Kuala Lumpur’s culinary scene is buzzing with creative energy, and the city is fast becoming the next must-go destination for the hungry traveller.

It does not take long before conversations in Kuala Lumpur turn to food. After all, the city is all about food, from tasty and affordable hawker dishes to fine dining in lofty locations.

For the gourmet traveller, the dining scene in Malaysia’s capital city has come into its own, above and beyond the mandatory tourist pit stops of Changkat Bukit Bintang (for pub grub) and Jalan Alor (for street food). Despite a faltering economy, some of the city’s top chefs and restaurateurs are ramping up the action on the culinary front with slick interpretations of traditional Malaysian dishes and brave new restaurant concepts.

The development of gourmet precincts to woo the well-heeled diner—local and international—has also given impetus to the cause. Two such highly anticipated developments in the city centre are the resurrection of a row of dilapidated colonial terraces along Lorong Raja Chulan at the base of Kuala Lumpur Tower, and the revitalisation of The Row on Jalan Doraisamy (formerly known as Heritage Row). Further afield, suburbs such as Taman Tun, Seri Hartamas, Bukit Kiara, Bukit Damansara and Bangsar are fast morphing into buzzy gourmet hubs, with trendy cafes, posh restaurants and inspired offerings to whet the appetite.

So where to for your next meal in the city? There are choices galore.

Malaysia Boleh

Malaysian cuisine may be more closely associated with nasi lemak and rendang than fine dining, but as is the case in many Southeast Asian capitals, a clutch of chefs are giving new spins to traditional flavours. Indeed, Malaysia’s multifaceted homegrown cuisine is firing the imagination of many of the country’s local chefs.

Antara Restaurant and Abacus Bar is one of several new outlets located in a row of old terraces along a laneway beneath the towering Menara Kuala Lumpur. Owned by chef Isadora Chai (of Bistro à Table in suburban Petaling Jaya), Antara is a departure from her French menu, offering instead a contemporary interpretation on Malaysian cuisine. Think the likes of Sarawak laksa with marron or Boston lobster; wild fern, better known as paku in local parlance, pimped up with salmon caviar and crab; and tandoori lamb.

Sarawak laksa pimped up with marron at Antara - Kuala Lumpur's restaurants

Sarawak laksa

Should they so desire, diners can even roll their own popiah at the table before finishing off the meal on a sweet high with alcoholic chendol. Located on the top floor is Abacus Bar, with its glass ceiling onto the city skyline and serving equally delish cocktails.

But the real star of modern Malaysian cuisine is probably Dewakan, tucked away in the industrial outskirts of the city. Helmed by chef Darren Teoh, formerly of Singapore’s now-shuttered Au Jardin, Dewakan is turning out immaculate plates showcasing traditional flavours and Malaysian produce, updated for the modern palate and sensibility. The restaurant serves only degustation menus; the five-course menu offers a sampler of the chef’s creativity with highlights such as house-cured mackerel with ulam raja and pomelo; roasted king oyster mushrooms kissed with green curry paste and topped with tendrils of dried mackerel flakes; and slurp-worthy homemade Chinese-style noodles with tender steamed prawns in a cold savoury prawn broth. Chef Teoh’s 10-course edition, meanwhile, lays out the spread for a true indulgence, with signatures such as roasted duck breast—arguably the best in the city— alongside roasted quail with marsala spice and serunding.

Dewakan turns out modern plates featuring traditional flavours and homegrown produce - Kuala Lumpur's restaurants

Dewakan features traditional flavours

Modern Renditions

It’s not just modern Malaysian cuisine that is driving Kuala Lumpur’s dining scene. Contemporary offerings from around the world are equally impressive. Part of the Troika Sky Dining development, Cantaloupe is a great introduction to Kuala Lumpur’s creative dining scene with a drop-dead gorgeous city skyline for a backdrop.

Coriander's Cured scampi with coriander puree and salted egg mayo - Kuala Lumpur's restaurants

Cured scampi with coriander puree and salted egg mayo

Executive chef and director Christian Bauer serves up a modern European menu with globally sourced produce from scampi and monkfish to the requisite wagyu and Anjou pigeon. Dishes are listed in sequence from savoury to sweet and it’s up to diners to choose, with the assurance that they’re all stunning on the eye and palate.

