Birch – DC Mall

Many new brunch spots have popped up in KL recently, but not many of them offer anything special.

Birch is one of the newcomers in the scene. Located in the brand new Damansara City Mall, the restaurant adopts the combination of industrial design sensibilities with the dine-in-the-garden concept. The result is a spectacular space with ample natural light, verdant indoor greenery and welcoming, non-uptight vibes.

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There’s plenty of caffeine options to choose from, so I had the iced soy matcha latte (RM17).

Birch’s weekend menu offers a selection of three salads, and I tried out the Birch Garden Salad (RM24). The fresh lettuce, rocket, cucumber and cherry tomatoes are fresh, and mix well with the delicious roasted pumpkin bits. The honey mustard dressing is mild and not too overwhelming. A crunchy seaweed layer provides added texture and umami to the hearty dish.

The salad

An eggless brunch isn’t a legit brunch.

Birch’s Eggs Benedict (RM26) is very delicious. Spicy pulled chicken, basted in flavourful spiced barbecue sauce, is served on top of a freshly toasted sourdough. The highlight of the dish is the perfectly done Hollandaise covering the poached eggs. It’s so yummy. Creamy, but not sickly.

It’s hard to find the perfect Hollandaise in KL. The quality ranges from atrocious (vinegary and sour) at Quartet to alright at Antipodean. I’m glad Birch does it really well.

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We ended our satisfying brunch with some desserts. There are many cupcakes to choose from, from the standard red velvet to their Gula Melaka creation. I tried their macadamia cheese cake (RM19) and the dark chocolate cupcake (RM10).

The cheesecake is superb, with candied crunchy macadamia bits on top. It’s not too sweet. The chocolate cupcake tastes alright, nothing special. The dark chocolate filling is rich and satisfying, but the cake itself is too floury to my liking.

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Verdict

After my second visit, I’ve concluded that Birch is now one of my favourite brunch spots in KL. It’s quite affordable, compared to the likes of BLVD. The food here is great, and the service is pretty quick too. Parking is super easy at DC Mall (ample space, and RM1 per entry during weekends).

However, due to the popularity of the place, expect long queues during weekend brunch/lunch period.

Birch, Lot G10/11, Ground Floor
Damansara City Mall, Jalan Damanlela,
Damansara 50490 Kuala Lumpur

Chicken Rice Balls in Melaka – Ee Ji Ban (Ichiban)

I was in Melaka last weekend, and as always, it was all about eating and more eating. Melaka’s food is glorious, and chicken rice balls are among of the things you can only get here.

While there are dozens of restaurants serving chicken rice balls in the state, only one is halal certified – Ee Ji Ban. This place is really popular, with long queues during lunch time, so if you don’t want to go through that, go during dinner time.

The menu isn’t complicated – there are the chicken rice balls (RM0.50 per ball) with the chicken (roasted/boiled), standard vege far (kailan, bak choy etc), fish balls and seafood.

The chicken rice balls are flavourful. The rice balls taste like normal chicken rice, but the long rice used here is mixed with glutinous rice, hence the “starchy” aftertaste. For a moderately empty stomach, five balls per person is enough.

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The chicken is served boiled or roasted, and the two of us ordered half a chicken (RM26.00). The chicken is delicious, its skin is crunchy and the meat tender. Very tasty, and we finished it within a few minutes.

For some greens on the side, we ordered stir fried kailan (RM8). This one is alright – very standard. One can never go wrong with a simple dish like this.

Apart from the standard chicken rice balls, Ee Ji Ban also serves Nyonya delicacies. The sambal seafood is popular, so we ordered a small portion of sambal sotong (RM20). While the sambal is tasty, we were quite surprised to see how small the portion was. It’s tiny, and I’m sure you could get a much bigger portion of squid sambal for RM20 in a similar standard restaurant elsewhere. We found out that the portion for the sambal udang was similarly small, so if you’re hankering for some seafood, go somewhere else.

The tiny portion of sambal sotong

The service is fast and efficient here, just like how we expected.

Verdict

Ee Ji Ban is a good place to try out the famous chicken rice balls for those who only eat halal. The price is moderately expensive, but overall it’s still good value, if you avoid the seafood dishes.

275, Jalan Melaka Raya 3, Taman Melaka Raya, 75000 Melaka

 

 

Modern Society at DC Mall

DC Mall is a new half-empty shopping gallery that’s located at the heart of Pusat Bandar Damansara. The mall itself is quite nicely laid-out, with a spacious al fresco dining section, and Modern Society is one of the new restaurants that popped up there.

We started the dinner with some appetisers. The Nyonya chicken wings (RM19.90) feature tasty, crispy skins, but the chicken meat is quite tasteless – the marinade didn’t really seep through. The sambal sauce that accompanies the wings is good – and just as spicy as it should be. The popcorn chicken is very yummy crunchy. It’s served with garlic sauce (RM18.90)

Cikin!

