This has been a banner year for a contemporary generation of Malaysian restaurateurs and chefs stepping out into the spotlight to showcase their skills at fresh-faced venues. Featuring food that brims with character, here are 10 new dining destinations that could usher in an exciting era of eating out in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur and in neighbouring Selangor state.
Ember Modern Bistro
Every evening, Ember pulses with the throbbing heartbeat of a thriving restaurant, as chef-founder Gary Anwar and his culinary crew illustrate their knife work and saucing chops in the open kitchen. Serving KL’s suburban neighbourhood of Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Ember marks the culmination of a decade that Anwar spent cultivating his craft in Malaysia and Singapore; his progressive menu hopscotches beyond borders from its springboard in Asia – cold noodles are jazzed up with duck confit and four-citrus ponzu; free-range fried chicken is brightened with Malaysian palm sugar and the Japanese togarashi spice blend; chickpea fritters are made extra-nuanced with smoked yoghurt, honey and traditional local salad leaves. End your Ember experience with a granita like no other, fragrantly and flavourfully weaving together elderflower, longan fruit and torch ginger flower cream.
Gooddam strives to be one of greater Kuala Lumpur’s great Italian restaurants, punctuated by the pastas of Piedmont and the pastries of Abruzzo, the salami of Veneto and the stews of Tuscany, notably from a Malaysian perspective. Following a culinary training stint near Parma and a subsequent internship on the shores of Lake Maggiore, chef Daniel Yap returned to Malaysia and partnered with a kindred spirit, Miki Lie, on pop-up kitchens before spearheading this sparkling venue – Gooddam’s highlights infuse Italian inspirations with Asian ingredients, including beef tartare with smoked mackerel flakes and fermented beancurd aioli with black pulut (glutinous rice) crackers, or espresso ice cream with Grappa pear paste and local mushroom tuile.
The trio of Keith Wong, Jean Ng and Jonathan Teh – who collectively have more than three decades of experience in running eateries, locally and abroad – have collaborated in a distinctive bungalow space filled with hard-wood and rattan furnishing (handmade by Balinese carpenters and craftspeople), plus plenty of leafy plants for a tropical-oasis charm in KL’s city centre. The menu pays homage to memories of cherished meals – the Gohma Mee Hun Kueh is the recipe of Ng’s grandmother, exhibiting hand-pulled duck egg noodles with a luscious bite, buoyed by bok choy, minced chicken, slow-cooked egg and mushrooms. We also love the Laksa Pesto Pasta, comprising fettuccine in vivacious laksa paste (the herbs are harvested from Wong’s family orchard of organic produce), bolstered by the brininess of clams and calamari for land-meets-sea sumptuousness.
On sunny weekend afternoons, Nourish feels like the happiest place in KL’s suburb of Damansara Heights: The brunch crowd feasts on everything from corn bread to crispy falafels to buckwheat pancakes, while pecan pies and egg tarts vibrantly line the counter. Nourish lives up to its name by conscientiously embracing produce such as organic eggs, pasture-fed beef, and fresh vegetables and herbs, with cakes that shun gluten and refined sugar – the mud cake showcases Nourish’s own-made Nutella, while the orange polenta cake is sprightly with a gentle, graceful zest.
Playte brings enticing elements to the table, propelled by the talents of Brendon Chen, Kae Huey and Sharina Aidid, who first met while studying in Le Cordon Bleu six years ago. Their imaginative use of regional produce, from belimbing to bamboo shoots, Bario rice to Vadouvan spices, results in recipes of ambition and adventure. A two-textured duet of chicken leg and breast, for example, is first poached, then finished off in the pan, enriched with the butteriness of Shaoxing wine-infused clam beurre blanc, completed with braised daikon, deep-fried kailan and parsley oil. Equally admirable is their conviction to furnish these efforts in a casual space at accessible prices.
