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  • Writer's pictureTien Chew

10 "Recent" Meals That Made Me Appreciate How Far The Malaysian Food Scene Has Come

Updated: Oct 8, 2023

We’ve all had that meal that leaves you with a desire to ponder what you’ve just experienced, how everything came together so beautifully (or disastrously), and if anything left an impression on you.

As we recently completed the half-year mark, I reminisce 10 meals (in chronological order) that have either taught this grizzled dog something new, revealed a new perspective on gastronomy, or were just incredibly satisfying. I usually keep my listicles at five to keep my features short and sweet, but I’m going for 10 simply because I no longer have the capacity to talk about everything single meal I’ve had in detail. And I say “recent” because one of the best meals I’ve had on this list dates back to the end of December 2022.

That said, instead of going through these captivating meals that I’ve had up until now in my usual bringing-you-in-on-the-experience style of storytelling, I’m going with a slightly different route. And I hope you enjoy the read.

1) Modern European For The Year-End Holidays

Bread and roast chicken leftover
One of the best bread courses I've ever had

I know, I know. Having a phenomenal meal late last year in December doesn't technically count as recent, but it was so gratifying that I must include it on this list. You see, it was my first time dining at Studio, a restaurant that recently opened in Jalan Kemuja, Bangsar, at the time. It wasn't a new restaurant however, as most gastronomes would already know that the restaurant previously existed in another capacity in Plaza Batai under the name Sitka Studio.

The new Studio focuses on contemporary tasting menus inspired by travel, Malaysian ingredients and European sensibilities. And my first experience at the restaurant, helmed by Chef Christian Recomio, was so overwhelmingly positive that I immediately booked a Christmas Eve dinner because I wanted to have that experience again.

I won't go into the minutiae of the meal, but I will touch on some landmark dishes that represented Studio's culinary mission rather well. Inspired by the action of using bread to soak up gravy, there was the restaurant's fantastic roasted potatoes covered in rich chicken gravy and rosemary mascarpone (pictured above) that debuted for the bread course. In hindsight, it was probably one of the best dang bread courses I've ever had. The combination of soft, pillowy bread to soak up that rich chicken jus and rosemary-tinged mascarpone was pure flavour. And I can't forget those perfectly cooked, flavour-packed potatoes under all that gravy goodness.

Studio restaurant brassica

Brassica (the English name for kai lan) gets paired with oyster mushrooms and cep (also known as porcini) oil and pine nut sauce to make for a beautifully bold and elegant vegetable dish. The bold, slightly bitter charred flavours of kai lan definitely stole the limelight, softened by the gentle earthiness of oyster mushrooms and pine nuts.

Studio restaurant crayfish congee

Studio's crayfish congee was also incredibly memorable, a harmonious amalgamation of brown butter, lemon, crayfish and yuba (foo chook) rounded out by burnt flat leaf parsley oil and crayfish tail on the side. What a treat.

The whole experience was paired with a focused selection of natural wines that made a fantastic dinner all the better. If you've never been to Studio, I recommend that you put this article on hold and make reservations before you continue further down the list.

2) Experienced Hospitality Heights At An Idyllic Island Resort

The Datai Langkawi The Chef Series
Photo: The Datai Langkawi

Picture this, you're a gourmand looking for a short luxurious, three-day, two-night getaway, but you want to avoid traveling far in search of it. Have you heard of The Datai Langkawi's The Chef Series? It's the perfect short-stay retreat for any couple looking to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of the city for a quick recharge before getting back into the thick of things the following week.

I've had the good fortune to attend The Datai Langkawi's acclaimed gastronomy event twice now and each time, thanks to an ever-rotating cast of culinary stars, I was blown away. Everything was firing on all cylinders – service, food quality and ambiance.

Chef Arnaud Faye
Photo: The Datai Langkawi

The last time I visited the idyllic resort in February, celebrated French Chef Arnaud Faye of La Chèvre d’Or was the chosen culinary powerhouse for its second installation of the year. Set in The Dining Room, located just in front of the tranquil adult-only pool, Arnaud presented a six-course menu that married the flavours of the French Riviera with local Langkawi produce. The cherry on top? Dinner was served against a 10 million-year-old rainforest backdrop, the gentle sounds of wildlife playing in the background, and the beautiful sunset casting its twilight glow.

