Despite the fact that we were unable to find the restaurant until the owner came out to track us down, this was a really good choice and one of the highlights of my weekend in Kuala Lumpur. The restaurant itself, hidden in Central Market, has lovely atmospheric decor, great Nyonya cuisine and terrific service. Each dish was interesting, flavoursome and generously proportioned - we couldn't get enough of it.
We started with little top hats filled with minced chicken, sweet turnip, carrots and green beans and eaten with chilli sauce. Yep, the top hats were totally gimmicky but the filing was excellent so it made it sweet, rather than naff!
And they had blue rice to go with the beef rendang... Blue rice is apparently a Malaysian speciality although I'm all up for spreading the message globally - it just makes you smile!
The starters and mains were excellent but the puddings were definitely the highlight - unexpectedly so. To be honest, I didn't have particularly high expectations for the Bubur Gha-cha, a desert of sweet potato and yam cooked in coconut cream and sago, flavoured with Pandan leaf and topped with stewed banana, but it was delicious, as was the really smooth sago gula melaka, a pudding of sago pearl served with coconut cream and palm sugar.
In addition to the food, the service was particularly notable. After getting slightly side-tracked in a shopping mall, we were running hideously late for our dinner but the owner came out to find us when we called to say we were lost and didn't rush us when every other diner had left. He even helped us get a taxi which was lovely, extra service (although it doesn't say much about how hopeless he thought we looked!!).
The sole aim of our long weekend in Kota Kinabalu was to escape the typhoon warnings / black rain of Hong Kong and to take in as much sun, sea and sand as was humanly possible. As you can imagine, it was never likely to be a detailed culinary exploration of Malaysian Borneo but we gave it a good shot (despite deciding early on that a 20 minute journey into KK itself was just far too much effort to even contemplate!)
Our first night took us toThe Mediterranean Bar and Restaurant by the beach in Tanjung Aru which was a perfectly nice restaurant, unsurprisingly, serving Mediterranean cuisine. It wasn't amazing but the venue was nice with a lovely little sheltered outdoor terrace. I started with red snapper and tuna carpaccio with parsley which was quite good and certainly looked very dramatic on the plate. My friend N. had a spicy crab soup which, again, was dramatic with a whole crab sitting on the top but the actual soup was a little tasteless. However, thumbs up went to the deep-fried mushrooms which L. thought were really good. As a main course we went for the house speciality which was whole red snapper cooked in salt with garlic and lemon. Again, in keeping with the theme, it was dramatic with a chef emerging to uncase the fish and serve what, to be honest, didn't seem like that much meat. Also, the taste didn't quite match up to the drama of the serving but the mashed potato was addictive and the stir-fried Sabah greens with chili and garlic were great. Sabah greens are long, thin, branch-like vegetables which rather reminded me of pumpkin branches. They stir-fry really well, maintaining their crunchiness.
In our quest to see some wild orangutans without too much effort being involved, we visited the orangutan sanctuary at the rather more rural Shangri-La sister hotel, Rasa Ria. While there we had lunch at the Rasa Ria Pool Restaurant which was surprisingly good considering they were serving food round a swimming pool. The only techical hitch was the added protein provided by the number of tiny flies dive-bombing the food. N. and I shared really excellent deep fried squid and fabulous Malay laksa. The laksa was probably Sarawak Laksa but there seem to be so many varieties that I couldn't be sure. The base of the noodle soup was spicy with a sweet coconut flavour. The prawns were huge and the omelette pieces floating in it really soaked up the sauce. This was definitely a Malay dish I want to explore further!
After a tiring day exhausting ourselves with excessive snorkelling (yep, going for the sympathy vote...) the idea of even leaving the grounds of the hotel for dinner seemed just too much to contemplate so we went to Coco Joes, the BBQ restaurant in the hotel's garden by the pool. Now I know that a BBQ is supposed to be a chilled affair but the staff took it to whole new levels - N. and I selected our fish (in my case slipper lobster, tiger prawns and local sole) and waited, and waited, and waited.... In the meantime L. got her burger and finished it. Finally, after lots of rather longing looks at the burger, the fish arrived (without the sweetcorn, baked potato and bread it was supposed to come with). To be fair, it was beautifully cooked and tasted delicious and fresh, but was seriously undermined by the incredible wait (although I think we probably got off lightly - one family near us left without eating after 1 1/2 hours!). I imagine it was a bad day and, in fairnesss, (when it came) it was cooked beautifully but still, the service seriously let Coco Joes down.
Don't even bother with Malaysian Borneo if you hate seafood! Every restaurant seems to be predominantly fish or shellfish, with the walls lined with tanks of unsuspecting supper. The Tanjung Aru Seafood Restaurant on the beach-front was no exception and while it is probably expensive by Malaysian standards, was good. The restaurant itself is little more than an absolutely huge open-fronted warehouse structure with tables. If you're not careful with your timing, there are "tribal dances" most evenings - you have been warned! From a food perspective, the red lobster was particularly good although the tiger prawns steamed with garlic gave it a run for its money. The red garoupa steamed in stock was also good although I had a bit of a panic when I returned to HK because garoupa seems to be on the WWF's list of endangered marine life you shouldn't eat. After closer inspection I think it is ok - garoupa is on the list but it is more unusual versions that are there. Panic over and back to the food - the only downside to the meal was that the sauces were unnecessarily thick, particularly given the fish was flavoursome, fresh and cooked well.
On our last night we went to the street food stalls on the beach front in Tanjung Aru. The little kitchens are lined up along two sides of a communal seating area and although there is a roof, there are no walls. After closely inspecting each of the tiny little kitchens, we actually chose one serving Chinese cuisine - or rather a collection of Chinese specialities all of which were obligated, it seemed, to involve chicken. Apparently they were out of beef, nowhere in Borneo serves pork and the concept of vegetables without a portion of chicken nestling in the middle was just a alien concept to the chef's wife! However, despite the overload of lemon chicken, ginger chicken, stir-fried chicken etc..., it was a good meal, particularly given how little it cost us!
The feeling that we may not have truly done Malaysian cuisine justice has spurred me to move KL further up my to-do list.