A taste of Lanka: rice and curry

Rice and curry is the bedrock of Sri Lankan food culture. It’s a daily staple, the distribution and consumption of which defines the country’s streetscapes. Vendors stand behind makeshift tables topped with neat stacks of brick-like packets of tightly wrapped food, each with a defining “C” (Chicken), “F” (Fish), or “V” (Vegetarian) scrawled on top. Eaters sit hunched over sprawling, open packets. Handfuls of curry-soaked rice are shovelled into expectant mouths, the sheer volume of spicy starch seeming incongruous with the lithe bodies into which it is dispatched. Some packets are used as offerings at temples or shrines, whilst leftovers provide a source of welcome forage for crows and dogs. Rice and curry is, without doubt, the fuel that keeps Sri Lanka ticking day in, day out.

Presenting rice and curry in packet form produces a sort of synergy that is also reflected in the way it is eaten – with the (right) hand. Colours and flavours are tightly fused together, bound by paper or fingers that hold a spectrum of taste sensations; from the stomach-swelling comfort of starch to the firecracker bite of chilli, the smooth suppleness of dhal to the crunchy complexity of curried vegetables. It’s one of the most complete and sensuous forms of food and eating there is; a microcosm of Sri Lankan society and culture, unchanged for generations.

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Rice and curry: unopened

Bought on the street, rice and curry comes in a double-wrapped parcel costing LKR 100-150 (roughly SGD 1.00-1.50). Encasing it is an inner-layer of cling film and an outer layer of (news)paper. The contents remain private, like a well-wrapped gift, until opened. Indeed, one of the joys of such a meal is that you never quite know what you’re going to get. Two things are for sure – rice and dhal – but everything else is a wildcard. What vegetables? What colours? What spices? How viscose the curry? How spicy? Will I like it? Can my stomach take it? The enigma of anticipation is an intoxicating thing; the excitement of uncertainty that can make or break your lunch and, quite possibly, your day as well.

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Rice and curry: opened

Once opened the packet versions don’t provide much visual enticement (see above), as the tight encasing and sealing of ingredients causes them to fuse into one. After a bit of prodding and scraping, however, it can look as good as if served straight from the kitchen. Well, nearly.

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Coconuts: the cornerstone of Lankan curry

As with everything edible in Sri Lanka, the ingredients used to make the curry are almost guaranteed to be fresh and unprocessed. There is minimal tampering during the journey from soil to cooking pot. This is a defining feature of Sri Lankan food: wholesome and natural flavours, largely derived from a strong coconut base. Such a base is as distinctive as it is enhancing, and for me is what sets Sri Lankan cuisine apart from its Indian cousins. The sweetness of the coconut moderates the spiciness of chilli, helping to generate a broader and more complex spectrum of flavours and taste sensations. It’s unique and delicious; there is nothing else quite like it.

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Green Park Restaurant @ Kandy

If the packet format isn’t quite your style, then rice and curry can also be bought from most low- and mid-range restaurants (or “hotels” as they are called). You will find the curries lined up in stainless steel troughs, steaming in their freshly-cooked glory, and radiant with colour and vitality. One place that I visited (twice) during my last trip to Lanka was the Green Park Restaurant in Kandy. Being part of the Green Park culinary empire means that the standards of both food and service are high. The manager was engaging and happily answered my obscure questions about ingredients, flavours, and dhal. He even gave me a second serving of the latter (FOC), probably just to shut me up.

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Rice and curry: restaurant-style

The vegetarian rice and curry (LKR 250) at Green Park costs double what you would pay for it on the street, but it’s worth it. (Besides, the street vendors typically cater to the lunchtime crowds; it’s difficult to buy at night from anywhere but a restaurant/hotel). The plate pictured above contained one of the creamiest, most coconut-sweetened dhals that I have ever eaten. It was made with large and robust lentils that added deliciously nutty flavours and textures to the sweet spiciness of the coconut and chilli. Also included was a squash curry with a strong and sour (tamarind-induced) flavour, another coconut-sweetened potato and runner bean curry, and sambal. The latter was so authentic it contained a few shards of coconut husk, which lent a rustic credibility to the meal.

Rice and curry. It’s honest, unpretentious, and one of the most satisfyingly sensual eating experiences there is. Mother earth would be a far less interesting planet without it.

Green Park Restaurant
138 Colombo Street, Pilimathalawa, Kandy
+94 081 2225544
greenpark@sltnet.lk
Website
Facebook
Open daily

Lunch @ Kinki

As a vegetarian in Singapore, there are few things that I look forward to more than lunch at Kinki. More so when I go with my partner, who happens to be from Japan, and who also happens to be vegetarian. It’s times like these that I feel that the planets are aligned and that the gods are smiling benevolently down upon us. Life does, in other words, feel perfectly complete. And, for that matter, completely perfect as well.

