Photo: The Business Times
If there was always a sense that Kuala Lumpur was lagging behind Singapore in the hip dining scene, it's safe to say that the Malaysian capital is fast catching up. With even the three Michelin-starred Sushi Saito of Tokyo opening its first overseas outlet in the St Regis hotel, and Singapore's own Saint Pierre set to open soon at the W, it's clear that restaurateurs are betting on KL as the next F&B trendsetter.
Catering to an expanding middle class are Pavilion shopping mall and the up-and-coming Avenue K with a slew of foreign fast food chains and theme restaurants.
Suburbs such as Bangsar are also more exciting with new names such as Kaiju Company, Botanica + Co and Antipodean Cafe. Even Chinatown, with the new Pasar Senai MRT station nearby, has seen part of its rowdy night market converted into retro-themed cafes and restaurants.
Amid all this buzz, these three popular spots are fast making their presence felt.
He is an ex-finance professional who grew up in the Petaling Street area, worked in Hong Kong for several years and then decided to pack his bags and return to Kuala Lumpur. Acquiring a dilapidated shophouse, Ken Ho roped in a barista, and Merchant's Lane was born. This café resembles a Wong Kar-Wai movie set with its peeled-wall romanticism. A wild parasite tree creeping along the naked masonry makes a perfectly Instagrammable image, and understandably this café has become very popular with the younger set as well as tourists seeking refuge from the hot and humid hubbub of Chinatown.
The site is laden with history: it was a brothel in the 1980s, then a hostel for immigrant workers. It was eventually abandoned for five years before the present owners discovered this gem and decided to keep it as 'original' as possible - out of budget constraints but more importantly to retain its retro ambience. The renovation was more for basic repairs such as the leaking roof, floorboards and walkway between the front and back of the building. The months of repair have created a 'Malaysian Oriental' aesthetic with a mix of Chinese and Peranakan influence. Colours are bold, especially the fuchsia and bright greens; and most of the café paraphernalia comprise loot from 'treasure hunts' in Malacca, such as the lamp shades, chairs and fabrics. Food-wise, Mr Ho has incorporated some Hong Kong-style items in a menu that is largely a 'local' twist on classics, such as Italian spaghetti served with local chilli flakes and beef rendang.
1st Floor, 150 Jalan Petaling, Kuala Lumpur
When four individuals with strong heritage links to South India decide to pool their creativity and F&B experience together, this is the result. Nadodi is headed by two chefs, a principal mixologist and an operational manager who grew up in India and spent several years working in Asia. Drawing on their shared experiences, they aim to present a modern culinary experience to the global diner.
Executive chef Johnson Ebenezer says: "Kuala Lumpur presents to us a window of opportunity, a bridge between tradition and modernity and an amalgamation of cultures and cuisines." In the kitchen, chef de cuisine Sricharan Venkatesh - a Gaggan alumnus - is responsible for Nadodi's creative whimsical approach, grounded in inventive technique. He believes that "we're completely changing the traditional way of looking at South Indian food".
A case in point is putu avail, a Kerala traditional vegetable stew, which now looks like a beautifully plated cream cake with curry transformed into a custard decorated with red rice crumble and colourful vegetable sheets, all nestled in a light-yellow yogurt sauce.
Mango chutney, usually served as a side dish, is now encased in two thin pistachio crusts topped with a micro flower, symbolic of the chef's intention to lead diners through the paddy fields of Tamil Nadu, the coastal fishing regions of Kerala, or the farms in Sri Lanka's Jaffina Peninsula. The menu in this intimate 48-seat restaurant is presented in quirky '13-mile' or '15-mile' choices, referring to the number of courses. Located just a few minutes' stroll from KLCC, Nadodi - meaning Nomad or Wanderer in Tamil and Malayalam - has gained a reputation for its pioneering approach to South Indian cuisine. With its combination of contemporary technique, history and familiar flavours, strong execution and visual impact, Nadodi has unveiled a whole new world of Indian cuisine that Malaysian diners can't get enough of.
1st Floor, 183 Jalan Mayang, off Jalan Yap Kwan Seng, Kuala Lumpur
Birch opened just a few months ago, but is already an Instagram star. This sunlight-filled café is located at the side entrance of the new Damansara City Mall. The bar takes centrestage in this partially floor-to-ceiling 'green house' inspired by the edgy yet chic eateries of Hollywood. Think exposed bricks, marble surfaces and eclectic furniture - easily transformed from casual brunch by day to laidback cocktail bar and modern dining at night.
If you are an early bird, go for the Birch Benedict - poached eggs served on toasted sourdough bread and topped with spicy pulled chicken and hollandaise sauce. For lunch, try the Falafel Sandwich wrap as the fritters are deliciously matched with kale & local ulam.
At night, Birch fires up its Josper oven to prepare sharing plates such as the spatchcock (spring chicken, baby potatoes and cherry tomatoes) and the Spanish octopus (grilled octopus, mojo verde and rocket).
The cocktails are mainly centred on American spirits given a playful spin by the bartenders, such as tequila with chipotle chili powder for an unexpected spicy kick.
Lot G10/11, Ground Floor, Damansara City Mall, Jalan Damanlela, Damansara Heights, Kuala Lumpur
This article was first published on The Business Times.