Charles Dickens’s opening lines in the classic novel A Tale of Two Cities came to mind after we spent the last week sampling a couple of Kuala Lumpur’s most well-known Middle Eastern restaurants. It was indeed the best of times, it was the worst of times: Wisdom came hand in hand with foolishness, and where hope sprung, we also found despair. At one point we had everything on the table, yet we may as well have had nothing at all, in terms of palatability.
Growing up in the ’90s, we ate a lot of falafel sandwiches. They were the avocado toast of our day, kid. We don’t regret it one bit because through them we met our real, true love: Hummus.
Also made of chickpeas, but with the beans blended into a smooth and creamy dip. Our favorite iterations were bolstered by a heavy-handed use of tahini (sesame paste), and weren’t shy on the garlic either. Enough lemon juice to cut the richness, a hint of warmth from a dash of cumin, and a good slick of glassy green olive oil on top. Perfection.
To call us protective of our beloved dip is an understatement — there are several things we won’t tolerate on our plates: Flavorings that stray too far from the original MO (not today, chipotle hummus, not today), graininess (sorry, is there sand in this?), or worse — *shudder* — a watery texture.
It was high-time to go in search of the city’s best hummus through the most obvious channel, a Middle Eastern restaurant. We decided to visit two of the biggest names in town: Al-Amar in Pavilion Shopping Center, and Byblos, in the entertainment area, TREC. At best, we’d have two new go-tos; at worst … well — let’s not spoil the ending.
First up was Al-Amar, a Lebanese restaurant on the quiet top floor of the upscale Pavilion Shopping Center. Mall’s aren’t necessarily our favorite location for fine dining, but in KL you’ll find yourself between a rock and dire space if you were to swear off shopping centers entirely.
Would we like to see the wine menu, our waiter asked? Well… It was Friday. Yes. Yes, we would.
Al-Amar serves the usual suspects of New World and Old World wines, but a dedicated showing of some of the Levant’s best caught our eye: A Lebanese rosé, you say? Is it sweet? Will we be tricked into ordering some kind of moscato abomination?
Our helpful waiter offered a summary: No, it’s dry, and you can taste faint hints of fruit. Sold.
Two glasses, and a frosty bottle appeared within a minute, and the wine was exactly as it described: Dry, rich … were we tasting stone fruits? It didn’t really matter, the Musar Jeune rosé from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley was a winner. Delicious, without venturing into the dangerous rose territory that sometimes tastes like it was made as a wine afterthought.
Bread appeared, and we dabbed it in one of three tiny dips provided. Nice, but we came with the intention of going big, or going home.
Our appetizers appeared: One hummus, the most basic version of the menu, along with one embellished version. A staple dish in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East, Al-Amar’s version certainly looked pleasing to the eye: Creamy, light, yellowish in color from the chickpeas, with bright red dashes of paprika to lighten the mood.
Thicker than anticipated, and without the cumin we like to add to our own version. We were hit immediately by the intense flavor of tahini.
“Oh, I like that,” said our friend.
You don’t think it’s too rich, we posited.
“Not at all,” as he went in for seconds.
A few bites deep, and we were on board — it was different than we’ve made at home, but different is good, and this was somewhere closer to great.
We went in for the second hummus, this one spiked with flavors of parsley, chili, and a juicy fava beans. OH, HELLO: A revelation.
We’ve often shied away from the kind of hummus that tries to distract from the base flavor, but this was different: While we’ve long been adverse to over reliance on lemon to cut the earthiness of the chickpeas, the added hits of herb and spice did the job perfectly without turning it into a citrus bomb. Also, we’re not ones to kick a fava out of bed: The were perfectly cooked, and bolstered the hummus’s texture.
Next on our hit list came the mutabal, a dip of pureed baked eggplant, garlic, lemon, tahini — what you might come to call the usual suspects of Middle Eastern cooking.
Let’s make it clear: This dish is a close runner-up in our hearts, and we are less purist when it comes to the flavor profile. Some versions forgo tahini entirely, relying on the eggplant, garlic, lemon and oil to carry it through. They’re great. Others layer in the sesame paste, turning it into a thick, pale dip. Also great. Pomegranate molasses? Why not?!
Al-Amar’s version tasted as though they had made use of a tad splash of pomegranate syrup, lemon, and sumac, the lemony spice beloved of the Levant. We were down with this, it was also great.