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Kinki @ Customs House

Simply put, Kinki serves some of the best Japanese food in Singapore. Japanese food is notoriously vegephobic, and your stomach will only propel you there for one glorious reason: the tofu steak with seasonal vegetables. There’s nothing else worth considering, let alone eating. It makes the luxury of choice seem like nothing more than a puerile distraction from the righteous path. Whilst your sashimi-addicted friends may hunch fish-eyed over the menu, you can sit back, flick your wrist, roll your eyes, and state with a cool indifference the two most blindingly obvious words ever to have reverberated around Customs House: “TOFU STEAK”. It never fails to deliver, and stands alone as one of the most salivatingly good vegetarian set lunches in Singapore. I kid you not.

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Hard surfaces, big echoes, bad acoustics

Flattery aside, the decor is a little worn and the acoustics are reminiscent of your prototypical Indian restaurant. That is, bad. They are not helped by the abundance of hard surfaces and fact that it’s usually full of patrons that happen to like the sound of their own voices, thus amplifying them for all to hear. A romantic little getaway Kinki is not. But if you can put up with the clamorous and slightly claustrophobic atmosphere, then you will be in for a gustatory treat of Goliathan proportions.

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Tofu steak with seasonal vegetables set lunch

After a hyperbolic preamble like that, what more is there to say? Oh yes, the deets. The tofu steak with seasonal vegetables set lunch (SGD 20.00) comes with a slab of glazed tofu that is smothered with a buttery soy and mirin sauce and the aforementioned “seasonal vegetables” (they claim seasonal, but the veggies don’t change…) of babycorn, asparagus, mushroom, courgette, pumpkin, and potato. Also plonked on the tray is a green leaf salad with cherry tomatoes and a wonderfully sour nori vinaigrette, two wedges of pickled tomato, some pickles, rice, and mochi (today’s was sakura-flavoured, although it’s usually black sesame).

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Tofu steak with seasonal vegetables

Kinki’s tofu steak is actually the dish that converted me from tofuphobe to -phile; a complete U-turn that took everyone by surprise, not least myself. The crunchy outer glaze yields to a mild and creamy slab of tofu, which is given a smooth richness by the buttery soy sauce that is drizzled over the top and sides. Every mouthful is a juxtaposition of smooth crunchiness and mild tanginess; a balance of textures and flavours that elevates vegetarian eating to a new level of sophistication. Hontoni.

A trip to Kinki is undoubtedly pricey (even a cup of sencha will set you back SGD 5.00), but a treat that is worth saving up for. It’s noisy and brash, but if you can tolerate the suits and the egos, then it’s definitely worth a visit. I can’t wait until next time.

Kinki
#02-02 Customs House, 70 Collyer Quay
6533 3471
enquiry@kinki.com.sg
Website
Facebook
Open 12:00-15:00 & 18:00-23:00 Monday-Friday; 18:00-23:00 Saturday; CLOSED Sunday

Barefoot Garden Cafe @ Galle Road

As delicious as Sri Lankan food is, every once in a while even the most hardened curryphile needs some respite. When such a need comes knocking, there are few better places to address it than at the Barefoot Garden Cafe in Colombo. A sanctuary of meditative calm nestled between the Indian Ocean and the commercial fervour of the Galle Road, the Barefoot Garden Cafe nourishes the soul as much as it does the body. With a Bawa-esque design aesthetic that infuses the natural with the man-made and the man-made with the natural, sitting in the BGC provides as good an introduction as any to the languid joys of tropical modernism. And if that wasn’t enough, it just so happens to serve up some wonderfully tasty Western nosh as well. I know what you’re thinking: bliss.

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Barefoot Garden Cafe @ Galle Road

The BGC is housed within a large courtyard dotted with frangipanis and palm trees. It can be reached by walking through Barefoot, the textile-cum-handicraft store that is the darling of female residents of and visitors to Sri Lanka. It attracts some of the most interesting-looking and well-to-do people in Colombo: tousle-haired, cigarette-smoking Sri Lankan and expatriate families – those that seem to glow from a bohemian sense of wellbeing that stems from being completely at ease with themselves and their surroundings (most noted in their remarkably well-behaved children). A fistful of tourists and travellers complete the picture, hogging the lounge chairs with their bloated, burnt, garishly-attired (and visibly tattooed) bodies, and quaffing beer as only a Westerner abroad knows how. A melange of popular, prandial, imperfections.