Octopus by Chef Arnaud Faye
Photo: The Datai Langkawi

The whole experience truly spoiled the senses. Everything from the wine pairing to the selection of dishes presented that night was firing on all cylinders. My two favourite dishes that evening were the octopus and the risotto.

The former (pictured above) featured octopus preserved in olive oil and then cooked in the oven for four hours until crisp outside yet plump inside. Interestingly, Arnaud used a declination of beetroot scented with Grasse rose to support the flavours of the sea. Such an ingenious combination of beetroot and rose worked so well to complement the octopus, allowing both flavours of land and sea to harmoniously caress the palate. Taking this yet another step further was the 2018 Domaines Ott Château de Selle rosé chosen to pair with this dish, a pale pink brimming with notes of orchard flowers and citrus fruit that prolonged the elegant floral notes presented in the dish.

Celeriac risotto by Chef Arnaud Faye
Photo: The Datai Langkawi

The best way to describe Arnaud’s signature dish – celeriac risotto – is that it was the perfect marriage between in-season produce and cooking techniques designed to bring out the best qualities of said ingredients. The gentle taste of celeriac was unmistakably the star here, its flavour permeating through rice and sauce and supplemented through parsley and black truffle, which introduced additional aromatics and tastes that celebrated the humble celery root. The harmony of herbs, spices, vegetables, flavours, and textures presented on the plate was undeniably designed for a gourmand. Still, I’d go far as to say that its true beauty lay in the simplicity of the flavours communicated.

The Datai Langkawi continues its The Chef Series with a stellar lineup of chefs for the remainder of 2023. And I highly suggest you don't miss it.

3) A Cocktail Pairing Collaboration That Encapsulated The Modern Malaysian Food Scene

Prawn toast by Li Restaurant
This prawn toast was simply superb

Those who have followed my writings since my days at Tatler Malaysia may know that I've been a fan of Li since it first opened in 2017. Its down-to-earth vibe, focus on reinterpreting Malaysian classics and desire to ensure its food is accessible to diners have been significant reasons why I keep returning to the restaurant.

Many also know I'm a fan of Terumi, Shirmy Chan's contemporary bar that mixes Japanese bartending expertise with local influences. When both forces decided to collaborate at Terumi's Chef Edition, I was all too happy to jump at the experience. And I'm glad that I did, for it was an event that encapsulated the rise and ingenuity of the modern Malaysian food scene. Even better was that the entire dinner was priced at RM250+, cocktails included. What value for money.

Li's deftness at elevating beloved dishes remained the focus of the night's menu, with knockouts like pork and prawn toast, fish tomato umai and congee. The toast, which is a deep-fried sourdough bread with a pork prawn taste topped with lime mayo, was superb, made even better thanks to the complementary flavours of Terumi's gin, passionfruit, and sweet basil cocktail that masterfully counterbalanced the flavours on the plate.

The fish tomato umai was clean yet punchy, with a watermelon gin and tonic to instead give the dish a salty touch. A clever combination that resonated on the palate.

Chef Heng Kit's signature ikan bilis congee also made an appearance, paired with a bolder twist on a Martinez using guava-infused red vermouth and a dash of sloe gin for sweetness. Li's congee on its own was already a treat – a comforting, flavourful dish with bursts of umami throughout to covet one's tastebuds. Terumi's decision to pair the main courses, there was a duck dish before the congee, with a spirit-forward cocktail with a hint of sweetness at the end, was a bold move. But one that definitely paid off.

After the meal, I distinctly remembered walking back to my car, thinking that Li and Terumi's collaboration was an ideal representation of the current state of our food scene – brilliantly talented and immensely creatively resourceful.

We're in a golden age of gastronomy here in Malaysia, folks.