Etuvée of monkfish with corn puree and cauliflower couscous - Kuala Lumpur's restaurants

Etuvée of monkfish

While portions are small, expect innovative twists, turns and tastes. Reservations are essential especially for window and al fresco tables, and there’s a minimum spend, with dishes like caviar, lobster and wagyu having an additional surcharge.

Over in suburban Taman Tun, chef Darren Chin is cooking up a delicious storm at DC Restaurant. At his sleek, tastefully decorated restaurant, artfully presented dishes composed of imported premium produce such as Jerusalem artichoke, pigeon, Irish oysters and Galician giant octopus take centrestage. According to the chef, while the culinary influence is primarily modern and French, there is room for play, such as in a memorable Japan-inspired menu last year, which pairs Japanese ingredients with French techniques. Save room for a selection from the cheese trolley that’s so expansive, it resembles a delicatessen display.

Another upcoming name gaining renown for its ambitious tasting menus is Sitka Studio, a contemporary restaurant run by local restaurateur Jenifer Kuah and Christian Recomio, owner of Moonfish Café in the United Kingdom. Christian continued cooking in Malaysia after stints in Barcelona, Oslo and Noma in Copenhagen. Together, they focus on traditional techniques like fermentation, brining, pickling, smoking and salting to showcase the best of Malaysia’s produce. Think seabass paired with smoked oyster mayo, smoked crab and leeks, alongside the likes of grilled lobster with fish sauce and honey glaze. Apart from a wine list dominated by organic wines, there is also an interesting juice pairing menu showcasing Malaysia’s tropical fruit.

For more casual eats, look to Drift, a contemporary urban bistro and bar that wouldn’t look out of place in Sydney, Seoul or San Francisco. Founder Robert Gilliland works the tables while chef Angus Harrison weaves his magic in the kitchen.

Robert Gilliland is the founder of Draft - Wine & Dine January 2017 issue

Robert Gilliland of Drift

Both are Australian and the culinary curation is modern Australia based on sharing plates for communal grazing, featuring the likes of fennel salad, pumpkin ravioli, Manila clams, slowbraised baby pork ribs and crispy skin barramundi.

Japanese Outposts

Malaysia may once be the last place that comes to mind when it comes to Japanese cuisine, but openings in recent years have changed things somewhat. With more Michelin stars than probably any other global restaurant, Nobu led the charge by opening up one of Kuala Lumpur’s hottest restaurants with a view, perched on the 56th floor of Menara 3 Petronas.

Plush and comfortable interior design of Nobu restaurant - Kuala Lumpur's restaurants

Interior of Nobu

As in other Nobu outposts around the world, the cuisine here is Japanese sprinkled with Peruvian influences for a melange of flavours such as in chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s signature black cod with miso, and salmon new style sashimi.

But the new kids on the block drawing eyeballs are Taka by Sushi Saito in the St. Regis Kuala Lumpur, the first outpost worldwide by chef Takashi Saito of the three-Michelin-starred Sushi Saito in Tokyo, and Ginza Sushimasa in Le Méridien Kuala Lumpur, which is part of the eponymous sushi restaurant group with outlets in Tokyo’s Ginza area. Outwardly, both restaurants could not be more different—Taka by Sushi Saito is unabashedly plush, clearly no expense was spared in its stylish décor; Ginza Sushimasa, on the other hand, boasts minimalist aesthetics. Both, however, serve the best sushi you can get in the country.

A View to Kill

Food aside, what’s a visit to Kuala Lumpur without the requisite stop to admire the soaring spires of the Petronas Towers and the city’s glittering skyline at night?

Perched up high at Marini's on 57 - Kuala Lumpur's restaurants

Marini’s on 57

The best place to be for this sole purpose come sundown is Marini’s on 57, which as its name suggests, is located on the 57th floor of the adjoining Tower Three of the Petronas Towers complex. The menu changes regularly but expect contemporary Italian food with innovative twists and an impressive cheese trolley. There’s also a plush bar and cigar lounge where guests can relax and gaze down at the busy streets below—and possibly plan their next meal.

Cover: Stunning view from restaurant Cantaloupe
This was first published in Wine & Dine’s January 2017 issue, ‘Travel’.

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