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Pesto and roasted vegetable sandwich

We both opted for the pesto and roasted vegetable sandwich on cheese bread (LKR 500). It was as much a feast for the eyes as it was the palate, as the wonderfully crisp rocket, red pepper and cucumber salad radiated colour and freshness, and was generously doused with a punchy mustard vinaigrette. The pesto in the sandwich provided an smooth and aromatic pungency that brought the flavours of the roasted courgettes, bell peppers, aubergines, and carrots to life, whilst the crisp saltiness of the cheese bread provided texture and bite. It was small, simple, and bursting with zingy flavours. Very nice.

All in all, the Barefoot Garden Cafe neatly encapsulates the magic of Sri Lanka. Everything, from the architecture to the patrons to the flavours, is natural and unhurried. It’s the kind of place where, if you spend long enough in Colombo, you will find yourself returning to again, and again, and again.

Barefoot Garden Cafe
704 Galle Road, Colombo 3
+94 11 2589305
cafe@barefoot.lk
Website
Facebook
Open 10:00-19:00 Monday-Sunday; 11:00-17:00 Sunday & Poya Days

See also:
Nazreen Sansoni’s reviews

Dessert @ Cocotte

Cocotte is a well put-together sort of place; a very Singaporean sort of place. It’s one that tries to be more French than France itself (or more France than French? Interesting reversal…), and reflects that curiously Singaporean practice of buying atmosphere rather than creating it. Expensive WMF cutlery is housed in equally expensive Le Creuset-stamped containers; the walls are adorned with Rue de la XYZ  street signs and antiquated food ads; the air vibrates with the tribal bass of circuitous house music; the seats are carefully mismatched pastel shades, the tables wooden and heavily varnished. When we visited it was populated by groups of Singaporean students and yuppies, all sharing entrées and shouting to be heard above the music. It was, in a word, contrived.

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Cocotte @ Dickson Road

Being a vegetarian in Cocotte is not the most exciting of propositions. Our options are limited to salad, dessert or cheese. Or all three. Dessert seemed like the most viable option, not least because all the sweet stuff was sensibly dumped on a standalone dessert and pastry counter – a sure sign that they take their sugar and fat seriously. More to the point, we had already eaten.

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Chocolate mousse

According to the menu, the chocolate mousse (SGD 7.00) is 72% cocoa. Whether it is or not could be a matter of endless debate; all I know is that the serving was large, too large for a dessert of such richness. The bitterness of 72% quickly turned into the sweat-inducing sourness of desperately trying to finish something that is pretty much unfinishable (we resorted to ordering coffee to try and propel us through/it down… Didn’t work). Such a struggle was not helped by the fact that it was more chocolate torte (or the filling thereof) than chocolate mousse. There was none of the whimsical lightness of a mousse, the sort that feels delicate, light, and fluffy on the tongue. No, this was as sombre and ungainly as a sumo wrestler in stilettos. With more than half of the (plastic) tub to go, the joy of eating had degenerated into something that befits the word “cloying”.

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Chocolate, peanut butter, and banana cake

I was somewhat taken by the rather voluminous chocolate, peanut butter, and banana cake (SGD 9.00), also sniggeringly referred to as “The Fat Elvis”. I have no idea why. This slice certainly gave the plate supporting it a good workout – three layers of (dry, borderline stale at the outer edge) sponge and three layers of banana (flavoured jam?) and peanut butter filling sat under a thick chocolate frosting. The frosting led the flavour charge, all but annihilating the sweetness of the banana and the saltiness of the peanut b. It would have worked much better as either chocolate and banana or chocolate and peanut butter, but not all three. What could have been a cinch for Elvis, was a struggle for me to finish. And that’s saying something.

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Death by chocolate

I found Cocotte to be loud and imitative, in both ambience and flavours. The desserts we tried delivered a sucker punch of chocolatey sweetness, inducing more sweat than they did satisfaction. This annoyed me slightly, as it seemed like the owners had prioritised the furnishings over the flavours. With the menu being a void for vegetarians, I can only wonder what the savoury stuff tastes like.

