By Eloise Basuki
Photographed by Leigh Griffiths
Feb 23, 2019
INSIDE THE GLITTERING, mosaic-tiled walls of Bar Trigona, in the heart of the KLCC, head bartender Ashish Sharma hands me a shot. The glass glows with a liquid gold, but this is not whiskey, nor is it rum. It’s raw Malaysian honey scooped from the hives of Trigona bees. “This honey will change your life,” Ashish tells me. My mouth tingles as I take a sip. Far from the saccharine gloop I’ve always known honey to be, this amber liquid is lip-puckeringly sour—like a syrupy, sweetened vinegar. Ashish discovered it at a kelutut (Malay for the stingless Trigona bee species) farm in Negeri Sembilan, a few hours south of Kuala Lumpur, on a quest to load his menu with local ingredients. He was so impressed, he named the bar after it. “The farmers give you a straw to suck the honey directly from the hive,” Ashish says of the runny liquid, pulling out a tub of regular supermarket honey for comparison. The thick mixture has coagulated into a crystalized clump at the bottom of the jar. “They’ll cook to kill the natural fermentation, then they’ll add some coloring, and sugar or molasses to thicken it,” he says. “For most people, what they’ve had their whole life has not been real honey.”
This singular, elixir-like shot of realness is the base of five drinks on Trigona’s menu, including Pollen, a creamy sour, with Applejack, yogurt and kaffir lime; and Nectar, spiked with rum and house-made jasmine and torch-ginger cordial. A passionate, experienced bartender (Ashish earned his stripes at the No. 1 bar on Asia’s 50 Best Bars list, Manhattan in Singapore), hyper-local handpicked ingredients and crafty concoctions all feel familiar in this speakeasy-comeback era, but this is no hidden hipster haunt. Bar Trigona sits on the first floor of the new Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur, joining the trend on changing how we perceive hotel lounges. The much anticipated Four Seasons moved into KL with a bunch of other top-end arrivals last year (Banyan Tree, Pavilion Hotel, W Kuala Lumpur, The RuMa, Alila Bangsar), with more five stars in the pipeline—the 440-room EQ hotel is slated to open next month and a Park Hyatt is aiming for 2020.
In step with the fancy new heights of the city’s luxury stays, KL’s drinking and dining scene has upped its game to match. Here to embark on a gluttonous bar crawl around the city, I find that, like Trigona, many new venues are reinterpreting Malaysian ingredients and regional flavors from a next-gen perspective: encompassing the community, adding soul to their recipes and plating with such creativity and finesse that the city’s F&B industry is finally catching up to Michelin- starred neighbors Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok. This new, edgy identity adds a refreshing point of difference to KL’s worn-out business- and-shopping stereotype, which has never attracted me; I’ve flown into Kuala Lumpur more than 10 times, but never left the airport—each time just transiting. Combine this with last year’s euphoric re-election of 93-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who ceremoniously booted out the corrupt ex-PM, Najib Razak, and heralded a new era in Malaysia, and the capital is enticing new travelers. So this trip, I’m finally leaving the terminal. As the epicenter of this cool wind of change, where reinvention seems to be contagious, Kuala Lumpur is no longer just a stopover city.
If any destination deserves a rebrand, it’s Kuala Lumpur. First off, its name, translating to “muddy confluence,” gravely undersells today’s glitz. The title was first bequeathed by a group of Chinese tin prospectors, who stumbled upon this meeting point of the Klang and Gombak rivers in 1857. The bounty of tin found in the area turned the sleepy village into a boomtown, though a pretty unstable one. Over the next 150 years, the city was overrun by Chinese gangs, burned to the ground during the Malay Civil War, colonized by the British, occupied by Japanese forces during World War II, and ravaged by race riots between the Chinese and Malays in 1969. Although a period of flourishing financial success turned the capital into a business hub, when the stock market crashed in 1997, the economy’s GDP didn’t recover until almost a decade later. Now, as the new Prime Minister weeds out the greed of the former government and aims for a more honest leadership, both the Malaysian economy and the nation’s pride are on the up, boosting the capital’s offerings in tandem.