Rare: The Food Company
Rare casts its net both near and far for prized produce, spanning freshwater tilapia from a fish farm in Malaysia’s eastern Pahang state to red Carabinero prawns caught off coastal Spain, meticulous in sourcing pesticide-free Malaysian vegetables, Japanese salts and Cambodian peppers. The verdant surroundings of a Damansara Perdana residential enclave offer a unique setting for Chef Bryan Tan’s repertoire, fine-tuned via cutting-edge Japanese inflections, with binchotan-grilled tebasaki (chicken wings) sharing the spotlight with a carpaccio of Aomori tomatoes, nectarous with wasabi leaf tsukemono. Beef is also a cornerstone of the kitchen, aged for between 21 and 30 days for a potent depth of flavour.
The greenery that graces Rata’s walls reflects its respect for honest Malaysian produce: Taking its name from the town of Tanah Rata, RATA relies heavily on vegetables nurtured in Cameron Highlands to round out recipes with roots from throughout this region. Chef Vicneswara Thenamirtham’s pizzas have become a crowd favourite in Selangor’s neighbourhood of Subang Jaya, topped with combinations like prawn sambal and sautéed spinach or lamb ragout and mango chutney, but he truly shines in specialities like marinated pomfret, gorgeously grilled and garlanded with four-angled beans, and locally produced paneer cheese with cauliflower and bell peppers.
Sunbather Coffee is run by Malaysian siblings from the northern island of Pangkor, but it basks in inspirations from the Land of the Rising Sun, tackling yoshoku (Japanese interpretations of European and Western fare). Come for warm nourishment like neko-manma ‘cat rice’ bowls, blanketed with smoky chicken cubes, shoyu and bonito flakes, or Big Breakfast platters packed with tamagoyaki, teriyaki chicken meatballs, sausage onigiri and Japanese potatoes; stay for sweet sensations like buttermilk pancakes with black tea-poached prunes, ooey-gooey toasted mochi, kuromitsu sugar syrup-flavoured ice cream and bubu arare tiny crispy rice balls. Shokupan toasts are also irresistible, baked with a yudane milk bread method for the mochimochi effect – firm to the bite, springy-soft to the chew.
Tapestry weaves together the old and the new in KL’s heritage-rich district of Chow Kit, marrying time-honoured Malaysian sarapan (breakfast) staples with the Melbourne brunch. F&B entrepreneur Tan Boon Wy and his team have turned a former parking lot into a playground for the palate, with Tapestry’s Rise & Shine being the opening salvo for a planned series of dining concepts. This has fast become one of KL’s most-photographed cafés, with high ceilings that flutter with overhanging tapestries, setting the stage for cheerful meals charmingly presented on local handmade ceramics. Egg enthusiasts will enjoy the Rise & Shine Eggs Benedict, featuring poached eggs with bubble and squeak, beetroot-cured salmon and bunga kantan (torch ginger flower) hollandaise, and The Hainan, soft-scrambled eggs spiced with coffee powder and served with house-made pumpkin kaya (coconut jam).
Wild horses shouldn’t keep fans of 21st-century Asian fare away from this alluringly atmospheric attraction in KL’s rustic Chinatown. Wildflowers blooms with rambunctiously original recipes that mingle Chinese with Mexican inspirations, Japanese with Thai, Malaysian with French.
Canton comes together with Cancun for pulled duck tacos, braised with five-spice powder, fleshy and full-bodied with a deep, dark umami over wheat tortillas, while Sichuan meets San Luis Potosi for the nachos, swapping the typical dip of cheesy minced beef for sultry chicken mapo tofu. Cocktails also sparkle with unmistakably Asian dynamics: Korean soju for the signature Mugunghwa, Japanese sake for The Last Sumo, and tuak from Malaysia’s Sarawak state for the Spirit of Borneo.
Honourary mentions go out to Zoe Bangsar (profiled in our August issue) and Adu Sugar (featured in our September issue).