Cocotte
2 Dickson Road (located inside the Wanderlust Hotel)
6298 1188
info@restaurantcocotte.com
Website
Facebook
Open 12:00-14:00 & 18:00-22:00 Monday & Wednesday-Friday; 12:00-17:00 & 18:00-22:00 Saturday-Sunday; CLOSED Tuesday

See also:
Ladyironchef’s review
Daniel Food Diary’s review
Seth Lui’s review

Nong Khai Beer House @ Golden Mile Complex

One of life’s little ironies is that the cuisines of some majority-Buddhist countries can also be the least vegetarian friendly. Thai food is a case in point, as most dishes centre around pork, chicken, or seafood (or seafood-derived stock/sauce). Frustrating. More so because Thai food has a delicious, aromatic edginess that is unparalleled amongst other Asian cuisines. The blanketing, medicinal comfort of lemongrass and coconut milk; the uplifting freshness of coriander, lime, and basil; the dangerous volatility of red and green chilli; the perfumed delicateness of jasmine rice… It’s a beautiful, invigorating balance of flavours that makes the effort needed to order a vegetarian Thai meal almost always a battle worth fighting.

It’s this mindset that brings me back time and again to the Golden Mile Complex, Singapore’s “Little Thailand”. As much known for its girly bars, pulsating music, and coach services North as it is its food, Golden Mile is usually an adequate imitation of the real thing. Sort of.

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Nong Khai Beer House

Nong Khai Beer House, located on the ground floor of Golden Mile, ambushes prospective patrons with something of a locational pincer movement. It’s difficult to overlook as it occupies two premises, each facing the other on either side of the busy atrium. It’s open and noisy and full of tables of working girls getting their fill of chicken feet before clocking in. I have been here a few times before, and so have a feel for how far one can push the limits of vegefication (important given that nothing on the menu is vegetarian at first sight).

Indeed, the servers are usually quite friendly and accommodating to our requests. But not so this time. Our waitress – a ghoulishly made-up Thai woman – did an excellent job of making us feel as unwelcome as possible the moment we sat down (“No vegetariaaaaan! No vegetariaaaan!”). She soured the experience from the get-go, and provided a premonition of the bilge we were about to be served.

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Vegetarian green curry

The green curry (SGD 12.00) is a go-to order when visiting NK, as they can easily rustle up a vegetarian version, which is usually quite tasty. Not so this time. Our bowl hosted a watery concoction of mangy-looking runner beans, basil leaves, and baby eggplants. Such frugality of presentation carried through to the flavours – or flavour – which was searingly-hot chilli. So hot it not only numbed the mouth, but thickened and scratched the throat as well. No kaffir lime, lemongrass, coconut milk, or galangal; just fire. A good green curry should be smooth and aromatic, but with an unmistakeable edge. This was nothing but edge, seasoned with spite.

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Vegetarian phad thai

The phad thai (SGD 9.00) is another regular order of ours, and is usually done quite well. Again, not so this time. This turned out to be little more than greasy fried noodles, seasoned with tamarind for colour and a hint of sourness, some egg, and beansprouts. And that was it. No lime, no peanut, not even a sprinkling of sugar to deceive the palate into thinking that the meal was cooked with at least some consideration for the consumer. Just rubbery noodles that tasted borderline rancid. This was an insult to Thai grub, and cemented our decision to not come back here again.

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Mind over matter

Having visited this place a few times, I know that we caught Nong Khai on a bad day. But still, the insolence of the waitress, the flagrant economising of both dishes, and the overarching sense of hostility has converted me from net promoter to passionate detractor. Thank god for Tiger beer, without which the food would have been inedible.

Nong Khai Beer House
#01-73-74 Golden Mile Complex, 5001 Beach Road
9188 7221
Open daily

See also:
The Travelling Hungryboy’s review
Wild Child Urban City’s review

Dinner @ The Hill Club

There are few places that appeal to the British imagination as much as those that offer a combination of imposing architectural gravitas, antiquated (and invariably stuffy) customs, a strong (almost overbearing) sense of the past, and the social exclusivity of a private members club. Such places may be a bit like a public school for adults, but they are also one that most have only dreamt of being part of. Situated within Nuwara Eliya – still affectionately (and non-ironically) referred to as “Little England” – The Hill Club is one of Sri Lanka’s most prominent quenchers of such a distinctly British thirst.

The Club is located along the pine-lined Grand Hotel Road. It’s flanked on one side by The Grand Hotel, on another by Queen’s Cottage (official country residence of el Presidente, Mahinda Rajapakse), and on another by the Nuwara Eliya Golf Club. And if that wasn’t enough, it is set away from the road, amongst its scrupulously maintained private gardens. To say the setting is picturesque is an understatement.

