Malaysia’s best new restaurants of 2017 bring out buoyant, borderless cuisine
From a Borneo restaurant that blends indigenous ingredients with international influences, to fresh hotspots for French, Indian and Italian cooking in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia has embraced new eateries this year that represent a melting pot of the world in one country. Here are eight of our favourite latest dining destinations nationwide, boiled down into one list.
Fast becoming a magnet for brunch obsessives, Birch’s seductive setting is soaked in sunlight, saturated with greenhouse-inspired aesthetics and suffused with chirpy vibes in Kuala Lumpur’s Damansara City Mall. The restaurant begins its mornings bright and fresh, beckoning early birds for trendy favourites like the Birch Benedict, layered with luscious poached eggs, spiced pulled chicken and barbecue sauce on thick seven-grain sourdough toast. Once the sun sets, late owls will flock for Birch’s night menu, which includes smoked quail eggs, lamb leg skewers and seabream cooked in a Josper charcoal oven.
Eugene Chiu’s eponymous first restaurant heralds his return to his hometown of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah state in Borneo. Chiu spent several years studying finance in London, where he absorbed gastronomic inspirations from Michelin-starred establishments as well as street food purveyors. He recently left his corporate career to launch a restaurant where he strives to work with farmers and food producers to spotlight domestic produce without being yoked to a specific cuisine. Specialities at Chiu’s, whose tagline is ‘The Modern Local’, include a beef rice bowl with components such as local hill brown rice, pickled papayas, and something that’s unique to Sabah: tuhau serunding, a wild ginger-based delicacy that’s cherished by Sabah’s Kadazan ethnic community. Chiu’s take on risotto also relies on mushrooms that are Borneo-grown, while the beef rendang ravioli features a local ulam raja salad sprinkling.
Fans of feel-good communal feasting will favour Cocott', where everything from crusty house-baked bread to beef bourguignon is served in cast-iron cocottes. Rui-Yang Monico (an alumnus of the Ecole hoteliere de Lausanne school of hospitality) has teamed up with Lyon-raised Geoffroi Herin (who formerly cooked at Annecy-le-Vieux's two-Michelin-star Le Clos des Sens) to cultivate a casual sanctuary for soulful French roasts, stews and casseroles in Kuala Lumpur’s Taman Tun Dr Ismail suburban enclave. Cocott's oeuvre is an ode to rich, robust flavours and time-honoured, cooked-from-scratch techniques, typified by the sumptuousness of baked escargots, free-range chicken with Montpellier butter, or sliced rib-eye with red onions and mustard marmalade. The restaurant’s monthly raclette cheese dinners are colossally popular too.
ENFD, an abbreviation of ‘enfold’, mainly offers customers the simple but satisfying experience of mixing and matching a main course with side dishes for its lunchtime meals, rooted in Asian flavours. The selection evolves regularly at this down-to-earth location in George Town, the capital of northern Penang island. Mains might comprise chicken braised with spicy fermented beans or fried with sticky ginger lime sauce, alongside accompaniments like aubergine with Chinese Teochew dressing, corn with curry leaves, or coleslaw with cumin yogurt. If you’d like to savour a different side of ENFD, reserve a private-kitchen dinner, which might yield temptations such as chilli-poached octopus, herb-cured duck carpaccio and smoked salted chocolate.
Kikubari is a restaurant that strives to live up to its name, a reference to the Japanese philosophy of being mindful of the needs and comfort of people around you. Chef Jun Wong, back in Malaysia after five years abroad at Tokyo's Narisawa, Macau's Robuchon au Dome and Sydney's Sixpenny and Le Petit Flot, commands a kitchen that promises a perceptive blend of Japanese and French sensibilities. The setting in Kuala Lumpur’s Damansara City Mall is intimate, with a handful of tables spread out over a raked-sand zen garden sheltered by a raised glass floor, plus several coveted bar seats overlooking the open kitchen. The menu is neatly split into tapas-style offerings and five-to-eight-course tasting menus. Raised by environmental activist parents, Wong eloquently advocates cooking without waste; seasonal specials might include prawn heads turned into an addictive indulgence, furnished with the umami of prawn-infused cream, sprinkled with seaweed and seaweed powder. Kikubari’s wines are exclusively European, in line with an emphasis on terroir, but it's also interesting to see how sake can buoy a tasting menu here from start to finish.
A meal at Nadodi is meant to be an odyssey, traversing the rice paddies of Tamil Nadu, the coastal fisheries of Kerala and the crop fields of the Jaffna Peninsula. This is a restaurant of ambition and adventure, named for the Malayalam word for 'wanderer,' rooted in an Indian and Sri Lankan heritage while restlessly forging a fresh path that has sparked a wave of culinary chatter in Kuala Lumpur. Guests can venture on a 15- or 17-Mile Journey, reflecting the number of courses showcased in a tasting menu by executive chef Johnson Ebenezer (formerly based in Chennai) & his team. The many memorable possibilities include the signature Monsoon Ritual (tomato broth with spiced lentils, served with a striking flourish) and Silence Of Our Lamb (sous-vide lamb with curry leaf soot).
People & Places Café
Drawing inspiration from the vibrant café landscape of Melbourne, Australia, People & Places Café has become one of this year’s buzziest new hangouts in Malaysia’s southernmost city of Johor Bahru. With a soaring ceiling and foliage-rich furnishing, this space is impeccably Instagram-worthy, but it also boasts a crowd-pleasing repertoire of comfort food, including imaginative recipes like crispy tortillas stuffed with tom yum-flavoured scrambled eggs and sriracha aioli.
Proof might be the pizzeria and wine bar of our dreams, offering intriguing wood-fired pizzas in an irresistible setting that's Tuscany by way of Tribeca. The pizzas convey deep reservoirs of flavour, with toppings like crab claw flesh, hickory-smoked bacon or ‘nduja salumi spread over a base that’s crisp but tender to the touch, airy to the bite – the result of fresh dough that's proofed for two days before being scorched in Italian-built ovens whose temperatures spiral to a high of 350°C. With vintage Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross playing on the soundtrack, the mood is exuberant – you might find yourself engaging in unexpected conversations with nearby tables and swapping slices of pizzas to sample at this venue in Kuala Lumpur’s Bangsar neighbourhood.