This year, we look at the top entries that speak to our larger KL culinary scene, inspire our midnight cravings, and demonstrate real respect for flavour. Here are the dishes that best stood out in 2015.
This dish excites and perplexes at the same time. It looks deceivingly simple, like a pretty fruit salad, but it’s actually quite complex. The chunky watermelon bursts into sweet juices while the pomegranate seeds and cucumber slices provide crunch; the tartness from the strawberry is a perfect foil to all that sweetness while the mint leaves add a hint of brightness to the palate; and the sharp, citrusy yuzu dressing rounds it all up beautifully. But what’s truly surprising is the texture and flavour of the seared surfaces on the grilled watermelon – the flesh becomes almost sashimi-like, with a mellowed herbaceous flavour that reminds us of lotus seeds. Clichéd but true, this dish will blow your mind.
Curry as dessert – who would have thought! This is the kind of creative thinking we have come to expect of Cantaloupe under the direction of executive chef Chris Bauer. Here, you have all the hallmark flavours of a dessert: sweet coconut milk and white chocolate rocks (made by pumping the foam mixture into a liquid nitrogen bath) that turn creamy in your mouth, and the hit of acidity from the strawberry dressed in raspberry syrup. The cold curry ice cream however, is a little strange at first – playful but it works. The spiced turmeric notes from the curry is obvious but mellow, so when you get a little bit of everything in one mouthful, it still reminds you of a sweet dessert, although it’s now spiked with a savoury overtone. We can certainly see the humour in this dish and we love it.
Okay, yes, it may be blasphemous to serve Indian food on a hot plate, but look beyond this odd, gimmicky presentation and you’ll find a really good mutton dish. The smooth, thick paste is a nod to butter chicken, well-balanced and brightened with the minty flavours of clove and star anise. But it’s not all mush: There’s crunch and sweetness from the barely cooked onions and capsicum while the mutton, complete with tendon and fat, is firm but not tough.
What are the building blocks of happiness? Lemon, butter and sugar. We could’ve picked anything chocolatey from Jaslyn Cakes (and that would be clichéd) but their lemon bars – sprightly lemons whipped into a curd and plonked on to a crumbly shortbread crust – are the little desserts that could. Jaslyn’s lemon bars satisfy the most primary of our dessert desires: They’re indulgent; they make you forget about the harsh, harsh world; they’re practically sunshine on a plate. These cheerful-looking squares can be deceiving – the intense tartness attacks the senses like a stampede but it’s the lingering, zesty aftertaste that makes the lip-puckering experience truly memorable.
If there’s one thing that’s almost better than pizza, it’s garlic cheese naan. Available from 5pm onwards, the naan at Restoran Uncle Rahmat is filled with slices of cheddar cheese and topped with chopped garlic and carrots, which give the dish a dash of colour. It’s cooked in the tandoor oven for about three minutes before being served with a side of mint chutney and dhal curry. This naan hits all the right spots: melted cheese, crispy crust and roasted chopped garlic for that extra zing. Wash it down with a cup of teh tarik – it’s the perfect meal.
There’s nothing creative about the dish, but the mastery of this delicate seafood is impressive. A whole fresh seabass (or go for the cheaper tilapia at RM35) is dunked into boiling hot oil until the skin sizzles into an even shade of gold while the fins and edges turn into crunchy crisps – the flesh, however, remains moist and tender, glistening in its own natural jus. Then, the fish is covered with a fragrant sambal tumis that’s spicy and sweet. You really don’t need anything else – just a bowl of white rice and the entire fish to yourself. All fried fish should be judged by this standard.
Taman Desa folks are lucky to have access to fresh loaves of focaccia in the neighbourhood. When we dropped by at 12.30pm, the focaccia was fresh out of the oven, comfortingly warm, with the crust baked to a deep golden brown and topped with Maldon sea salt and slices of lightly salted cherry tomato. A bite through the crust revealed a soft and fluffy centre. It’s delicious, flavourful, but simple – just how a good bread should be. Note tha t the preservative-free focaccia at Red Kettle – using olive oil, rosemary, bread flour, still water and yeast – is baked fresh in-house every day. By the way, there’s a bacon version as well.
Sometimes, we can’t decide between having dessert and drinks after our meal. Luckily, Inside Scoop has the answer: their (elusive) Smoked Cognac ice cream that’s only available once in a while. What founder Shiew Li has churned out is a decadent dark chocolate ice cream imbued with five percent smoked cognac. It’s creamy and rich, and the cognac sure tastes strong. Go big with a double scoop on a cone or pair it with their fluffy homemade waffles.