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The Hill Club

Established as a club for British males in 1876, The Hill Club has evolved into one of the country’s most exclusive memberships. It is primarily patronised by a Colombo-based Sri Lankan elite, but a steady trickle of tourist traffic helps to make up the numbers. Visitors can acquire a temporary membership at a cost of LKR 100 per day (about SGD 1.00 – fair), for which they can use the Club’s facilities. This extends to the dining and reading rooms, bars, and tennis courts. Accommodation is also available for those who want the fully immersive experience. We settled for dinner.

Greeting us at the entrance was no less than the Club dog. That’s right, the Club dog. We named him William. Proud and well-trained, he grumbled not about the cold, nor about us entering his turf unannounced. He didn’t even bat an eyelid when I tickled his tummy and called him a dachshund. Now that’s not the sort of restraint you see on a day-by-day basis. Impressive.

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The guarded entrance

And here he is in close-up. A picture of stoicism.

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William

The Club famously offers a five course set dinner for USD 24.00, but there is also an a la carte menu that includes a small selection of vegetarian dishes. The dress code is notoriously strict, and a source of great hilarity amongst temporary members. Blokes must wear a jacket and tie and, as most visitors to Lanka neglect to bring such formal accoutrements with them, there is a wardrobe of “extras” that visiting menfolk can borrow (FOC). The Club tie was, I admit, rather tasteful, but the jacket was a horrendously oversized and generally quite ridiculous tweed affair (although the best of a bad bunch, I might add).

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Logo, tableware, branding, nice

The dining room itself is magnificently grand. Really, I couldn’t help but be impressed by such good taste and fidelity to old-school British style. At one end of the dining room are sofas and an open log fire – a perfect setting to escape the cold of the hills, and to chow down on some delightfully dubious grub. The music deserves a special mention – what started with the gentle tinkling of classical piano morphed seamlessly into a time-warped medley of 90s pop. I was, unfortunately, too busy being on my best behaviour to take heed of Boyzone’s pleas for me to love them for a reason, and for that reason to be love. Indeed, combined with the large table of velour-clad mainland Chinese tourists sitting adjacent to us, the music only added to the Club’s misplaced and irreverent charm. Goes without saying that I felt right at home.

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Due of toast parisienne

As a starter, we had the duo of toast parisienne (LKR 500), which basically consisted of creamy mushrooms on toast, accompanied by a side salad. The sauce was promised to be some sort of creamy white wine affair, and was a good – if canned – imitation that was strongly accented with cheese and salt. Or maybe just salt. That said, taste was very much a secondary consideration as the biggest excitement was provided by the boomerang-shaped piece of toast (charred along one edge) sticking out of the plate. Now if that’s not a sign of culinary flair, I’m not quite sure what is.

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Tomato au gratin

One of the mains we tried was the tomato au gratin (LKR 625), which was supposed to be diced veggies stuffed inside two hollowed out tomatoes, and then smothered with hollandaise and parmesan. All this atop a “herb buttered spaghetti”. The stuffed tomatoes were rather wan (evident in spite of the lighting), and the contents (diced courgette, carrot, onion, olive, and parsley) were very watery. The strongest punch came from the garlic-infused tomato sauce that lay under the toms. Eating this with a knife and fork was an exercise in slobbery, sauce-flying-everywhere humiliation, believe me.

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Vegetable lasagne

The other main was the vegetable lasagne (LKR 625), which was fairly self-explanatory, and came with assorted roasted vegetables. The lasagne was drowning under an avalanche of parmesan, the taste of which overpowered just about everything else. The inside was more watery than creamy, although the flavours of celery and courgette should be applauded for putting up a valiant fight against the parmesan. Bravo!

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Zabaglione di port

For desert, we shared a zabaglione di port (LKR 575), which is basically a sort of hot egg custard flavoured with port. It certainly had the light frothiness of egg custard, but with every bite I couldn’t help but think that I was eating butterscotch Angel Delight. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course. If port was actually used (I have my doubts), it added a slightly fermented taste to the dish. Next time I will stick to port alone.

All in all, it’s hard not to be drawn in by the magic of The Hill Club. It’s a lot like the Churchill Room in Singapore’s Tanglin Club, but with worse food and a much, much more convivial and enchanting atmosphere. A trip to Nuwara Eliya wouldn’t be the same without a visit. It’s ace.

The Hill Club
29 Grand Hotel Road, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
+(94) 0522 222 653
hillclub@sltnet.lk
Website
Open daily

See also:
Lonely Planet’s review

Restoran Visalatchi’s Food & Catering @ Jalan Scott

Exiting KL Sentral station and turning left along Jalan Tun Samnbanthan will take you away from the hubbub of Brickfields and towards the warm bosom of Restoran Visalatchi’s. Specialising in the Chettinad cuisine of southern India, it operates a canteen-style service that revolves around banana leaf rice and curry. The tables are long and communal, the acoustics underlaid by the gentle warble of Tamil, and the servers (of which there are dozens) swarm around, dolloping bits of this and that on your leaf. All you have to cope with is the difficult job of sitting and eating.

