Long known to Singaporeans as a haven of cheap groceries, food and petrol, Johor Bahru is now a magnet for plaid-shirted 20-somethings in thick-rimmed glasses - both Malaysians and Singaporeans - nursing their lattes and cappucinos and looking oh-so-cool.
Breakfast sets at Faculty of Caffeine. Image: Faculty of Caffeine
The past year has seen trendy cafes popping up in various neighbourhoods. They are run by Malaysians in their 20s and 30s, offer exotic beans from places such as Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea and Jamaica, and use various artisanal brewing techniques, such as a cold drip, pour-overs, French presses and siphons.
For Singaporeans looking for a quick jaunt upstate, most of these cafes are about a 30-minute drive from the Woodlands checkpoint.
Their food and drink prices are comparable to those of chain F&B establishments in Malaysia such as Secret Recipe and Old Town White Coffee. In general, coffee prices start at about RM7 (S$2.70). Affordability aside, these cafes also tend to be more spacious than their Singapore counterparts.
Here are six cafes that should be on your hit list.
1. THE FACTORY 30 BY JUST WANT COFFEE
It may be situated in the middle of an industrial estate, but this roomy 4,000 sq ft double-storey space was crowded on a Monday afternoon even as stormy weather raged on outside when Life!Weekend paid a visit.
The Factory 30 by Just Want Coffee. Image: ST/ Desmond Foo
Designed to look like its namesake, the industrial-chic cafe is adorned with giant metal shutters and sleek metal-leg furniture and topped off with huge coffee bean gunny sacks hanging from the ceiling.
Do not worry – though they may look heavy, they are filled with newspapers, so you may eat without worrying about falling bags.
Coffee beans are sourced everywhere from Ethiopia to Costa Rica, and are roasted on site. The Factory 30 is the fifth cafe under the Just Want Coffee brand, founded by Mr Nelson Lai, 32, and Mr David Lim, 28, which has cafes in other locations using other design concepts.
They also run barista courses, coffee tours and tasting and brewing classes.
Cafe interiors of The Factory 30 by Just Want Coffee. Image: ST/ Desmond Foo
Must-tries: The Factory 30 makes a daily fresh batch of its own take on the bagel, using a recipe that the owners say is “more suited to local tastes” as its bagels are softer and not as tough as the New York originals.
Order the pesto-crusted chicken sandwich (RM29.90 or S$11.70), which is a poppy seed bagel paired with crispy fried chicken fillets with homemade pesto sauce.
For a cool afternoon treat, try its icy cold tiramisu (RM15.90), which is served frozen for an ice-cream cake-like texture.
Since it set up shop, the cafe sells about 10,000 of these delicious tiramisu every month.
Where: 30 Jalan Mutiara Emas 5/3, Taman Mount Austin, 81100 Johor Baru
2. COFFEE LOFT
From the outside, this easily looks the most impressive of the cafes, given that all three floors of the corner shophouse are painted in a wash of grey as if it were a massive warehouse.
Coffee Loft. Image: ST/ Desmond Foo
In reality, only the ground floor is used for the cafe, while the rest of the building is office space. The ample space gives it a chilled-out loft feel, for an enjoyable weekend brunch.
When Life!Weekend visited the cafe two weeks ago on a Saturday afternoon, most of the clientele were families and young adults, having leisurely chats or reading magazines over coffee and cake.
The cafe’s slogan “when coffee meets art” means much thought has been put into the bright and colourful paintings hanging on the wall, including those by young Malaysian artist Hoe Say Yong.
Co-founder Shaunjit Singh, 23, says: “We went for that industrial feel as we wanted to show off the art more.”
Look out for the cute bear figurines at every table which act as a paperweight for the food order chits.
Must-tries: Order the smoked duck pizza (RM21 or S$8), a crispy thin-crust pizza, and a hot basket of potato wedges (RM9) for a satisfying lunch.
Coffee options include the usual lattes and cappucino, but non-coffee drinkers will love the fact that it also has a wide range of tea offerings, including the mood-lifting peppermint ginger tea (RM10).
Where: 29 Jalan Molek 1/12, Taman Molek, 81100 Johor Baru
3. THE BREW ORCHESTRA
The strings lining the ceiling are designed to look like musical instrument strings to go with the cafe name.
Owner Isaac Loh, 26, explains the inspiration behind the name: “Different beans have different brewing methods using different equipment and they all come together here – just like how different musical instruments form an orchestra.”
The Brew Orchestra. Image: ST/ Desmond Foo
Indeed, there are myriad options here: From the cafe’s house-blend coffee, which has hints of blueberry (from RM7 or S$2.80 for an espresso macchiato to RM13 for an iced cappuccino), to the many options for its speciality single origin coffees sourced from Kenya, Ethiopia and Honduras (RM13 for paper drip, flannel and aeropress, and RM15 for syphon), coffee-lovers will be spoilt for choice.