4) Opened My Mind To Gin and Sushi Pairing Possibilities

Ki No Bi Gin martini mizuwari
Ki No Bi Gin martini mizuwari

If I asked a gourmet what would be their choice of alcohol to pair with one of the best omakase experiences money can buy in town, their answer would most likely be sake. A few months back, I got the privilege to experience a craft gin and sushi pairing experience courtesy of Ki No Bi and Sushi Taka. And you know what? It worked. But there's also a caveat: both sushi master and mixologist/bartender need to work together to harmonise the flavours of both food and drink. This means that if you're attempting to try this at home, then store-bought sushi paired with a regular gin and tonic may not cut it.

The drink pictured above was the welcome drink served as I took my seat – a martini mizuwari. Mizuwari is a popular way of drinking spirits in Japan, which usually is a drink made of two parts cold water mixed with one part spirit and topped with ice. Serving it à la mizuwari allows the drinker to taste the spirit, albeit in a lighter, less concentrated form. This makes sense when you factor in the delicate flavours and balance typically utilised in high-end sushi.

Drunken crab at Sushi Taka
This drunken crab stole the show

And so I was treated to such a feast with dishes like chopped tuna roll, kegani (hairy crab) chawanmushi, smoked hotaruika (firefly squid) and one of my personal favourites that evening – yopparaigani (drunken crab). All these dishes, which fell under the appetiser category, were served with a Ki No Bi soda twist, a light highball designed to allow both flavours of the seafood and gin to sing without overshadowing either element.

French 75 twist
French 75 twist

The sushi part if the meal was undeniably incredible, with the gin maker choosing to serve its limited Ki No Bi Edition G (which is cask aged) in a delicious French 75 twist. Classics the likes of ama ebi (sweet prawn), akami (tuna loin), uni, anago (sea eel) and chutoro, to name a few, paired beautifully with the bold yet elegant flavours presented in the cocktail.

Sushi Taka tamagoyaki
This tamagoyaki is something else, with a top that has been burnt like a brûlée

Not only was this meal significantly memorable because of its pitch-perfect dining experience, but it also broke new ground for me and showed that sushi and gin can work together harmoniously. Thanks to the masters behind the scenes orchestrating the show, of course.

5) Experienced A Memorable Beginning And Ending

Beta Jambu Royale cocktail
Jambu royale – cachaça, fermented suave, kaffir lime

Beta is another restaurant that I have been enjoying following since its inception. Chef Raymond Tham's vision for the modern Malaysian restaurant has undergone a few changes to its concept since the beginning but always manages to stay fresh and, most importantly, delectable.

After experiencing Beta's latest signature Tour Of Malaysia menu, I found myself surprisingly enamoured with the beginning and end of the meal. Those partial to booze, like myself, will enjoy the option to pair a selection of cocktails with dinner. I highly recommend doing so to taste several original concoctions that enhance the overall dining experience. For those not partial to booze, there's also the option to pair the entire experience with zero-proof (alcohol-free) cocktails, which is a refreshing and welcoming addition to a fine dining establishment. I've gone the zero proof route once and found it enjoyable and similarly enriching to the usual alcoholic libations.

My meal started with the drink you saw above, and it was satisfyingly tangy, tropical, and slightly boozy. Just what I needed to whet the palate.

Beta restaurant

Having a delicious drink at the meal's start can do wonders in setting the mood right. And Beta knows this well, for your dining experience begins at the lounge and progresses to the dining area once your initial round of snacks is done. The last time I was there, I had roasted baby corn served with lempeng (pancake) and kulim, a fish cracker lekor-inspired spherical treat with anchovies and fermented chilli, and an ulam tart with budu and calamansi.

While Beta's phenomenal tapioca bread starter does not show up on its menu, I'd go for as to call it one of the restaurant's core pillars. If memory serves me right, Beta introduced the oh so chewy and slightly nutty bread bun a few menus back, and they have since been a staple of the restaurant experience. The last time I was there, the bread was served with green sambal, which was tangy and appropriately spicy, and the second round of snacks.

