Well I never. A slick restaurant serving traditional Malay food. That’s rare enough in Kuala Lumpur, where Malays make up the poor majority and the ‘smart’ spots tend to cater to the wealthy Malaysian Chinese. In KL, if it’s traditional Malay food you want, you head out, to the hawkers’ stalls. It’s been a similar story in London: the best dishes are in no-frills cafés and backstreets. Not that there haven’t been other attempts to take it upmarket (remember Awana?) This time, though, I got a good feeling. Firstly, despite the location, a Jimmy Choo-ed totter from the King’s Road, you can eat here without spending silly money. Secondly, the food is outstanding.
The first thing to do is flip the menu over. The back page is where you’ll find the good-value street food. The nasi lemak (£13.90) is as good as any I’ve had on the backstreets of KL or Penang. A mound of moist, coconutty rice, with a halo of the must-have accessories: tiny dried anchovies; skin-on whole peanuts; a boiled egg; a blob of kick-ass sambal (sweet, salt, fire, tang). They also throw in a portion of excellent chicken rendang, with tender meat and a fragrant sauce. Chinese Malaysian street food shines equally bright. The slippery stir-fried rice noodles (char kuey teow ), which come with a salted egg and a dollop of fiery chilli sauce, are the kind of comfort carbs worth getting a hangover for.
If you’re on a budget or just after a light lunch, you could stop there. But it’s more fun to go in a gang – or with a greedy pal – so you can maraud around the menu. Don’t miss the kangkung belacan: stir-fried water spinach with waves of subtle dried fish and not-so-subtle chilli coming through deliciously oil-slathered, thin, stringy greens. Or the chicken satay, which would be a boring choice if it wasn’t so great. Each bite of turmeric-spiced thigh meat was a mix of sweet, smoky and juicy. The rich, grainy peanut sauce adds just the right level of heat.
There was only one botch job: a bowl of beef rendang. The flavour was fine, but if the meat had come any tougher, some nice Chelsea handbag-maker could have made a decent clutch out of it. Still, a single mouthful of dessert – an insanely good bubur hitam (rice pudding) – and all was forgiven. They make it with black rice and coconut milk. It’s seriously addictive.
The room is smart ‘in a KL way’. That is, expensively decorated but dull. Dark floors, dark furniture, well-dressed staff and soft muzak. They even garnish their plates with orchids: all that’s missing is a blast of fierce air-con. Don’t let that put you off. If you’ve got someone special you’ve been dying to share the best of Malaysia’s fragrant cuisine with, Zheng is a first-rate place to start.