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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

The best new fine dining in Malaysia

We go on the trail of the hottest restaurants in Kuala Lumpur, Langkawi and Penang and find delicious, creative dishes at winning prices

Mr Chew's in KL. 
Mr Chew's in KL. 

It is midday on a Sunday, and Kuala Lumpur’s latest hotspot, the marvellously named Mr Chew’s Chino Latino Bar in Bukit Bintang, is already seething with fashionable foodies dressed in their latest Prada, Armani and Saint Laurent designs. The funky penthouse diner offers spectacular views over the sprawling metropolis below, and an equally spectacular 25-dish brunch (somehow costing just 140 Malaysian ringgit [Dh131] per person) that runs from a plump taco bursting with tempura soft-shell crab to plates piled with Wagyu tataki and foie gras terrine. What really surprises me though is that, mixed in with the city’s movers and shakers, there is barely a tourist in sight.

Malaysia is well-known for its paradise sandy beaches, jungle trekking and luxury shopping, but it remains an under-the-radar destination when it comes to food. Sure, visitors love the unique street-food scene, a dazzling variety of multi-ethnic dishes from the country’s Malay, Chinese and Indian population, but in terms of fine dining, is still a bit of a hidden secret. While the influential Michelin has raised the gourmet profile of Hong Kong, Singapore and, recently, Bangkok by devoting one of its prestigious guides to each city, Kuala Lumpur is quietly bypassed. Frankly, this may be for the best, because it means there is no need to book a table weeks in advance, and prices are not inflated because celebrity chefs and their chic restaurants are featured in prestigious guides. Fine dining here, where all dishes use halal ingredients, is affordable given the weakness of the local currency.

Personally, though, after living here as a resident and returning regularly, I am always excited by the ever-changing dynamic of Malaysia’s eating out scene. So, on a recent trip back I set off on a gourmet tour to Kuala Lumpur, Langkawi and Penang, to search out what is new for adventurous food lovers.

Sitting at the bar of Mr Chew’s beneath an immense painting of a mystical Chinese dowager-turned-Carmen Miranda, I start by talking to the man behind that name, flamboyant Malaysian restaurateur Eddie Chew. “What is so exciting about KL,” he explains, “is that our clientele are always so enthusiastic about anything new. It could be me bringing the latest artisan cheeses back from France, or introducing our signature ‘pickle board’, which is all the trend in Europe right now where we create interpretations like snow fungus, konbu vinegar, yuzu, passion fruit and chillies, or there’s our chef’s transformation of local Chinese dishes, such as century-egg somen with tofu, salmon roe and a tangy Szechuan sauce [18 ringgit [Dh17]).”

Although Mr Chew’s only opened last year, Eddie insists I check out two even newer addresses: revolutionary Indian cuisine at Nadodi on Jalan Mayang, and a seriously spicy take on Malay, Thai and Vietnamese recipes at the elegant Isabel (facebook.com/isabel.kualalumpur) on Jalan Mesui.

With Anand Gaggan’s eponymous Bangkok dining room entrenched atop the exclusive Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, I was not surprised to see a modern interpretation of Indian cuisine popping up in Kuala Lumpur, too. But nothing prepared me for the dramatic dishes of Nadodi’s nomadic cuisine. Arriving in Malaysia fresh from Chennai, exciting chef Johnson Ebenezer has devised a homage to South Indian cooking, combining seasonal products with discrete molecular techniques that subtely change tastes without the theatrical clouds of smoke that once typified this Ferran Adria-inspired trend.

A dish at Nadodi Nomads. Photo by John Brunton
A dish at Nadodi Nomads. Photo by John Brunton

Forget choosing a la carte – diners are offered either a 15- or 17-course tasting menu (450 ringgit [Dh421] and 480 ringgit [Dh449] respectively), because as the chef tells me, “ we want guests to enjoy a culinary journey along a bridge uniting the tastes of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka.” The dishes bear witty names, such as silence of our lamb, a succulent sous-vide chop sprinkled with curry-leaf ash, or fishing the backwaters, an intense Malabar fish-head curry with crunchy lentil salad. The presentation is sensual and artistic, but what really stands out is the delicacy of the many different flavours in each dish, typified by the nomads globe, an intriguing deconstruction of a classic biryani, using juicy free-range chicken, pineapple and eggplant.

Hor mok at Isabel in KL. Isabel
Hor mok at Isabel in KL. Isabel

While Nadodi is set in an exclusive part of KL, alongside the British Council and Australian High Commission, Isabel is decidedly downtown, surrounded by bars and bistros. The laid-back owners, Wan and Angela, insist that they are not aiming to be the latest kid on the fine-dining block, but I am not so sure. The atmosphere and service is certainly relaxed, and the prices excessively reasonable. The dishes created by Malay chef Haffizul Hashim are irresistible. This is generous, spicy food, often vegetarian, that needs to be shared: there’s a Malay ulam platter (18 ringgit [Dh17]) of local herbs and vegetables that are dipped in a pungent sauce of sambal belacan; hor mok (28 ringgit [Dh25]), steamed curry custard with prawn and barramundi wrapped in banana leaf, or bamboo shoots, torch ginger flower and jungle ferns braised in coconut cream (24 ringgit [Dh21]).