Kuala Lumpur’s newfound self-confidence is echoing into its modern food and drink, which I find arriving into the city in droves. Ashish recommends barhopping in the stretch from the Four Seasons (sundowners at the W’s Wet Deck, then on to Mr. Chew’s Chino Latino and Bar Shake, run by Japanese bartender Sam Kinugawa) but I’m headed for dinner at nearby Beta KL, where twin brothers Kelvin and Alex Cheah, along with head chef Raymond Tham, have opened a modern Malaysian alternative to the trio’s popular Euro bistro, Skillet@163. “Singapore is famous internationally for its cuisine, and Thai food is known everywhere. Malaysia is famous for our nasi lemak, but we believe there is a lot more to offer people,” Kelvin says.
For his menu, chef Raymond journeys to the lesser known pockets of the country by sorting his dishes by location: “Malaysia is a melting pot of Chinese, Indian and Malay culture, but I didn’t want to create a menu based on race…I thought we should go regional—north, central, south and east.” The offerings rethink traditional dishes, like the “Inverted Karipap,” which turns the familiar Malaysian curry puff inside-out, with the potato filling becoming the casing. Dinner is served in a curtained dining space, dominated by a giant batik-style wall art and an open kitchen that shows the all-Malaysian team (Raymond was a former culinary lecturer at KDU University College, and takes pride in offering local graduates a space to learn). But it’s also worth stopping by during a barhop—the regional cocktail menu is a lot of fun. For the Malaya Milk Punch, corn milk, cardamom bitters, ghee- washed whisky and Pedro Ximinez sherry are stripped of their color and served confusingly clear in a milk carton–shaped glass.
Balancing a smart menu with an equally smart drinks list seems to be a common thread here. On my next night out I follow Ashish’s suggestion of cocktails and dinner (though the sharing brunch looks highly worthy) at Asian-Latin fusion eatery Mr. Chew’s Chino Latino, where I order the signature combo, salmon tacos in a crisp nori shell and a pink peppercorn–spiced G&T served in a Chinese takeaway box, and people-watch through the window above Bukit Bintang. I find more good views, good times and plenty of good food at Troika Sky Dining, which includes fine-dining Cantaloupe, shareable Mexican at Fuego and wood-fired pizzas from Strato among its five outlets on the 23rd floor.
White tablecloths are not completely out of vogue, though. Channeling a polished take on the cuisines from Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka is fine-dining restaurant Nadodi. Elegant in design, but riotous and playful on the palate and in the team’s kitchen antics, Nadodi aims to “disrupt” traditional South Indian cuisine. Led by Chennai-born chefs Johnson Ebenezer and Sricharan Venkatesh, and restaurant manager Kartik Kumar, the trio joke around when talking about their tasting menus that reimagine the food of their childhood (“My grandmother would disown me if she knew,” Sricharan laughs) and the ubiquitous banana- leaf meals and thali found throughout KL. While the aim is molecular, authentic flavor is still the ultimate goal. “Soul is what chefs generally miss when they try to be more artsy, so we don’t go overboard. Achieving the balance is satisfying,” says Sricharan, who has also spent time training under Gaggan.
Disruption turns to reinvention: street-food favorite egg kalakki becomes an egg mousse served in an eggshell; chicken biryani gets compartmentalized in a ceramic globe; and even the palate cleanser surprises—Sri Lankan beetroot curry transforms into a sorbet, sugared glass, pickles and hot-pink dust. Again, creative drinks are not forgotten; acclaimed head mixologist Akshar Chalwadi’s molecular menu blends South-Indian flavors into unexpected, savory cocktails.
One way to track the rise of a city’s cool-factor is by the growth of its speakeasy scene. By that metric, KL is off the charts. The influx began around 2016, when a number of secretive small bars sneaked into hidden spots around town. PS150 is the bar all my local friends say is a must-visit, and it lives up to the hype. I swing by on a Monday night, expecting a low-key evening. But when I enter through the disguised shophouse front in Chinatown, through a dark hallway draped with string beads, the bar is heaving. The drinks list shakes up Malaysian flavors, like the coconut, pandan and curry leaf–flavored Rumble in the Jungle, or the charcoal-infused pisco sour, Lady O.