Must-tries: The coffee, obviously. But non-coffee drinkers will be happy to know that its selection of teas is excellent too.
Try the Kyoto genmaicha (RM13) or the houjicha karigane (RM15), whose roasted fragrances wafts through the room long before they reach your table.
Peckish? Order the mustard pastrami panini (RM13), a perfectly toasted sandwich with oven-smoked pastrami dressed with English mustard.
Otherwise, head over to the display cabinet in the middle of the room to order (or ogle at) a pretty tart or a slice of cake.
Where: 19 Jalan Molek, 1/5C Taman Molek, 81100 Johor Baru
This eight-month-old cafe is perfect for those who just want to curl up with a book. There are plenty of books lining the wall shelves here, so grab one and read away over a cup of hot cuppa.
Insomnia. Image: ST/ Desmond Foo
Situated in the up-and-coming gourmet food area in luxury residential neighbourhood Country Garden, this is also a good pit-stop for those who are on a food trail around the area.
Do not be alarmed if you cannot find the cafe this weekend: The signboard at the moment reads Cestino, but the name will be changed to Insomnia next month.
Must-tries: The rich house-blend coffee here is sourced from Brazil, Columbia, Indonesia and Ethiopia. Prices range from RM5 (S$2) for a single shot espresso to RM16 for a 16-ounce cup of iced hazelnut latte.
For hungry souls, the bestseller is the thin-crust pizza, which has toppings such as tuna flakes (RM13 for a six-inch pizza, RM25 for a nine-inch one) and Hawaiian chicken (RM13 for a six-inch pizza, RM25 for a nine-inch pizza).
Where: Country Garden Danga Bay, behind the sales gallery, Jalan Skudai 80200 Johor Baru
5. FACULTY OF CAFFEINE
This is the best option for non-drivers, as it is a mere 10-minute walk from the Johor Baru Customs, Immigration and Quarantine complex.
Situated on one of the city’s oldest streets, Jalan Trus, the cafe is flanked by various old- fashioned businesses, from traditional herbal tea stalls to old-school bakeries.
This cosy cafe has tables kitted out with vintage Singer sewing machines, a retro kitchen cabinet as well as a large mirror with Chinese characters on it. The walls of the cafe too are adorned with artworks done by the two owners.
Must-tries: If you are hungry, go for the Generous Breakfast set (RM16.50 or S$6.50), which offers scrambled eggs, mushrooms and grilled tomatoes. It also serves a fresh Caesar salad (RM8.50).
Coffee fans will enjoy their drinks here, as the cafe uses 100 per cent Arabica beans and has double shot espresso. On a hot day, opt for an iced cappuccino (RM10.50) or an iced caffe mocha (RM11.50). It also has non-coffee based drinks such as Minty Lime Punch (RM 7.50) and a Chilly Fruit Tea (RM 8.50).
Where: 106 Jalan Trus, 80000 Johor Baru
My Liberica. Image: My Liberica/ Facebook
6. MY LIBERICA
My Liberica looks a little like a homey but slightly cheesy hotel bar (complete with Kenny G muzak playing in the background), but it takes its coffee seriously. So seriously, in fact, that its coffee beans are sourced from its own 20ha coffee plantation located near Bukit Batu in Johor.
Customers can get their specialty coffee via the siphon or filter drip methods.
Must-tries: Other than its many coffee options - the tiramisu coffee (RM11 or S$4.30) is popular and aromatic - try the Taiwan plum essence series of drinks, which are tart and refreshing. Order a slice of the mille crepe (from RM9.90), a lightly sweet dessert that comes in flavours such as oreo and green tea.
Where: 73 Jalan Molek 3/10, Taman Molek, 81100 Johor Baru
HOW TO GET THERE
The easiest way to reach these cafes is by going through the Johor Baru Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Complex via Woodlands.
After clearing customs, head for the Johor Baru Eastern Dispersal Link Expressway - look out for the E14 signs - to get to the Taman Mount Austin and Taman Molek cafes.
The toll-free expressway will get you there in about 15 minutes, if there is no traffic.
Alternatively, you can head for the Lebuhraya Tebrau to get to both these places, though this is a longer and more congested route.
For cafes in Country Garden, Danga Bay, look out for the brown signs pointing out Danga Bay. These will lead you to the coastal road, where you will see an entrance for Country Garden.
Drive all the way in, and you will see many restaurants on your left and right, and both Insomnia and W Espresso Sporting Club are located here. Parking is limited.
By public transport
If you are heading to Johor Baru by bus, the best cafe to look out for would be Faculty Of Caffeine.
The Jalan Trus stretch is right behind the popular City Square Johor Bahru Shopping mall.
Landmarks near the cafe include a Hindu temple and a Sikh temple, and an old mall called Plaza Seni.
This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on August 16, 2014. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.