Loyang dessert at Beta restaurant

One of the two desserts served at the end of the meal – Loyang Vol 3 (pictured above) – played another crucial role in the dinner's success. Kuih loyang (brass), which I recently discovered originated from Kerala and is called achappam, is the apparent inspiration for the dish. But Beta's interpretation of the kuih, when they turned it into a dessert, has the dish take on the form of a crumbly, frozen treat more so than the crunchy-crispy form of the kuih. In another twist, it uses sesame and red beans, which the Chinese tend to favour in their desserts.

The fact that my most memorable aspect of the meal was the beginning and the ending wasn't a knock on the entire meal. In fact, dishes like the tiger prawns served with papaya, torch ginger and kombucha and the cornfed chicken served with asam pedas done à la otak-otak were incredibly inventive and delicious. The whole meal was superb and served as another reminder that Beta has consistently delivered new and exciting dishes that proudly fly the modern Malaysian flag.

6) Bullish About The Growth Of Modern Malaysian Cuisine

Yam gnocchi and craft beer
Gnocchi x craft beer

Unfortunately, my first experience at Eat & Cook wasn’t my chance to taste the signature cooking styles of chefs Lee and Yongzhi, for my inaugural experience coincided with the restaurant’s Friends Series 2.0 with Mandy Goh of ATAS. Together, the trio crafted an offbeat 11-course menu with a strong emphasis on leaving the freshness of the ingredients intact, all while marrying various ideas and techniques that hail from different cuisines with creative flair.

Dishes that showcased what I mean included the flavourful yam gnocchi (pictured above) served with velouté, bottarga, charred black fungus and brown butter. Although I’m not a fan of yam, I could respect and enjoy a dish that cleverly used its soft, earthy taste to balance a symphony of bolder flavours accompanying it. I’m told that the inspiration behind the dish came from the humble yam abacus classic Hakka dish, with the yam itself sourced from Klang.

Soup and pie
Not your regular deli puff pastry pie

Another flash of creative collaboration came in the form of a soup served with a puff pastry, which always takes me back to when I indulged in Dôme Cafe’s once excellent beef pie growing up. It was a classic, hearty dish that sounded straightforward enough on paper. Still, the trio of chefs introduced a cheeky twist, swapping the typical gravy of either chicken and mushroom or beef and carrots for Chinese-style double-boiled soup. And while they were at it, they removed the salad or medley of greens that seemingly always accompanies the pie and instead used sashimi.

Fascinatingly enough, this dish – essentially sea conch done two ways – was born out of a race against time, as the chefs explained as they served the soup and sashimi combo that they created this dish only a day before the event. They also didn’t know what to call it; hence it appeared on the menu nameless, save for three custom emojis of the chefs doing a shrug. Credit is given where credit is due, for it was a playful dish that married three major influences from three various cuisines to exciting effect. I will admit that this Chinese-French-Japanese may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed it for what it was worth.

Durian toast
The king of toasts

Yet another intriguing hit that fired on all cylinders was the completely bonkers durian toast and vanilla ice cream. It’s one of those things you’d never dream of having until a bunch of talented people decided to create it, and once you have it, you wonder why you’ve never had it all along.

I give you...durian toast with vanilla ice cream. Yes, you heard that right.

The toast itself was simply good bread infused with durian butter. But introduce vanilla ice cream and durian curd into the picture and the dynamic shifts. You’ve got crunch and a layer of sumptuousness from the durian butter with each bite, followed by the lightness of vanilla ice cream for lightness and a zesty durian curd to drive home that durian flavour. And kudos to the chefs for making the smart decision to sprinkle salt on top to add depth to the whole package that is this banging treat.

I will admit the dish was strange and captivating, but it worked for this pro-durian Malaysian.

Another aspect that made dinner all the more unique was the restaurant’s emphasis on pairing craft beers for most of the meal, a welcoming and refreshing change that I quite enjoyed. However, I wish the beer choices were more in sync with the dishes that evening. Diners were given a flight of three beers, but two were wheat based and one was a West Coast-style IPA. Throw in a chilli chocolate stout or a double IPA in there and I would appreciate the variety and ability to choose what works for me.