Our dinner date was less enthused over the tang, but together we finished the entire plate.
Next up came the labneh, which is sort of what happens when you decide to strain Greek yogurt even more: Part cream cheese, part yogurt — we can eat it with spoons, drizzled with honey, or with bread at absolutely any time of the day.
Our bowl was spiked with a welcome dose of garlic, and was everything we love: Creamy, garlicky without burning our mouths, and a respite from the tahini fest that is the other dips we ordered.
Now, at this point reader — it’s only fair to tell you that between two people — we could have stopped here. It was enough. Did we mentioned earlier that we were gluttons?
Out came the savory pastries, the falafel, and a Halloumi salad.
Now, it’s time that we add a serious note of appreciation for the hospitality of the staff at Al-Amar. Brace yourselves for this Coconuts KL revelation: We hate lamb, mutton, sheep, goat, or whatever ovine you have on the grill. It tastes like the animal smells, and you will not convince us otherwise.
After expressing this to the waiter, he immediately told us that we could swap out whatever we didn’t like in our mixed platter of savory pastries so that it was tailored to our liking.
Anything, we asked.
Sure. Do you like falafel?
Of course we do!
Ok, how about I do falafel, spinach, cheese, and a meat one for your friend over there that actually likes lamb?
Ah — that would be amazing, and shortly after a delightful plate was brought out with all of our greatest hits.
Cheese pastry was alright — filo and cheese is hard to mess with. Spinach was nicely spiced, with a good filling to crust ratio. We were informed that the lamb pastry was delicious.
The falafel? Perfect. Toothsome. We’re not here to deal in mushy balls: Occasional falafel iterations are made with fava beans that produce a far creamier paste that lose that grainy bite that we love in a good vegetarian ball. On the side was a tahini dip — simple and succinct — sesame paste thinned out with a little water.
Our wild card dish that night was a Halloumi salad, and we could find no fault in how the squeaky cheese salad was executed: Vegetables were fresh, the cheese fried to perfection, and topped with a well-balanced olive oil dressing.
Reader, we should admit that at this point, there was nothing left behind on the table. We had finished it all, including the wine, and we were just about ready to call it a night when the chef sent out some dessert for us, on the house.
Why, we ask?
Well, we certainly seemed to enjoy the meal! In other words, we over-ordered, over-ate, and looked like the kind of folk who probably still had room for more.
Welcome, ice cream baklava!
Honestly, we were full but ate away at this dessert that didn’t fall into the diabetic saccharine pitfalls that so many syrup-soaked bakalava do. The nuts flavor was lightly spiced, sweet but still toasty. Everyone loves ice cream.
All in all — a perfect meal on a relaxed Friday evening. Minus the wine, it set us back about RM200. With the addition of the wine, we went into RM400 territory, but it was absolutely worth it and we’ll be having that rose again soon, you hear?
Be on alert, Al-Amar.
Four days later, we were ready to get back in the pita saddle, and headed over to TREC to visit Byblos, another Lebanese restaurant in the entertainment district.
To the uninitiated, let us explain TREC: Zouk, a once-legendary Malaysian club, moved their location to a plot of land along Jalan Tun Razak, AKA traffic hell, three years ago.
The idea was that the new multi-roomed club would anchor an entire nightlife district of clubs and restaurants not unlike Singapore’s Clarke Quay, but not quite.
Reality bites: Unfortunately situated along one of the city’s congested routes, and under the shadow of the Tun Razak Exchange, it had been a couple of years since we ventured out there.
Wednesday night, 9pm, there was no traffic, but Byblos was completely empty. Our friend was late, and we busied ourselves drinking water that we had to buy, despite our pleas for regular old tap water. We looked at the menu, that we had to ask twice for. It certainly shared a lot of parallels with Al-Amar, with an extensive selection of warm and cold mezze, along with a large selection of grilled meats.
Mentally, we already knew what we were going to order (same as Al-Amar, for consistency), but we entertained our friend’s agency and let him pick out the wildcard: Grilled chicken kebabs.
Did we want shisha, our waiter asked?
No, not tonight. We’re here to eat as much as we can.
After trying to arrange a selection of pastries akin to our arrangement at Al-Amar, there was some confusion in the kitchen: It could not be done.
Oh. Why not?
They’re different, our waiter told us.