Other drinkeries worth seeking out are Omakase + Appreciate and Junglebird (both have been named to Asia’s 50 Best Bars list), gin-focused Pahit, and hidden burlesque joint Suzie Wong. But Ashish has told me to beeline to Bangsar bar Coley— after iconic female bartender Ada Coleman—which was named KL’s Bar of the Year for the second time at the 2018 The Bar Awards (Trigona won Best New Bar and Best Hotel Bar). Owner C.K. Kho and his team recently have moved out of the cramped space they shared with a café into a new place of their own: a millennial-pink and Scandi-furnished dream bar that offers pro-poured drinks including Ada Coleman’s classic Hanky Panky and Malay-inspired “koktels” like a whisky and milk tea combo, and a Sarawak rice wine with ginger and lemongrass. It’s worth ordering multiple dishes from the masterful bar menu—think chicken rendang plated as three-hour confit chicken drumstick, pulut espuma, puffed rice, rendang sauce and ka r-lime powder—and calling it dinner.
Coley also plays host to some of Southeast Asia’s best mixologists—Agung Prabowo from Hong Kong bar The Old Man, Sophia Kang and Kelvin Saquilayan from Manhattan in Singapore, and Jatupol “Hamit” Somanee and Kenny Thianthong from Vesper Bangkok have all taken over the bar in the last year. “We are a small industry, so it’s better to work together—the more hands, the stronger we are,” bartender Loco says. Ashish, in turn, has welcomed Coley at Bar Trigona as well as the folks from Junglebird, and has begun to organize foraging trips hosted by regional bar stars—Bangkok’s Asia Today, Native in Singapore—taking small groups to nearby farms. “We want to expand the community even further, and push bartenders to work with local ingredients,” Ashish says.
As the food and drink scene flourishes, a new breed of five-star hotels is moving in at lightning pace, too. KL’s Golden Triangle, the commercial, business and shopping district that takes in the KLCC, Bukit Bintang and Pudu, has long had luxury accommodations available— Mandarin Oriental, Grand Hyatt, JW Marriott, InterContinental, St. Regis and Hilton to name a few. But an influx of newcomers has sparked a battle for the skyline. The 65-floor Four Seasons has staked its spot as the second tallest building after the Petronas Towers; the W rises up just around the corner with 55 floors; The RuMa offers a modern Malaysian retreat to the skies of KLCC; Pavilion Hotel tops the Pavilion shopping center; and EQ will set up within the revamped 52-story Equatorial Plaza tower. From where I’m standing, though, the views from 59-floor Banyan Tree Kuala Lumpur can’t be topped. I spend three days in a Signature Sky Retreat suite gazing into the endless cityscape out the floor-to-ceiling windows by my bed and bathtub, as well as the spa, infinity pool, gym and lobby. From the balcony of its rooftop Vertigo bar—the tallest in KL—on the 59th floor, I watch the sun dip across the Petronas Towers, skewer the piked Menara KL Tower and burst into a tangerine sky across the Klang Valley and the distant Titiwangsa mountain range.
There is an equally special sunset view in Bangsar, too. High above the suburban low-rise housing and banana-leaf stalls in Little India is Alila Bangsar; the eco-focused hotel takes up the top five floors of the 41-story Establishment building. I’ve been looking forward to checking in here not just for the minimalist, spacious rooms, jungle-filled lobby and open-air atrium pool, but also for lunch. Throughout my time talking to chefs in this city, almost all of them have praised Japanese chef Masashi Horiuchi’s French dining space here, the nose-to-tail Entier. It’s as good as promised. The menu pages read like an animal’s dissection: confit coffee ox tongue; crispy honeycomb tripe; slow-cooked oxtail; braised short rib; and Josper-baked bone marrow.
Next door is Alila’s cocktail bar, Pacific Standard, which, like Trigona, reimagines the hotel bar by adding vibrant personality. Fedora-wearing head-bartender Ruben pours from a menu that references vintage Americana (the chili-spiced Morgan’s Mule, or citrusy Tricky Mickey), but when I visit it’s Merdeka Day, Malaysia’s national holiday celebrating independence from the British. A special cocktail has been added, fittingly called A New Era. The patriotic drink unites the taste profiles of sweet, salty, spicy and sour with a mix of gin, palm sugar, lemongrass, calamansi, pineapple, firewater tincture, and a salted rim. The emerging confidence in this new era is everywhere I look, from the scores of Malaysian flags draped on every building this Merdeka Day to the very drink in my hand. For Kuala Lumpur, it’s more than just the sky-rises that are looking up.
The developing F&B scene in Kuala Lumpur’s city center makes it easy to venue- hop. Be sure to make a stop in Bangsar, where the vibe feels a little more bohemian.
Alila Bangsar This modern urban retreat is filled with greenery and natural light; sleek, minimalist rooms overlook Brickfields and Little India. alilahotels.com; doubles from RM391.