Ulam platter at Isabel, KL.
Ulam platter at Isabel, KL.

What many travellers to Kuala Lumpur do not realise is that this is one of the best cities in the region for Japanese food. But I was still surprised to discover that global Japanese food guru Nobu Matsuhisa chose the city as the first South East Asian outpost of his restaurant empire. At the 57th floor of the iconic Petronas Towers, Nobu KL is sober and serious; all about power dining.

Ice Kacang at Nobu Kuala Lumpur. Courtesy Nobu Kuala Lumpur
Ice Kacang at Nobu Kuala Lumpur. Courtesy Nobu Kuala Lumpur

While many guests come for Nobu’s signature Peruvian-influenced Japanese cuisine, with a multi-course omakase menu for 385 ringgit (Dh360), I’m more interested in how Malaysian head chef Philip Leong uses local produce. A dish that tastes as good as it looks is the colourful dragon fruit piled high with seafood ceviche (80 ringgit [Dh75]), while a giant freshwater prawn is perfectly marinated then grilled with a tangy South American anticucho sauce (165 ringgit [Dh154]).

Across town, the dining experience is completely different at another newcomer, Sushi Azabu. It is located on the fourth floor of Isetan’s Japan Store, which is mall heaven for everything Japanese. In Azabu, fish comes from Tokyo’s Tsukiji market, and chef Toshihide Terado painstakingly serves each piece individually at the sushi counter. Having previously run a Michelin-star restaurant in New York, his quality and perfection is flawless, as the set menu (220 ringgit [Dh206]) effortlessly passes from bonito and grouper, through to fatty tuna, golden-eye snapper, pike mackerel and striped jack.

Sushi Azabu in KL.
Sushi Azabu in KL.

An hour flight north of KL, Langkawi is still a relatively sleepy island getaway where little changes, so I was excited to hear of the recent opening of two luxury resorts, the St Regis and Ritz-Carlton.

Kayu Puti South Terrace. Courtesy St Regis Langkawi
Kayu Puti South Terrace. Courtesy St Regis Langkawi

Kayu Puti’s chic dining room stretches out on wooden stilts into the Andaman Sea across from the luxury St Regis villas. After a succession of chefs, Frenchman Gaetan Biesuz has established himself in the kitchen, by producing a refined Asian fusion cuisine, wowing hotel guests and island locals with dishes such as Andaman lobster with pomelo, kumquat, pickled pumpkin and sambal (95 ringgit [Dh89]) or plump duck breast slow-cooked with luscious Langkawi black bee honey (150 ringgit [Dh140]).

Lobster pamelo at Kayu Puti, Langkawi. 
Lobster pamelo at Kayu Puti, Langkawi. 

Over at the Ritz-Carlton, there is a rather formal, haute-gourmet Chinese restaurant, but frankly I prefer the relaxed Horizon, where diners sit in private alcoves suspended over the water, watching a spectacular sunset while feasting off classic Thai favourites such as som tam (50 ringgit [Dh47]), a spicy salad of green papaya, long beans, tomato and shrimps.

And so to Penang, where the old town of its state capital George Town is Unesco-listed: this is the vibrant venue for art, theatre, literary, music and cinema festivals. But while the arts scene is cutting-edge, Penang’s food scene still essentially revolves around its famed street stalls and traditional Peranakan restaurants serving Nyonya cuisine, a unique blend of Chinese and Malay flavours. But there is still a foodie surprise awaiting me as I discover that the Pearl of the Orient has become a hotbed of creative vegetarian and vegan diners. Each weekend, fashionable Penang descends on the Hin Bus Depot arts centre for its regular Sunday pop-up market. Between the handmade jewellery, sepia prints and new-age cosmetics, I pass stalls selling gluten-free pasta and veggie burgers, before arriving at Wholey Wonder, one of a dozen vegetarian eateries to open recently. The fantasy dishes are visually arresting – the chef is a former photographer – and mouth-watering: a nourish bowl (28 ringgit [Dh26]) filled with edamame, grilled beetroot, kimchi, pumpkin and avocado; a mad salad (22 ringgit [Dh21]) of black rice topped with tempeh, roasted tomato, diced mango and capsicum, accompanied by a psychedelic dragon fruit smoothie (19 ringgit [Dh18]).

The Indigo restaurant at The Blue Mansion. Courtesy Cheong Fatt Tze – The Blue Mansion
The Indigo restaurant at The Blue Mansion. Courtesy Cheong Fatt Tze – The Blue Mansion

My last meal in Penang paints an encouraging picture of the future of fine dining in Malaysia. Staying in the Blue Mansion, a palatial boutique hotel, I reserve at its Indigo restaurant. This is one of my best meals of the trip: crunchy asparagus topped with a slow-cooked egg (48 ringgit [Dh45]) followed by seared duck breast with tangy fermented bean sauce (78 ringgit [Dh73]), perfectly mixing Asian and French influences, and overseen by 30-something Penangite chef Beh Weng Chia.

Realistically, there is little point expecting the likes of Robuchon or Ducasse to open one of their gastronomic temples in Penang or KL, but with young, innovative local chefs like this emerging, Malaysia will continue to be a surprise destination for food lovers.

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