway teow (a national favourite stir-fry) and wan tan mee (Malaysian wonton noodles) are each sold by specialist vendors, but make a beeline for the pork noodles at the very back. A hearty bowl brimming with broth and minced meatballs, sliced pork, kidney, liver, leafy mustard greens and a poached egg is served, alongside a bowl of kon-loh (dry flat rice noodles), tossed in soy sauce and gleaming with golden bits of lard and garlic. The combination is delicious and warming – the ultimate comfort food.
“[Some of] the city’s food establishments are as basic as they come, serving food bursting with flavours in a zero-frills setting. At the other end of the spectrum sits Entier, on the 41st floor of the Alila hotel,” states Christian. The restaurant is elegant, yet relaxed and bright, serving guests French-style nose-to-tail feasts with great views of the city skyline from its vantage point in Bangsar. “It’s good for a classy night out,” says Christian. A glass of Bordeaux from the extensive wine menu will start you off, before you move on to dishes such as the duck head pâté, ox tongue and flank, and Josper-grilled whole turbot with raspberry butter. Chef Masashi Horiuchi, who hails from Fukuoka, Japan, was sous-chef at the Michelin-starred L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in London for five years before leading the kitchen at Entier since its 2018 opening.
“After a night out, one might crave some comfort food the following day to recoup, and that’s when Albert Lai’s delicious Hong Kong-style noodle bowls will restore you,” introduces Jenifer. Operating out of a modest air-conditioned shop in Pudu, Albert serves meltingly tender cuts of beef, such as brisket, tendon and honeycomb tripe in a beefy broth over rice noodles – the barest sprinkling of pepper and sliced spring onions complete each bowl. Australian wagyu and prime US beef are also on offer, for those handful of lucky patrons whom Albert deigns to offer them to (or dare to ask yourself).
“Malaysians love Japanese food,” says Jenifer. “While there are countless restaurants touting large menus of Japan’s ‘greatest hits’, there is an increasing number of specialist ones – from ramen to sushi, tempura and yakitori.” Christian and Jenifer would choose Sushi Azabu, an offshoot of the Michelin-starred restaurant of the same name in New York, for an indulgent omakase (the tradition of letting the chef choose your order) meal in Kuala Lumpur. The intimate, wood-panelled restaurant is refined, and serves courses of seasonal Japanese produce, from Hokkaido scallops to swordfish, flounder, big-eyed snapper, sea urchin and the sweetest prawns, in a multi-course meal of the chef’s choosing, featuring appetisers, sashimi, sushi and hot and cold dishes.
Late-night eating is part of the Malaysian food psyche, and for this the Bak Kut Teh at Restoran Shangri-La in Damansara Heights always hits the spot. “Bak kut teh translates as ‘meat bone tea,’” explains Christian. “It consists of tender cuts of pork, pork meatballs, mushrooms and beancurd simmered in a broth, layered with Chinese roots and herbs, then served with crispy, deep-fried crullers and steamed rice – it’s beautiful!” Restoran Shangri-La is a casual, updated ‘coffee shop’ on Jalan Batai, where 30-year-old shop lots recently received a facelift and an injection of exciting new tenants.
“Good pizza is one of life’s greatest pleasures,” says Christian. Both he and Jenifer admire the passion which Yee Dihyang displays at this artisanal pizzeria, the only one in the country approved by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. The restaurant has gained many detractors for its rigid stance in telling customers that they must neither adulterate nor cut the pizzas, but at the same time, many such as Christian and Jenifer respect its commitment to tradition. The modern pizzeria is sleek, bright and welcoming, dominated by the yellow-tiled wood-burning oven on the opposing wall of the entrance. What to eat? Margherita, of course!
Open since 1956, Capital Café serves nasi padang, a pork-free rice meal originating from Indonesia. You select from a slew of pre-cooked dishes such as ayam kalio (chicken cooked in coconut milk, garlic, lemongrass and turmeric), dendeng (thinly sliced beef with fragrant spices), sambal stuffed fish and petai (stink beans), to eat with steamed rice. “The flavours are redolent of local herbs and spices, cooked the Minangkabau (an ethnic Malay group from West Sumatra, Indonesia) way, localised when they moved to Malaysia.” The restaurant gets very busy for lunch, when workers from nearby offices flood the place, alongside tourists looking for a yummy Malay meal.