Banyan Tree The resort brand’s first outpost in Malaysia is an oasis of calm. The views here are phenomenal, everywhere from their signature spa to the rooftop Vertigo bar. banyantree.com; doubles from RM910.
EQ Set in a multi-use 52-story building on Jalan Sultan Ismail, the newesthoteltothecity offers 440 rooms, a wellness center and a rooftop sky restaurant. equatorial.com; doubles from RM658.
Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur High-end dining, a fully kitted out two-story spa, and elegant rooms with full marble bathrooms make this one of the chicest stays in town. fourseasons.com; doubles from RM893.
Pavilion Hotel Conveniently located above the Pavilion shopping center, this 325-room hotel has an infinity pool and a whisky bar. banyantree.com; doubles from RM498.
The RuMa Celebrating local design and culture, this hotel offers bespoke check-in and checkout, so you can choose how early you arrive and how late you leave, plus butler service and a free minibar. theruma.com; doubles from RM848.
The St. Regis Kuala Lumpur Spacious rooms, an outdoor pool with an LED screen, and Japanese fine-dining by Michelin-starred chef Taiko Saito. marriott.com; doubles from RM882.
W Kuala Lumpur Catch a perfect view of the Petronas Towers from the Wet Deck pool bar, and chill out in the glamorous Away spa, complete with thermal baths, anti-aging facials and detoxifying cocktails. marriott.com; doubles from RM829.
EAT & DRINK
Bar Trigona Inspired by nature, the menu is divided into fruit, leaf and flower, stem and seed, and root cocktails. Be sure to try one of the Trigona honey–based drinks, and ask Ashish about his foraging club. fourseasons.com.
Bar Shake This hidden Japanese-style cocktail bar brings sophistication to KL’s barscene—try the famous truffle martini. fb.com/barshakekl.
Beta KL From the guys behind European favorite Skillet@360, Beta KL champions regional Malaysian flavors and offers some of the city’s most logic-defying drinks. fb.com/betakualalumpur.
Coley Pop into their intimate and Instagram- worthy spot in Bangsar for award-winning cocktails and Malaysian- style “koktels,” and leave room for some of their tasty, inspired small plates. fb/longlivecoley.
Entier One of Alila’s best dining spaces, Chef Masashi Horiuchi offers a nose-to-tail French menu with bold flavors and playful plating. entierfrenchdining.com; mains from RM117.
Junglebird This tropical-themed bar in Damansara Heights claimed a spot on the 2018 Asia’s 50 Best Bar list and is famous for their growing collection of rum. fb/junglebirdkl.
Mr. Chew’s Chino Latino Located in a loft-style space in Bukit Bintang, Mr. Chew’s offers a lengthy list of fusion mains and small plates, plus a six-course dessert menu. mr-chew.com; mains from RM75.
Omakase + Appreciate If you manage to find this hidden speakeasy, let the bartenders whip you up a bespoke cocktail, “leave it to you” omakase-style. fb/omakaseappreciate.
Pacific Standard Alila’s bar blends vintage Americana design with classic cocktails and sprawling views of Bangsar. pstbar.com.
Pahit In a rustic 1920s house, this gin-focused bar is also the brainchild of Coley’s C.K. Kho, and famous for its creative G&T menu. fb/barpahit.
PS150 Concealed behind a tiny storefront in Chinatown, PS150 pours experimental cocktails with Southeast Asian flavor. Try to nab a seat in the intimate bead-draped booths. ps150.my.
Pulp by Papa Palheta Housed within an old printing factory that rents redundant work-sheds to modern eateries, this Singapore café serves Australian-standard coffee and indulgent breakfasts. fb.com/pulpbypapapalheta; mains from RM20.
Suzie Wong Make your way to a door beside a noodle stall off Jalan Raja Chulan to discover this opulent cocktail-and- cabaret bar named after the fictionalized Hong Kong concubine. fb.com/suziewongasia.
Nadodi Named for the Tamil and Malayalam word for “nomad,” Nadodi offers an unconventional take on South-Indian fare. nadodikl.com; tasting menu from RM360.
Troika Sky Dining Take in the views from five different outlets within this dining complex in the sky: sizzling Mexican at Fuego; produce-driven fine-dining at Cantaloupe; quirky cocktails at Coppersmith; wood-fired pizza at Strato; and French wine at Claret. troikaskydining.com