We’ve all got those friends — they’re cool, funny, and also understand and accept the fact that you won’t ever be called from your sofa if Border Security Australia is on. But then they try to tell you about an amazing new bakery. They do the greatest baguette this side of the Seine, and the ambiance is straight from the pages of Monocle, they say.
So, you go. The baguette? Pallid, lacking crust, and gave up on life a few hours before you got there. The “ambience”? You recognize the furniture from an IKEA catalogue.
Sigh. It dawns on you that, yes, while your friend is great in so many ways, they also have no taste.
Tunku Khairil Ibrahim is NOT that friend. He will be the first to call out a sub-par pizza oven delivering weak crusts, and he will tell you to your face that your brownies need less flour, and a shot of espresso. His eye for detail, when it comes to F&B, is unparalleled.
Which makes sense: He’s also the man responsible for launching many of your favorite restaurants, from his classic, eponymous Bangsar steakhouse Ril’s, to the Peranakan foods delight that is Shelley Yu’s, to our personal favorite, Cow + Chicken (now, sadly, closed). Some might say that the opening of Ril’s upstairs bar in 2011 trail-blazed a very high standard for Kuala Lumpur’s incredible cocktail scene that we are sipping on.
He’s also the proprietor of the painfully beautiful resort island on Malaysia’s south-east coast, Alang’s Rawa.
He just opened his latest venture: Rawa Lombok, a boutique hotel and accompanying restaurant in Lombok, Indonesia.
You could say he’s qualified to share a review or two.
And so, without further ado, we give you Tunku Khairil’s greatest hits, in no particular order, and as always — save room for dessert.
There are a lot of great places to eat in Malaysia. Where would you say is worth the road trip?
This one is a no brainer for me: Botak Asam Pedas in Johor Baru!! Alongside my death row last meal of a 2-inch thick, medium rare, perfectly marbled, dry aged rib-eye steak, there would have to be a number of dishes from Botak.
The Jenehak (golden snapper) asam pedas (sour and spicy fish stew dish) tops the list. Not as thick and often overpowered by daun kesum (laksa leaf) as many Malay-style asam pedas dishes. This more Chinese version is so perfectly balanced, so umami-ridden, so unbelievably comforting, I have often joked he has sold his soul to the devil to acquire the recipe.
I could mention a number of dishes, but we cannot forget Botak’s ikan senangin goreng (fried fish)! Is it the best fried fish in thew world? It’s definitely a contender.
Crispy fried whole senangin in the lightest smattering of some sort of soy sauce concoction so light it’s almost undetectable. Describing how good it is won’t do it justice, one of those must be eaten to be believed moments. Not going into detail as I already feel I’m rambling, but you must also try the otak otak (fish cake) and the wok fried squid and onion.
Botak Asam Pedas (Kedai Makanan Jadi Baru)
145 Jalan Lumba Kuda, Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Where is the best nasi lemak, and why?
This is a loaded question — one I would be happy to fully answer if I had a Dictaphone that would then be automatically transcribed into text on my laptop.
Do such things exist?
Big city, small town, kampung, breakfast, melayu, late-night, specialist, fried chicken… Too much, no time, sorry.
I will leave you with this: If you’re in Kuala Lumpur, Jason’s supermarket in Bangsar receives a daily delivery of nasi lemak from a Malay pak cik (uncle).
In my opinion, this guy understands what it is to live nasi lemak: Perfectly cooked rice fragrant with pandan leaf and santan (coconut milk), seasoned well. Sambal that has a perfect balance of sweet, spicy, tamarind and belacan. Topped off with boiled egg, kacang (peanuts), ikan bilis (anchovies) and wrapped in the very, very necessary banana leaf.
This purist version of the dish is, in my opinion, the best in the city.
Ground Floor, Bangsar Shopping Centre
285 Jalan Ma’arof, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Where would you go for a KL nightcap, and what drink would you order?
This is a difficult one to answer and not seem to be biased. I would of course head to one of my establishments — Ril’s for an old fashioned, or Shelley Yu’s for a G&T [Editor’s Note: They make their own tonic water].
I’m pretty lazy these days, and tend to stick to the area I live — all my outlets are conveniently located in either Bangsar or Bukit Damanasara.
What’s the best seafood that you’ve had?
I’m a big fan of the Chinese-style seafood you can get all over Malaysia — from kam heong mud crabs to fish simply steamed in soy sauce and ginger. There are so many places that are so good it’s impossible to have a best. I’m also a sucker for Japanese and French or Mediterranean-style seafood.
In KL, I frequent Sushi Hinata for my Japanese fix.
If you’re anywhere along the coast in France, Italy or Greece: Fruit de mer with homemade aioli, salt baked fish with high quality olive oil and lemon or simply grilled octopus and prawns.
I find that seafood from colder waters tends to be sweeter, which I think may be due to higher fat content.
A-0-1 at St Mary Residences
Jalan Tengah (Off Jalan Raja Chulan) Kuala Lumpur
So, dessert — where to get the best slice of cake, and who makes the best kuih?
I like dessert, but I rarely seek it out. My all-time favorite in KL is the salted almond mille feuille (crepe cake) at Feeka on Jalan Mesui, but I think they buy it in from somewhere.
Someone once told me it was from Bowery, but I’m not sure.
Other than that, I recently ate (twice) at Sangsaka in Bali. They had a burnt sugar cake, black rice ice cream and jack fruit dessert that was on a whole different level. Sweet, salty, crunch, soft — the guy is a genius with textures and local flavors. If and when you’re in Bali — it’s a must.