Restoran Visalatchi’s

It is in this respect that a trip to Restoran Visalatchi’s is a lot like going home. I say this not in suggestion of any culinary similitude (quite the opposite in fact), but because of the maternalistic desire to feed, feed, and feed again. Perhaps it was because I was alone, or a lone white face amongst my dining compadres, but the matronly manageress insisted on heaping my banana leaf with ladle upon ladle of rice and curry. Feelings of hunger soon morphed into that of pleasure which, after the third scoop (of everything), degenerated into the fuzzy bloatedness of a stomach ready to burst. It was only after holding up my hands in defeat that she smiled, and allowed me to pay.

Banana leaf rice set: serving 1

As mentioned, I ate a vegetarian version of the banana leaf rice set (MYR 8.50 for everything in the picture, plus (forced) seconds, and thirds…). The dhal blanketing the rice was beautifully aromatic, and turned out to be one of the best parts of the whole meal. Also delicious was the shredded cabbage and coconut, which contained a sprinkling of fennel seeds that exploded with bittersweet piquantness when chewed. The aloo channa curry was thickly spiced but a little overdone, whilst the deep fried gobi pakora had a pleasing crunch but the flavours were quite muted.

Interestingly, I learnt after leaving Restoran Visalatchi’s (stumbling, clutching my stomach in a state of gastronomic insobriety) that when eating banana leaf rice, it is good etiquette to fold the leaf towards you (along the midrib) to show your appreciation of the meal. Perhaps if I had quickly done this after serving number 2, I could have saved my digestive system a lot of work. Next time.

Forgive the folding (or lack thereof)

If home-style eating is what you’re after in Kuala Lumpur, then Restoran Visalatchi’s is where it can be found. Despite the enforced gluttony, I found the whole experience to be tremendously enjoyable and personable. Indeed, eating banana leaf rice is always something of an exotic novelty for those of us who grew up in more temperate climes, and my stomach and I eagerly await our next fill.

Just don’t forget to fold the leaf.

Restoran Visalatchi’s Food & Catering
18 Jalan Scott, off Jalan Sambathan, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur
+60 3 2274 4755
vishalatchicatering@gmail.com
Open 07:30-22:45 daily

See also:
Venoth’s Culinary Adventures review
Bangsar Babe’s review

Restoran Santa @ Jalan Tun H.S. Lee

For those of you who, like me, are always waiting for Christmas to arrive, I think I may just have a remedy for our impatience. It comes not in the form of gifts or mulled wine or mince pies, but in the rather brilliantly named Restoran Santa in Kuala Lumpur. The name, incidentally, is that of the owner’s father. But the festive parallel rings true, as Restoran Santa has been delivering a bellyful of joy for around about a quart of a century now. In layman’s terms, that equates to 25 marvellous years.

Restoran Santa Chapati House

The key ingredient to Restoran Santa’s success is its single-minded focus on doing one thing right. That one thing is chapati, the unleavened flatbread that is a humble staple to many in this world. It has none of the puffed-up pomposity of naan or the slick oiliness of prata, just disc upon disc of whole wheat goodness. And Restoran Santa knows exactly how to flaunt its crowd-puller (and pleaser), as stacks of chaps’ adorn the front of the counter, greeting everyone that has the good sense to walk in. Inside it’s busy and functional and a little bit dirty, which is exactly how it should be.

Two chapati, two vegetarian curries, and dhal

During my visit to Restoran Santa, I devoured two chapatis, channa masala, a mixed vegetable curry, and some dhal (MYR 4.00). It would appear that having just two chapatis is rather restrained, as orders are often 4-6 per mouth (the largest, apparently, was MYR 500.00 worth of the round stuff…!). The chapatis themselves were the largest and thickest that I have ever eaten and, as expected, managed to get the smokey-sweet balance just about right. I say “about” as one or two bites were borderline floury; a matter of size trumping taste, perhaps? Let’s not go there.

Size was, in all seriousness, a recurrent theme. Both the chickpeas used for the channa masala and the lentils used for the dhal were bloated (and rather impressive) in size. Yet whilst this translated into a deliciously rich savoury flavour for the dhal (which was well-supported by a strong tomato and turmeric base), the channa turned out to be a little insipid. The pride of the plate was, however, the mixed vegetable curry, which provided a culinary aria of nicely balanced flavours. In particular, the natural starchiness of the potato offset the spiciness of the chilli beautifully. Hats off to Santa’s son – or the cooks that work for him – for this most sophisticated of curries.