With all that being said, the most important thing for me was leaving the restaurant feeling hopeful and excited about how far the modern Malaysian culinary movement has come since I started my career and how exceptional talents in the F&B scene continue to take it to new heights.

7) Watching A Restaurant And Its Talented Team Continuing To Evolve

Hide restaurant prawn curry
A tale of two curries

I’ve had the privilege to experience almost all of Hide’s fantastic seasonal menus since the restaurant opened its doors in 2021, and what a progression it has been. Chef Shaun Ng has managed to transform his intimate restaurant from serving modern creations inspired by global cuisines to modern creations inspired by the Chinese flavours and tastes associated with his cultural and culinary background.

I’ve been a fan of Shaun’s approach to modern cuisine since I first dined there, and I would safely say that Hide is one of the best restaurants in town when it comes to the value you get for your hard-earned cash.

At my last visit to Hide, numerous stellar standouts spoke of Hide’s new direction to use modern cooking techniques to reinterpret classic Chinese flavours in a contemporary light. There was the stellar tiger prawn served in a variation of two curries (southern fruit curry and dry red curry) and a medley of vegetables, a dish that was straightforward and to the point in its execution and taste but one that also pays homage to the chef’s father.

Hide restaurant kinmedai
Kinmedai always gratifies at Hide

The kinmedai course, which always induces joy when I see the prized Japanese protein being served at Hide, for they consistently nail it, was another delicious entry. In its latest iteration, Hide served the perfectly crispy and tender kinmedai in a duck prosciutto broth and a layer of corn purée at the bottom. Three ingredients that don't suggest that it may work on paper, but undoubtedly made a mark on the palate thanks to Shaun and his team's exceptional skill at balancing flavours and notes.

Hide restaurant mud crab and vinegar jelly
Mud crab and vinegar jelly for balance

With menus that consistently showcase growth and innovation, it's little wonder why Hide continues to be an easy recommendation for me whenever gourmands looking for an intimate chef's table experience ask me where they should spend their special evening. As Shaun and his team continue to level up in every area, you can expect to be consistently wowed by dishes that command great culinary precision and ingenuity.

8) Tasting Time As Told By A Modern Indian Chef

Flour restaurant kebab
Fancy a "kebab"?

When I approached Chef Yogi for an article I was writing for The Peak that explores the business side of being a restaurateur, I was invited to dine at Flour to taste the restaurant's vision for 2023. Fascinatingly enough, Flour will only be serving two menus this year – Aarrambh (part one) and Parivartan (part two) – that together weaves a culinary tale of time and key ingredients and dishes that spans thousands of years before Christ up until the modern era.

I was fortunate enough to experience both menus two months apart and walked away wowed by the inventive flair Yogi and his team showcased with both menus. Some dishes, so integral are they to Flour's gastronomic statement for the year, are featured across both menus.

Flour restaurant mango lassi
You've never had mango lassi like this before

One of my favourite dishes across both menus is the mango lassi, an inventive and bold reimagining of the classic Indian beverage that I still can't believe exists. Flour's take on the mango lassi uses Harumanis mango pulp, a touch of cream and royal beluga caviar to mimic the flavours of the drink beat for beat. Texturally, the mango lassi has a slight bounce and tastes of mango with a hint of cream lingering in the background. The caviar, a costly and elegant substitute for salt, balances this delicious sweetness with high-grade salinity that surprisingly works incredibly well.

Flour restaurant white apricot tart
A tart for kings

White apricots, a specialty of Kashmir, made an appearance at the end of the Aarrambh menu in a delicious tart form, featuring white apricot compote, diced Gariguette strawberries and purée, lavender honey and shaved almonds. Truly a dessert fit for a king.

Flour restaurant konju moilee
A Keralan classic reimagined

The Parivartan menu, on the other hand, recreates classic dishes from the Indian subcontinent in place of the ingredient-driven focus of the Aarrambh menu. Konju moilee, a Kerala curried shrimp and coconut dish, sees a luxurious upgrade at Flour. A tempered chilli, pepper, creamy coconut and curry leaf sauce brought out the best of charred Sabahan tiger prawns.

