For generations, whenever Malaysian food lovers contemplated the northern city of Ipoh, they hankered for hawker stalls and humble coffee shops renowned for Chinese fare such as poached chicken with bean sprouts and dim sum served steaming-hot in small baskets.
Those were the gastronomic hallmarks of Ipoh, a once-thriving tin-mining hub that evolved over the last half-century into a less economically significant territory where the pace of life remained sedate and younger residents often left to seek work elsewhere.
So why has the capital of Malaysia’s Perak state recently roared back into the limelight, attracting a fresh flood of visitors who are enthusiastically making the two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh on weekends?
“There’s one major answer to that question,” says pastry chef Nicole Gan. “Ipoh is becoming fashionable because of its unique new eateries.”
Gan should know. She runs a chic café called Pâtisserie BoutiQue (facebook.com/Patisserie.BoutiQue), one of the many charming caffeine bars, cake shops and upmarket restaurants that have sprouted in Ipoh this past year and transformed its culinary landscape.
Pâtisserie BoutiQue, a Parisian-inspired venue whose walls feature murals of the Eiffel Tower, Champs-Elysées and Arc de Triomphe while the speakers play French standards like La Vie en Rose and La Mer, is on a street where no fewer than five new cafés have launched, replacing faded former barbershops and dress-making businesses.
Gan estimates that at least 40 percent of Pâtisserie BoutiQue’s customers come from out of town. On a recent Saturday afternoon, her café was bustling with patrons who nibbled on smoked salmon quiche, strawberry-topped mille-feuilles and crème brûlée, all of which were hardly ever found in Ipoh a few years ago.
Next door, the unmistakable aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafts out of The Roquette Cafe (facebook.com/TheRoquetteCafe), which prides itself on being one of Ipoh’s handful of outlets that boast expertly trained baristas serving single-origin coffee with beans from around the world, including Ethiopia, Indonesia and Colombia.
Many of Ipoh’s hottest new hangouts are conveniently within a 15-minute drive from each other. But their true trump card is that they’re physically far more distinctive compared to popular eateries in Kuala Lumpur; instead of being trapped inside malls, they’re lovingly set up in culturally fascinating, British colonial-era shop-houses and bungalows that now have a new lease of life.
One striking example is The Happy 8 (facebook.com/thehappy8), a café and boutique hotel in a two-storey streetside building that was a residence dating back to the early 20th century before it was turned into a swiftlet farmhouse for harvesting the Chinese delicacy of edible bird’s nests.
The Happy 8’s Managing Director, Tan Kai Lek, envisioned fresh potential in the venue, which had been crumbling from age and neglect in Ipoh’s Old Town neighbourhood. His team reinforced the building’s timber floors and carefully chose local hardwood and bamboo furnishing to enhance the character of what is now a welcoming retreat that dishes out wholesome fare ranging from vegetarian pizzas to mango puddings.
“My intention was to create a place that can represent a modern Ipoh while still showcasing the heritage of our city,” says Tan.
Indeed, Ipoh’s residents exhibit substantial pride in the rise of establishments such as STG Tea House Cafe (stgtea.com), nestled in a two-level refurbished residence with magnificent white walls and pillars, rattan chairs and a sprawling courtyard garden that all exude old-world elegance.
Families flock to STG Tea House for brunch amid an ambiance of stately tranquillity. The spacious restaurant’s initials stand for Sabah Tea Garden, a Malaysian plantation; its specialities include salads tossed with tea dust and tea vinaigrette that can be paired with an array of tea-based beverages made with certified organic tea leaves from Borneo.
Another café that operates in a beautiful bungalow is Ben & Lynette (facebook.com/pages/Ben-Lynette/716693001676291), which serves strudels, scones, mushroom pies and lemon pound cakes. The place teems with nostalgic flourishes, including tables constructed out of vintage sewing machines and shelves lined with copies of The Guinness Book of Records dating back to the 1980s.
A few very posh places have also sprung into action, banking on the affluence of some of Ipoh’s more well-heeled visitors. The most lavish option is Garvy’s In The Park (garvys.com/garvys), where customers can indulge in Breton oysters with Champagne sauce au gratin and Burgundy snails with garlic butter sauce.
There’s also Myth (facebook.com/mboutiquehotels), an atmospheric eatery that brims with glittering chandeliers and handcrafted furniture at Ipoh’s spanking-new M Boutique Hotel. The repertoire of Myth’s kitchen includes unagi-topped pizzas and Sicilian-inspired spaghetti with anchovies, broccoli and roasted sunflower seeds.
Thankfully, a fair share of Ipoh’s cafés refuse to coast simply on superficial charm alone, making sure their menu also exceeds expectations.
One of them, Missing Marbles (+605 241 1564), explores Asian recipes with contemporary twists, such as soy-braised lamb ribs coupled with calrose rice and sakura leaves, as well as a luscious dessert of lychee fruit with custard and vanilla ice cream.
Next door, Buku Tiga Lima (+605 242 6188) invites customers to linger beneath a ceiling adorned with quirkily colourful lamp-shades while savouring triumphant temptations such as crepes crowned with the likes of Mars chocolate bar chunks, mascarpone cheese and hibiscus curd.
With at least three or four new cafés blossoming in Ipoh every month, businesses must maintain formidable standards to stay competitive. That’s the mission of places like Something’s Brewing (facebook.com/somethingsbrewingcafe), which claims to have Ipoh’s speediest WiFi connection to complement a menu of cutting-edge concoctions like chicken breast that’s blow-torched to a smoky finish at the customer’s table and served with celery salt and garlic-laced mashed potatoes.
“This is a wonderful time for Ipoh, because we’re really opening up to new possibilities in the food and beverage scene,” says Vincent Ng, one of the founders of Something’s Brewing who returned to Malaysia last year after living in Australia for more than a decade.