Lovely plate

All in all, Restoran Santa is one of those places that deserves an award for keeping the Malaysian appetite for chapati sated for so long. Its food is plentiful, and bursts with good and honest value. That said, anywhere that turns the charms of the chapati into a popular and longstanding business is worth a second visit in my book.

Restoran Santa
11 Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, Bukit Ceylon, Kuala Lumpur
+60 19 269 9771
Open 06:30-18:30 Monday-Friday; 06:30-15:00 Saturday; CLOSED Sunday

See also:
Venoth’s Culinary Adventures review
Bored KL Guy’s review
Time Out KL’s review

Simple Life Healthy Vegetarian Restaurant @ Lot 10

Rare it is to find a chain of vegeries (vegetarian-eateries, of course), let alone one that occupies prime locations in a city centre. The Loving Hut comes close, but it still prefers the relative safety of suburbia. Simple Life stands alone for its sheer willingness to stare risk in the face, and occupy expensive retail spaces in Bukit Bintang, KLCC, Mid Valley City, Bangsar, and further afield as well. The total number of outlets stands at 12, all of which are located in and around Kuala Lumpur. It’s a flourishing business; one that is well-conceptualised, well-marketed, and well-executed.

Business savviness aside, what I like most about Simple Life is its fidelity to authentic vegetarian flavours. Heavy sauces and elaborate mock meats are downplayed, whilst the focus is more on the natural and unrefined tastiness of plants. It reminded me a lot of home-style cooking; clean and simple flavours, and an emphasis on the ingredients more than the oil, sugar, and salt used when cooking them.

Simple Life @ Lot 10

The Bukit Bintang branch of Simple Life is located on the second floor of the Lot 10 shopping centre. It’s unmissable, mainly because it occupies not one, but two spaces – a kedai and most of the second floor landing area. Another sign of just how successful – and popular – this brand is. The menu (which can be found on the website) spans a range of Chinese and Western a la carte dishes and some set meals. It also offers nasi lemak; a much sought-after, vegetarian version of the calorific Malaysian staple. Indeed, the menu is so large and enticing that we ended up going twice in two days. How’s that for a recommendation!

Multi-grain rice nasi lemak

The multi-grain rice nasi lemak (MYR 14.90) was what attracted us to Simple Life in the first place. As the name suggests, this dish used multi-grain rice instead of its more traditional, coconut-infused counterpart. A sensible way of cutting calories and boosting the health quotient. The delicious coconuttiness of n. lemak was not, however, lost, as coconut permeated the pumpkin and tempeh curry and, when mixed with the rice, turned out to be a clever and satisfying substitute. The pickled vegetables were sour and crunchy, and the soup was an interesting combination of red bean and lotus root. What surprised me most, however, was the belachan. Whilst I usually find this stuff repulsive (too smelly and overpowering), this one had a strong lemongrass (instead of shrimp) base that added a fragrant sweetness to the chilli. A million miles better than the real thing.

Charcoal sandwich with egg

The charcoal sandwich with egg (MYR 13.90) seemed like a bit of a gimmick, but an effective one at that. The benefits of using charcoal as an ingredient are more to do with presentational uniqueness (black bread, anyone?) than nutrition or flavour. But who am I to complain, as this is the exact reason why I chose this dish. A bit like a club sandwich for vegetarians, the mock ham had a nice saltiness that made it taste a lot like the real deal, and the use of mock pork floss and sesame seeds gave each bite a satisfying crunch and savoury aftertaste. The best part, however, was the enoki tempura, which I thought was as original as it was delicious.

Beancurd stick with basil leaves

On our second visit, we tried the beancurd stick with basil leaves (MYR 18.90), which is one of the set meals on the menu. Whilst the name is both strange and misleading (a “beancurd stick”…?!), this was essentially a Thai-style vegetable curry with a sweet basil sauce. Included in the curry were babycorn, carrot (cut into rather exciting lightning bolts), ginger, snow peas, and shimeji mushrooms. The beancurd itself looked more like a shrivelled pancreas than it did a stick. Not that it mattered, for it provided a nice, if unnecessary supplement to the veggies. A satisfying, but overpriced dish.

