Exploring Kuala Lumpur one Michelin plate at a time

The Malaysian capital has much to offer hungry foodies

Fritz is one of Kuala Lumpur's newest fine-dining destinations helmed by a young, talented and local chef. Photo: Amazonas
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Few cities in Asia can compare with Kuala Lumpur when it comes to eating out. The pulsating street food scene is unparalleled, offering distinctive dishes from its population of Malays, Chinese and Indians, complemented by a growing fine-dining scene that has finally attracted the interest of the prestigious Michelin Guide, after long overlooking Malaysia's capital in favour of Singapore and Bangkok.

“We identified Kuala Lumpur as an emerging gastronomic destination, waiting to be discovered by international gourmets, offering an incredible authenticity as its trump card both in its chefs and local cuisine," Gwendal Poullennec, international director of Michelin Guides, tells me.

"So, unlike Singapore, the KL guide does not emphasise French, Italian, Scandinavian, American chefs, but highlights talented Malaysian chefs, local ingredients and local culinary heritage.”

It's only in its second edition, and yet the 2024 Michelin Guide has already bestowed a coveted two stars to Malaysian chef Darren Teoh’s Dewakan restaurant. And so, that becomes my starting point for a foodie tour of the latest hotspots in Malaysia’s buzzing capital.

An express lift shoots me up to Dewakan’s 46th-floor premises, where I enter a huge open kitchen. Teoh’s brigade are busy preparing the dishes for a 12-course tasting menu. It is an unconventional beginning to an unconventional dining experience as a sous-chef takes each person on a comprehensive tour of the work stations to see everyone in action – from preparing the multi-layered chocolate dessert to pigeons being grilled on charcoal.

We pass mysterious stone jars used for fermenting a garum of sardines, squids and bean curd, and a colourful basket of foraged rainforest ingredients such as jungle garlic, the aroma of which resembles white truffles, and ensabi leaves that taste like wasabi.

My table has a spectacular view over Kuala Lumpur’s famed Twin Towers, matched only by the remarkable dishes coming out of the kitchen – plump crayfish with bamboo shots and pickled wild herbs; delicate venison carpaccio; smoked catfish and marinated radish; and a plump local pigeon, stunningly presented alongside crunchy Bario rice from Borneo.

The non-alcoholic pairings also surprise, from vinegary fruits to a soothing tisane infusing tree bark found by the indigenous Orang Asli people. Teoh describes his cuisine as "modern Malaysian", another world from the classic tastes of traditional local cooking, allowing himself instead to be inspired by rare locavore ingredients to create his original recipes.

Elsewhere, two outstanding new addresses in the city that represent very different dining styles are Yellow Fin Horse and Fritz. Luxembourg chef Christian Bauer has been cooking up a storm at his Troika Sky Dining restaurants for 12 years now, but has just transformed his elite gourmet restaurant, Cantaloupe, into the much funkier, democratic Fritz.

“It is time to move on from long, obligatory tasting menus with the waiter spending five minutes explaining each dish,” he insists. “So I decided to cook simpler dishes, but still using the finest ingredients and modern kitchen techniques.”

At Fritz, I have probably the best fish and chips I have ever eaten, and enjoy revisited classics such as beef Wellington, poulet Grand Mere and a rich bouillabaisse of local fish.

Yellow Fin Horse is altogether a different experience, located in the hip new boutique hotel, Else. Inventive young chef Jun Wong and her team cook in front of diners at an open kitchen, and it is quite a show as they prepare dishes from scratch, open-flame cooking and char-grilling, combined with ingredients they have preserved, cured and fermented.

Diners tend to follow the chef’s menu or order several sharing plates, and Wong is especially creative with seafood dishes such as a subtle ceviche of snapper, cucumber dill and buttermilk, or flame-grilled squid with smoked jungle nut, buah keluak.

The city's futuristic, high-end shopping malls also boast some of its best restaurants. Latest hot spot, The Exchange TRX, has a whole floor devoted to dining outlets, but the one to book is Amazonas, where the lush, tropical decor transports you straight to South America. Talented young local chef Shawn Lazaroo expertly flame-grills chunky cuts of aged beef, accompanied by a tangy salad of Malaysian jungle greens and a tasty guacamole that is theatrically mashed and seasoned at each table in the style of a classic Caesar salad.

Back in the Bukit Bintang centre of town, the swanky Starhill mall is the place to discover Coast by Kayra, which is dedicated to the Indian cuisine from Kerala. Heritage family recipes of owner Meriam Alfonso – such as coconut and green chilli moilee sauce and banana leaf pollichathu – are perfect for the abundant Malaysian seafood chosen by chef Sal Sabeel, including blue crabs, green lobsters, squid and juicy jumbo clams.

The one dish not to miss is the Kerala fish curry, in which fillets of red snapper are slow-cooked with spices, raw mango, fenugreek, tomato and yoghurt.

But the neighbourhood that is undergoing the biggest food revolution right now is Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown.

Walking past the street food stalls along the venerable Jalan Sultan, everywhere I look there are signs announcing "no pork, no lard", "Chinese Muslim halal noodle", "vegan, vegetarian". A large proportion of diners tucking in are Malay and Muslim tourists, enjoying Chinese dishes such as lala noodles, clams cooked in a soothing broth with pickled ginger, dim sum and succulent Hainanese chicken rice.

I finish my gourmet tour of the city with nothing less than a feast in the Four Seasons' sumptuous Yun House, where creative Hong Kong chef Jimmy Wong conjures up delicate, halal dishes such as locally harvested mantis prawn and sliced black truffle, braised grouper on a bed of aubergine and bean curd, and sea cucumber with marrow melon and sun-dried oyster.

As Teoh says: “Food cuts through everything in Malaysia and is the one thing that joins all our different races together.”

Updated: March 05, 2024, 4:01 AM