There are too many fascinating things happening at Flour this year for me to sum it all up in this post. Read my review on both menus here.

9) Too Many Cooks Did Not Spoil The Broth

FunNow Gastromonth Japanese aubergine

In early May, I attended a preview dinner of Gastromonth at The RuMa Hotel, an initiative by FunNow to gather numerous culinary powerhouses (Michelin-starred talents included) together to create new experiences for hungry gastronomes to enjoy around KL and Penang. The result was a dinner curated by a superstar cast – Mandy Goh of ATAS, Takashi Kimura of Cilantro, Kim Hock Su of Au Jardin, Darren Teoh of Dewakan, Aidan Low of Akâr Dining, Shaun Ng of Hide, Darren Chin of DC Restaurant and Johnson Wong of Gēn. And amazingly enough, despite the sheer number of dishes served, one for each chef except for Mandy, who opened and closed the meal with an amuse bouche and petit fours, the entire meal flowed incredibly well.

I thoroughly enjoyed every dish, like Takashi's Japanese aubergine served with sea urchin and Tanjung Malim caviar (above). I completely lapped up Aidan's inventive jicama pasta with ulam raja gremolata and topped with chilli kampung powder (below), a welcoming vegetarian-friendly dish that was deliciously paired with a 2018 M. Chapoutier Hermitage Chante Alouette white wine.

FunNow Gastromonth jicama pasta

Then there was Darren's charred shellfish dish with fermented coconut and lamb brain emulsion that was very Dewakan and delectable. Shaun's signature duck dish was also on point, and Darren's Miyazaki tomahawk and Johnson's white corn dessert duo hit home.

This dinner, cooked for an absolutely jam-packed restaurant, never skipped a beat, proving that too many cooks did not spoil the broth if masterfully orchestrated.

10) Digging The Rise Of The Sustainable Locavores

Triptyk and Super Secret Social prawn

I have a super surprising secret – I've never been to semi-zero waste Triptyk, nor have I tried food by Super Secret Social. Well, it's not really a secret, but people often like to assume that because I taste and review food professionally and recreationally, I usually have the time (or funds) to try every hot new place in KL.

When Angel Ng, Triptyk's head honcho, invited me to pay the bar a visit for its first dining collaboration with locavore farm-to-table supper club Super Secret Social, I jumped at the opportunity. And I'm glad I did, for I sipped and supped on inventive cocktails and dishes that put local ingredients and sustainability up front and centre.

Triptyk and Super Secret Social burnt bamboo white corn

I can still recall the supple sweetness of bamboo-cooked white corn infused with caraway burnt butter resting atop slow-roasted jicama, the smoky woodiness of the bamboo excellently countering and complementing the Chitose white corn still lingering in my memories.

Triptyk and Super Secret Social whisky cocktail

The dish was paired with a bold drink of Japanese whisky, mushroom vermouth and sweet malt tea syrup. The umami-packed cocktail emboldened the dish's high notes and showcased the bar's ingenuity in incorporating mushrooms into the picture.

Super Secret Social also got me to enjoy their brilliant pumpkin porridge served with pickled pumpkin, pumpkin seed oil and a punchy black sambal made of belimbing, anchovies and spices. That was paired with a light and breezy cocktail of sake, star anise, lychee, and chrysanthemum soda. Both provided layers that stimulated the palate and mind.

Triptyk and Super Secret Social banana wellington

To top it all off, the creative forces at SSS also served a delicious banana wellington for dessert, complete with banana skin cracker, sago gula Melaka and fiore de latte ice cream. However, Triptyk's choice to serve a corn cob gin, elderflower and chamomile tonic to pair with it wasn't my cup of tea. But I did appreciate the interplay of flavours between banana and corn and the reappearance of ingredients that had already popped up during the meal.

It's also important to note that Triptyk offered a zero-proof cocktail pairing experience for those not wanting to drink alcohol. I'm told that the bar will have more collaborations coming soon. Those of you looking to experience a memorable dining collaboration, take note.

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