Basil leaves pancake

The basil leaves pancake (MYR 14.90) caught my attention from the outset. A unique idea that sounded (and looked) good on paper, mainly because its description was so ambiguous. A pancake? Would it be potato, dough, or radish-based? What does the basil do to the flavour? Why is it so expensive? Is it any good? Unfortunately one bite was all it took to pass judgement; it was rubbery, flavourless, and overpriced. The addition of chopped onion or potato into the batter would have added some much-needed granularity, whilst the use of basil as a garnish or sauce would have added flavour. The lemongrass belachan and the elegant plate were the best things about this dish.

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Simple Life is a thriving place that deserves a visit when in KL. A lot of thought goes into the menu and dishes, both of which are innovative and well-executed. What I like most is that fact that it embraces vegetarianism head-on by focussing on the natural flavours of vegetables rather than more synthetic supplements. If nothing else, it’s proof that vegeries can be as successful, and prolific, as their meatery counterparts!

Simple Life Healthy Vegetarian Restaurant
S12 & S31, 2nd floor, Lot 10 Shopping Centre, 50 Jalan Sultan Ismail, Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur
03 2110 5201
Website
Facebook
Open 11:00-22:00 Tuesday-Sunday; CLOSED Monday

See also:
Everyday Food I Love’s review
Chinese Pink Addict’s review

Tous les Jours @ Jalan Telawi 3

I had never heard of Tous les Jours (“Every Day” en anglais) before visiting Kuala Lumpur, but was amazed to learn how prolific this South Korean chain of French-style bakeries is. Beyond South Korea, it also operates in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the United States. Phew! Something tells me that it won’t be long before Singapore becomes another feather in T les J’s well-plumed cap. The sooner the better, if you’re asking.

Tous les Jours in Bangsar

If I think about this as objectively as possible (which isn’t saying much), then there are probably two things about T les J that resonate strongly with me. The first is its signature colour – that shade of moss green is as close to my favourite colour as you can probably get. It’s refined and classy and sensible. A (little) bit like me. The second is the selection of baked stuff that it flogs – also rather sensible. Indeed, it’s positively European(-esque) in its choice of flavour combos and fondant-viennoiserie pairings. Touches like these are comforting; they make me feel like i’m in safe hands.

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One word: sensible

The Bangsar outlet of T les J occupies a large corner plot with a baguette-stuffed bicycle outside. I’m assured the baguettes were fake, but they looked pretty damn real to me. Inside is a veritable gingerbread house of doughy treats, all of which appealed to the eye. Most appealing (and appeasing, I might add), however, was the large centre-table that consisted of croissants, almond croissants, pains au chocolat, pains aux raisins, and Danish pastries. That’s right: the sensible stuff. The wildcards (namely doughnuts and the like) were relegated to the outer displays, where they belong. As I said, safe hands.

Pain au Chocolat

The Pain au Chocolat (MYR 3.90) was pleasingly large, assuredly dense, and had a handsomely bronzed outer shell. A bit like me in another 10 years or so, perhaps. The chocolate filling retained its moisture nicely, but the overall pain lacked the distinctly buttery flavour that makes a good pain au c. so addictive. That said, a glance at the inner workings of this thing revealed umpteen layers of dough, which, in the world of viennoiseries, is nothing but good. It would undoubtedly have been nicer fresh, or even just warmed up. But then again, it was a busy day, and I went at a busy time.

Hazelnut Danish

The Hazelnut Danish (MYR 4.50) sat underneath a delightful coffee-flavoured fondant; an excellent example of a sensible flavour combo. Nothing fancy or innovative, just time-tested quality. A pleasing size, but a little dry and cold. The lack of heat caused the flavours to be muted, although that did little to stop my imagination running wild with the thought of just how good it could have been.

Cream Soboro

The Cream Soboro (MYR 3.80) can be classified as a “wildcard”, but there’s nothing wrong with that (have I just contradicted myself?). To be fair, I plonked this on my tray more in the spirit of respectful patronage than anything else (given that soboro buns are, after all, quintessentially Korean). Complete with a cream and custard filling (good start) and a bo lo bao-esque crumbly top (go on…), this thing looked great on paper. But again, same story. It was dry and the flavours were lurking somewhere not very noticeable. Heat + baked stuff = flavour-full. Take note.

Overall, Tous les Jours is a pleasingly good Asian-imitation-French bakery. Its fidelity to baking traditions is what sets it apart from some of the other Asian baking franchises. When it comes to Singapore, my arms (and wallet) will be open.

Tous les Jours @ Bangsar
39-41 Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar Baru, Kuala Lumpur
+603 2201 3526
Website
Facebook
Open 07:00-00:00 Sunday-Thursday; 07:00-01:00 Friday-Saturday

See also:
Eat Drink KL’s review
Food & Frame’s review