I blind tasted atas and cheap nasi lemak dishes together to find out if they’re worth the hype

My brushes with nasi lemak — and there are many — typically involve going down to the Shops Formerly Known As Ananas (all of ’em seem to have changed their names recently) and having grizzled aunties grunt at me to quickly choose my combos.

The spectrum of ingredients in my standard nasi lemak takeaway don’t vary much at all. It always involves a generous base of steaming hot coconut rice, thick sambal, slices of cucumber (though these days they only throw in a solitary wedge), bits of ikan bilis, fried egg and, of course, fried chicken. None of that chicken frank or fishcake nonsense, please; I’m a purist.

Aside from being a genuinely ambrosian dish in its own right, a $2+ nasi lemak packet possesses the most important element of all: Affordability. By its very essence, nasi lemak is meant to be a cheap meal for the everyman; a quick, unpretentious breakfast with the sole purpose of providing enough calories for a hard day’s labour.

As modern gastronomic experimenters are wont to do, the cheap local fare of the hoi polloi has been dragged to unnecessarily atas heights. Imagine my horror/disgust/bewilderment upon hearing about The Coconut Club, a nasi lemak specialty joint that churns plates out at $12.80 a pop. All because French Culinary Institute-trained chef Lee Eng Su decided to source out “premium ingredients” and do everything by hand.

All that hype about an atas nasi lemak worked, I suppose. Long, snaking queues are a common sight at Ann Siang Hill, where the restaurant is holed up.

“Sheeple!” I yelled out in my most edgelord-ian, purist manner, flicking bits of leftover ikan bilis off my desk.

Colleagues who had already drank the (hand-squeezed) Kool-Aid of The Coconut Club attempted to convince me about the legit-ness of the $12+ nasi lemak. They even dared me to do a blind taste test of different nasi lemak offerings — varying from atas as hell to cheap as shit — to provide an objective evaluation.

So I did. Blindfolded, I tried out four versions of the same basic nasi lemak combo. Served on the tasting table was a line-up of The Coconut Club’s Nasi Lemak Ayam Goreng Berempah ($12.80), Revolution Coffee’s Nasi Lemak Crispy Fried Chicken ($4.90), Route 12’s Nasi Lemak Chicken Wing Set ($4), and Mount Faber Nasi Lemak’s… nasi lemak ($3.50).

Clockwise from top left: Mount Faber Nasi Lemak, The Coconut Club, Revolution Coffee, Route 12.

The caveats — I’m judging them on equal footing based on individual elements like the nasi, egg, chicken, cucumber, sambal, ikan bilis, extras and the most bang for your buck before deciding the overall winner. So! We begin.

The Rice

Winner: The Coconut Club

Okay, this one totally took me by surprise. Yes, yes, I have to admit you could really taste the effort and phenomenal difference in its rice. It was fragrant, it was waist-deep in flavour and it was satisfyingly creamy. Just the right amount of stickiness, too — unlike the one offered by Mount Faber, which was cloyingly so. Revolution Coffee’s nasi was really refreshing — light and fluffy, but a bit too herby and complex for a solidly authentic nasi lemak. Route 12’s green-hued rice was just salty, but the guilty-pleasure kind of salty that you’d gladly stuff your face with on lazy loungewear days at home.

The Egg

Winner: Mount Faber Nasi Lemak

One of the best small things in life: slicing a bulbous yolk on a fried egg and seeing the orange/yellow goodness flow onto the rest of your nasi lemak. Alas, only Mount Faber’s offering managed to do so. Plus, it wasn’t greasy or oily like the fried omelette by Revolution Coffee, nor was it a salty af mess like Route 12’s hardboiled one (hardboiled?? For shame!). The Coconut Club came close, but it was nothing special — the egg wasn’t the runny type. Sad!

The Chicken

Winner: Revolution Coffee

Look, if you’ve eaten as much chicken in your life as I have, you’d agree that bone-in trumps boneless cuts. But gahddamn, did Revolution Coffee’s fried boneless chicken thigh hit the mark. Marinated with some secret sauce, the thick cutlet was moist and tender to the bite, with a crisp well-seasoned skin to boot. The portion could be a lot bigger, of course, but its flavour more than made up for it. The Coconut Club’s chicken was way bigger (a whole thigh!) and did well on the rempah (spice paste), but it was kinda dry at some points.

The Cucumber

Winner: Route 12

Cucumbers — despite not being the most favourite vegetable for everyone — actually play an important part in the whole nasi lemak experience. You need their cool bitterness to counter the cloying sweet stickiness of the rice and the spicy sambal — so it was disappointing that Mount Faber’s didn’t even provide any slices. The Coconut Club gave ridiculously small bits of it, while Revolution Coffee’s was only slightly bigger. The best one would have to go to Route 12’s for the fresh, crisp slices.

The Sambal

Winner: Revolution Coffee

For real, Revolution Coffee’s chef Shen Tan doesn’t fuck around with her sambal. Looking darker than your average chilli paste, her coffee-sambal was satisfyingly thick, earthy to taste and offered a rather complex kick of never-tasted-before heat. Plus, her dish came with two contrasting sambals — the other one tasted fresher and with even more of a kick. Props to Route 12 too, for the spiciest sambal of all. The Coconut Club did offer a fresher sambal paste (they weren’t blended at all), but it didn’t hold much heat. Mount Faber’s was just sweet.

The Ikan Bilis (and Peanuts)

Winner: NA

Really, there’s nothing much to say. All of the nasi lemak joints provided standard fried ones. Would have thought The Coconut Club could at least offer proper fillets of anchovies, but nay, they too sprinkled measly baby bits.

Most value

Winner: Revolution Coffee (atas nasi lemak for $4.90)

What can we say, it’s atas nasi lemak for less than $5. That level of complexity (10 ingredients involved, apparently) and quality is respectable enough for something closer to the $10 range, but hey, it’s less than half that amount. The only drawback: Who the heck would go all the way to Infinite Studios — a building in the middle of nowhere — for a plate of nasi lemak? Not us, bruh. But major props to the chef for offering such dense flavours for just $4.90.

Overall Winner

The Coconut Club

Okay, okay, I stand corrected. For $12.80, you really do get $12.80 worth of solid nasi lemak at The Coconut Club. The portion is amazingly colossal, the rice is spectacular, the chicken is rich with intricate blends of herbs and spices, and you really can taste the love and passion in each bite of this wholly handmade dish. In other words, everything tastes fresh at The Coconut Club’s only main dish, and it does deserve the amount they charge.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll eat my words as soon as I’m done digesting four platters of nasi lemak.

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