The lauk may be a common sight at nasi campur spreads, but it’s surprisingly difficult to find a masak lemak dish that isn’t overly watered down with coconut milk. We like our masak lemak fragrant, thick and super spicy with a hint of kampung nostalgia. Fortunately, our quest ended at Restoran Sambal Hijau, where the daging salai masak lemak ticks all these boxes. The thin slices of delicately seasoned smoked beef enhance, but don’t take away from, the gravy’s complex flavours – a perfect balance between turmeric, cili padi, ginger and lemongrass only achievable through years of cooking (with a whole lot of heart). A bowl of this may look like a serving for two, but don’t be fooled; chances are, you’ll be scooping spoonfuls straight to your mouth without any left to share. Tip: Get two bowls.
The much-loved mentai sushi from the long-closed Fukuharu has been reincarnated into a hugely satisfying rice bowl. The briny and creamy marinated cod roe, slightly torched; the sweet omelette, pillowy with just a bit of springiness; and the firm, sticky rice, garnished with strips of dried seaweed. It’s a simple dish, sure, but also one that’s very likable and so comforting to eat. To be honest, we love this version better – mainly because we can now be greedy and have the whole bowl of rice rather than just be content with a couple of bite-sized sushi.
There’s a reason why cauliflower is the vegetable de rigueur: It’s the perfect blank canvas to take in all the flavours you can pile on it. This starter at Drift is the most interesting execution we’ve seen so far of the versatile cauliflower. The tandoor-like heat and flavours are soothed by the saffron yoghurt. There’s freshness too from the mint, coriander and onion salsa. And when you take in all that plus the sweet, rum-soaked raisins, you can expect different textures and flavours in every bite.
The humble siu yuk has topped plates of rice and the occasional bowl of curry noodles. But this dish by Crack Pork – siu yuk served in a fluffy mantao with all the condiments of a Peking duck roll – shows one of the best uses of crackly roasted pork we’ve seen this year. You may liken it to the famous version by Momofuku, but instead of tender braised meat, the staff at Crack Pork (also the pork specialist behind Garam Haram) pairs crispy siu yuk with generous amounts of scallions, sliced cucumber, coriander, pickled carrots, pickled radishes and hoisin sauce for a contrast of textures. Come on, it's siu yuk and mantao. Everything else pales in comparison.
Here’s a fact that might be hard to stomach. Sang cheung, which has been erroneously identified as pig intestines, is actually the fallopian tube (for the squeamish, you can stop reading right now). This ‘gutsy’ dish sounds like it’s been derived from a biology textbook – you almost expect the restaurant owner to reward you with a gold star for being adventurous. Sang cheung on its own is tasteless, slightly springy and yielding in texture with none of its bloody pungency. Chefs at Fatt Hei Len hack it into small pieces and score them around the edge to better allow the aroma of chopped cili padi and har mai (dried shrimp) to seep in. A toss in the wok after, the flame-licked sang cheung – served on a bed of Chinese parsley – furl up into little spicy-salty nuggets, making them an eminently addictive beer snack.
These ribs are smaller than usual, but that’s because they are a rare cut, taken from the tapered end of the bones. And they are so perfectly cooked that the meat slips off the bone effortlessly. The ribs are first braised three to four hours till soft, and then rubbed with a house-made paste of chimichurri, smoked paprika, black pepper and apple cider vinegar. They are then finished on the grill just before serving. There’s a tart and spicy bite to the paste that cuts through the slight fattiness of the lamb, and we love that the paste dries up into a deliciously dark and smoky crust on the grill. We say, pile on the ‘dastardly hot’ tomato- and garlic-based sauce and make it spicier – you won’t be able to stop after that.
Dewakan is a rare breed locally in that this is a restaurant with a sense of place and time. This awareness comes not just from the restaurant’s dedication to championing local produce and ingredients (some of which are often overlooked in the local dining scene, like ulam) but also chef Darren Teoh’s vision that’s in tune with the food movements of today.
Things are pickled, cured and smoked in house – and it’s not too far-fetched to say Darren treats food with an alchemist’s approach. Common local ingredients are given new potential that’s not restricted to their traditions, like the use of long beans, fermented to add a tinge of rice wine-like umami flavour to the smoked pike conger that’s sitting on an egg custard with texture so unbelievably silky soft it reminds us of tau fu fah, or the use of pulut to substitute for crème anglaise in making ice cream. It’s hard to single out a dish from such a coherent menu, and there are no à la carte dishes – just three-, four-, five- and ten-courses.
In the latest menu (it changes roughly every six months), there’s a thread of earthiness that runs through all the dishes, be it the presentation, the herbaceous prawn broth that’s made with tomatoes, star anise and cinnamon, or the use of cured egg yolks and dehydrated leaves to substitute for seasoning. It’s delicious and most importantly relatable, but in very unexpected ways. These are flavours and ingredients we ought to know (because we grew up with them) – just not like this.