Well, yes, but it’s a mixed plate. That’s the nature of order. We are willing to take a smaller portion, if that helps?
No, sorry. You can order everything separately, though.
Right — no, we won’t do that.
A Sophie’s Choice if there ever was one, we picked falafel, and let the other pastries fall by the wayside.
Shortly after, our food came out, along with freshly baked bread: Two hummus, an eggplant dip, labneh and some falafel.
Right — do you want to hear the good news, or bad news first? Good news, you say? Alright — the bread at Byblos is very good.
What else? The hummus was good. Not great, dare we say that it relied a little too heavily on a roasted garlic flavor on the embellished version, but the basic hummus was alright.
The mutabal? Also good — nuttier than the one we had previously, minus the pomegranate tang. We liked it.
However, no amount of technically good execution could make up for what happened when we tucked into the labneh: That dip was well and truly past its sell-by date, and it had now made a house in our mouths.
We gagged, but swallowed.
What just happened? With a flavor profile more akin to sourdough starter, we were utterly confused but perplexed enough to have a second bite. Yes, we’re disgusting but we needed to be certain of what we were having.
Jesus, take the wheel: Our second bite was even more disgusting than the first, except this time we didn’t just taste a world of fermentation and yeast, we also caught tiny little yogurt bubbles on our palate. Yes, reader — our yogurt cheese was fizzing.
Shuddering, we tried a bit of the falafel. Mushy. Mushy like it was made with pureed cooked peas, and not finely ground soaked peas instead. The lightness that one looks for was lost, which is ironic because our labneh was fermented enough at this point to raise bread.
Oh wait, we forgot about the tahini. Moving on from our disappointment over the falafel texture, we dipped a piece into the tahini sauce.
We truly wish we hadn’t. If the labneh was rising, then this tahini had already shape-shifted into something very far from what it originally had been. There was no nuttiness, just the musty flavors of rancid sesame covering our mouths.
At this point, we stopped eating and wanted to leave. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. We had had enough with rotten food for the night.
With that in mind, the small kitchen door swung open and our grilled chicken arrived. Man, oh man, this is not where we want to be.
Our dinner date was a lot braver than us, and unhindered by a double on the rancid plates, he went in for the chicken.
It’s safe — you should try some, he told us.
Nothing like needing to get the green light before you eat what is probably the world’s easiest BBQ crowd-pleaser.
He was right. The chicken was fine, and had we not tried the other dishes, we might have had more than a bite, but we couldn’t. The night was more spoiled than a bowl of tahini at Byblos.
Our waiter came to ask us how the meal had been. By now, the restaurant had filled out with a few tables of revelers. We wanted to tell them to take the mutabal, and leave everything else behind. Never a shy one, we told the gentleman that two of their dishes had gone past their best before dates.
Yes, the tahini and labneh.
That’s how they taste. You don’t like tahini?
Yes, we do. And that’s the point — we like it and we know how it tastes, and this ain’t it.
He smiled, perhaps not understanding the gravity of what had just been served and brought us our bill. RM199 — rotten food and all.
At this point, our hearts were too broken to argue. We settled up, left and told ourselves that at the end of the day, there was only one person we could count on to make the best hummus this side of the Euphrates: Us.
Reader, you’ve heard us natter on about every bit of food on the table under the sun, and now we want to share with you something we’ve held dear to our hearts after years of trial and error: A perfect hummus recipe. Labor intensive? A bit, but think of it as your moment of zen.
This is all you need:
Now, the tricky part in achieving the creamiest hummus in all the land: You must peel every pea. It sounds crazy — maybe it is — but it truly gives your kitchen-made dip a texture usually reserved for the pros. Just squeeze between your thumb and fingers, and the skin will slip right off.
Take some garlic cloves (we went with maybe four or five) and put them inside your food processor with four to five tablespoons of tahini. We may have added six, because that’s how we like it. Add salt. Blend.
Slowly stream in a bit of water to loosen it up. You’ll get a white, mayo-like consistency.
Now add your naked peas and blitz. Stream in some extra virgin olive oil.
Add the juice of one to two lemons. We added one and a half.
Taste. Do you like cumin? We think it’s crucial — add a pinch or two.
Find a pretty plate and spread it out. Drizzle with more extra virgin olive oil on top.
Bust out some smokey Spanish pimenton, sprinkle away. Dot a couple of olives as a crown.
Eat with pita.