Asia Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
On Location: Kuala Lumpur Dining
Malaysia’s capital turns our writer into a culinary convert
The Petronas Towers; a “Four Season” bean dish at Old China Café.

When our Bali-based writer flew to Kuala Lumpur to report on the shopping scene, he had to reconsider his opinion of the city’s restaurants.

In my 15 years based in Southeast Asia, I’d never been a fan of Kuala Lumpur. It’s the smallest and youngest of the region’s major cities, and compared to the others—Bangkok and Jakarta, with their teeming abundance; Singapore, with its stately Confucian repose—KL can seem flavorless. But during my last visit, I belatedly learned that it might well be the best eating town in Asia.

The leading restaurants serve authentic expressions of major world cuisines. At Nero Vivo, in a converted colonial-era bungalow, the Italian cooking ranges from Milanese veal classics to spicy Sicilian seafood (3a Jalan Ceylon; dinner for two, $70*). La Bodega, a smart tapas bar with terra-cotta floors and photographs of Franco–era Spain, has a spectacular wine list (16 Jalan Telawi 2; dinner for two, $90). Cilantro, in the MiCasa Hotel, offers an exquisitely refined expression of Japanese-French cuisine (368-B Jalan Tun Razak; dinner for two, $175). Foie gras with cabbage, anyone?

For all the cosmopolitan sophistication, it’s the regional cooking that fires the taste buds most memorably. The Hakka Restaurant started more than 40 years ago at Sungei Wang Plaza, the funky designer mall. Its present location on Jalan Kia Peng is broad and breezy, with a thrilling view of the Petronas Towers. The city’s Hakka people are descendants of immigrants from China’s Guangdong region, who brought with them a distinctive spicy-sour and delicious style of cooking. Signature dishes include fried tofu with vegetables and Assam fish (6 Jalan Kia Peng; dinner for two, $60).

Nyonya cuisine is a hybrid of Chinese and Malay cookery, also known as Peranakan or Straits Chinese. The most authentic place to sample it is the Old China Café (11 Jalan Balai Polis; dinner for two, $35). Set in a restored guildhall in the heart of Chinatown, it’s decorated with antique furniture and period photographs of Straits-Chinese settlements. The food is rich and satisfying: Start with otak-otak, banana-leaf parcels of savory custard with fish; then move on to a mild, creamy prawn curry with pineapple; or try beef rendang, a dry stew in a complex, spicy sauce with a coconut-milk base. Desserts are divine: Try kuih dadar, dainty green pancakes with grated coconut, fragrant pandan essence and red palm sugar.

Outside the sultan’s palace, Malay cooking doesn’t put on airs; the most authentic food is likely to be cooked in a cart or street stall. But the new Bunga Emas restaurant (Royale Chulan Hotel, 5 Jalan Conlay; dinner for two, $65) is the place for Malay fine dining. The decor reflects sultanic luxury, with carved blond-wood panels, parquet floors and lacy tablecloths. The finest meats and seafood, from lamb shank stew to grilled tiger prawns, are cooked with herbs and spices straight from a country cupboard, and accompanied by delicious sides of Malay vegetables like okra and baby fern shoots. Maybe it’s a good thing that sultans don’t eat at street stalls.

*Prices are given in U.S. dollars and cover a meal for two without drinks, tax or tip.

NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.

Published: July 1, 2010 
Photos: Jupiter Images; Old China Café
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