Operating from a typical Malaysian kopitiam (coffee shop), master Wong of Wong Mei Kee is deemed the sifu (leader) of roast pork. He marinates his pork belly and roasts it over charcoal in the back alley of the kopitiam, while patrons begin to fill in and wait from as early as 11am. The pork is chopped between 12.30–1pm, and delivered to patiently seated customers, while those in the queue watch hungrily. “You may get a bit antsy during the wait, but when the crispy pork skin shatters in your mouth, giving way to meltingly tender and flavourful meat, it all becomes worth it,” Jenifer promises. Master Wong’s siu yoke (roast pork belly) is sold out in one, sometimes two hours.
“I like the refined use of spices in Sri Lankan cuisine,” says Christian, continuing: “And at Aliyaa you experience it in an upmarket setting, showing not just the diversity of cuisines, but also experiences, to be had in Kuala Lumpur.” Sri Lankan staples such as kottu (chopped flatbread stir-fry), string hoppers, lamprais (rice baked in banana leaf) and crab from Colombo are served in this elegant restaurant in Damansara Heights, alongside a menu of wines and delicious cocktails, like the Old Ceylon, Colombo Passion and Kot – featuring fresh coconut water, dark rum and coconut rum.
Christian says: “My first experience at a Malaysian seafood restaurant was thrilling, miles away from the refined platters that I had experienced in Scotland and Denmark, where I worked before. Here, you are greeted with tanks upon tanks teeming with different types of seafood from all across the world, from Canadian geoduck to Australian abalone and lobsters, New Zealand mussels and oysters, clams and blood cockles as large as saucers, Alaskan crab, Sri Lankan crab – everything is on offer. You select what you want, and how you want it served: raw, steamed, stir-fried with garlic or chilli, baked Mornay-style.” The menu also features a large variety of vegetables and some non-seafood items such as chicken, beef and venison. Large and bustling, guests dine under the night sky in this semi-alfresco restaurant.
“There are only good things said about this place. It’s extremely heartening to see restaurants like these excel in their niche, contributing not just to customers but also to their staff, the community and the producers,” Jenifer says, adding: “It tells us that the food and beverage scene here is really progressing.” Table and Apron is a cosy restaurant doing brisk business in the Damansara Kim neighbourhood. It is known for its charred aubergine with miso butter and green onion purée, buckwheat fried chicken and ulam (indigenous herb) crab rice. Coffee, cake and solid sourdough loaves are also sold. It has a firm fanbase of hipsters, foodies and neighbourhood families.
Acknowledged as one of Kuala Lumpur’s oldest restaurants, Sek Yuen has 70-plus years under its belt. This old-school Chinese restaurant is still powered by cast-iron woks roaring over charcoal fires, and until a few years ago, one could still hear the clack-clack of the abacus as they tallied up patron’s bills. “It’s an institution!” declares Christian. The pei pa (crispy) duck, imitation shark fin omelette, braised lamb and garlic chives with belly pork are staples to order, with some speciality dishes – such as tender pig’s trotter stuffed with mushrooms and chestnuts, and eight treasure duck – which need to be ordered in advance. Here, all the marble table tops and wooden chairs have a golden, aged patina; and they even provide frozen cotton towels to freshen up with after your meal.
“How could we leave our own restaurants out?” beams Jenifer. “We are so proud of what we do, how we have evolved and how we continue to become better.” Sitka Eating House boasts one of the largest collections of natural and organic wines in the country, which customers pair with prawn dumplings with wood ear mushrooms and vinegar, wagyu beef tataki with spicy mustard sauce and truffle-fried rice studded with ikura (cured salmon roe). Upstairs, Sitka Studio was recently selected as one of the 20 Best Restaurants in the nation at T.Dining (by Malaysia Tatler)’s Best of the Year Awards 2020. The restaurant opens only on Friday nights (with private dining for groups at other times), and offers five- or eight-course tasting menus that change every two months or so. Fresh local vegetables, seafood and meat are highlighted by playing with textures and colours. Studio also does an unforgettable 28-day aged duck. Everything is made in-house, from cheeses to pastas. Studio offers an experience which would not be out of place in Paris or London – guests dine in a stylish, yet comfortable environment to an eclectic playlist curated by chef Christian himself.
This article is an updated version of a story originally created by Sam Bedford.
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