I ordered the foie gras risotto (RM49.90) for my main. The portion is fair, and the risotto is prepared in apple chutney and goji berries broth, giving it a sweet taste. The foie gras chunk is nicely done, but the taste isn’t strong enough to counterbalance the sweetness of the berries broth – so the risotto leaves a sweet aftertaste. I would’ve loved for the flavour to be more balanced, considering that I preferred a more savoury main. Overall it’s still quite delicious.

The foie gras risotto

Another main that I tried, Tacos Trio (RM36.90), is delicious. The tacos are served with pulled oxtail, fried chicken and seafood. The pulled oxtail is very nicely done and soft – it’s excellent.

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The dessert selection is very limited – there are only two items on the menu. I had the panna cotta (RM20.90). It’s really good, with a slight hint on minty taste. Much recommended.

Verdict

Overall, Modern Society doesn’t disappoint. The service is fairly impersonal, but very efficient. However, I wish the dessert selection was more extensive. But this place is still worth checking out – the menu also includes a long list of quirky cocktails and drinks for those who enjoy a tipple or two.

Super Saigon, TTDI

I’m a huge fan of pho. Pho, like most other Vietnamese dishes, is hearty, healthy and simple. You can never go wrong with it.

KL has some excellent Vietnamese restaurants, and while their offerings are decent, none of them are excellent. Restaurants in KL tend to skimp on the fresh & natural ingredient (which is the secret behind the exquisite taste and brothy goodness of Vietnamese noodle dishes) – and add artificial stock in its place, so the pho doesn’t really have that special umph.

Super Saigon is quite a favourite amongst Instagrammers lately, so I thought I’d check it out for a quick lunch in between meetings.

The interior is light, cheerful and fresh. Porcelains and cute little bowls adorn the plain white wall. The deli-meets-bistro atmosphere is quintessentially TTDI-Bangsar-Hartamas.

I walked in way past lunch hour, so the place wasn’t busy. The service was fairly quick and impersonal – nothing special.

There’s chicken, beef and vegetarian pho to choose from. You can find the menu here. I choose the medium rare sliced beef and beef balls pho (RM18.90). The price is definitely on the low side, considering that other Vietnamese restaurants in town (e.g. Du Viet) normally charges upwards of RM25 for a bowl.

The pho at Super Saigon is quite alright. The meat serving isn’t very generous, but maybe this is due to the relatively low prices. The condiments are sufficient. I had no problem finishing a bowl. The soup tastes brothy enough, but it’s nothing exceptional. A good beef pho normally has a slight hint of “sweetness” in its taste – not the sweet soy sauce taste, but the sweetness from the fresh beef extract. This pho doesn’t really have that.

I washed down the meal with an avocado smoothie (RM9.90). This one is really good. The avocado extract is thick, no sugar added. Chocolate syrup on top. Awesome.

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Since I was at the restaurant on a working day, I originally planned to stay longer, get a cup of Vietnamese coffee, and do work. However, while the restaurant does provide free wi-fi, it didn’t work that day. Bummer.

Verdict

Well, this place is alright. Their menu is quite substantial, there’s banh mi too, so I might go back and try out something else there. Plus point for some of you guys: Super Saigon also prides itself as the first halal certified Vietnamese restaurant in KL. So if you’re a bit was-was about going to the likes of Du Viet, you can go there.

 

Speak soon,

FH

Merchant’s Lane, KL

Merchant’s Lane has been a popular haunt for local hipsters since it first opened a couple of years ago. I went there for the first time in 2015, and I wasn’t impressed by the limited brunch selection and the lacklustre quality (I still remember how dry the salmon that I ordered tasted).

Yesterday I decided to give the place another go for brunch. The place still looks as charming as the first time I saw it, and the menu has improved significantly. There are now more items to choose from, ranging from the classic big breakfast to the rendang fusion pasta.

The restaurant’s interior is tastefully designed to preserve the charming features of the traditional Chinese shophouse that it occupies. The main dining hall is spacious, with a vaulted ceiling and a thin sunroof pane that allows ample natural light to come in. Antique decorations, bottles and old cans decorate the clean, empty walls, and little flowers provide some colours to the space. Outside the air-conditioned dining hall is the inner courtyard, which is sheltered from the scorching heat by a large shady tree.

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The food has improved substantially since I last went there. I ordered a beef burger set (RM24), which is served with satay (peanut) sauce dressing. The patty is fairly tender, and the charcoal bun is nicely toasted. My friend ordered a rice dish that comes with a large fried chicken (RM22) – and it’s pretty delicious too. We washed down our meals with a refreshing cold-pressed juice each (RM15).

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Verdict:

While the brunch selection has improved tremendously since I last went, it still falls short compared to the likes of Tray, Birch and Yeast. Merchant’s Lane biggest draw is still the superb interior aesthetics and the charming, Straits Chinese ambiance. It’s a perfect place for photo taking with some highly Instagrammable walls – including a rattan swing, which is a hit amongst the shutterbugs (yours truly included). Merchant’s Lane location in Chinatown further adds to its intrigue; it’s nice to spend some time at the historic quarter of town, away from the predictable scenes in Bangsar and Bukit Bintang.

Hippie’s Paradise – Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem

Cambodia isn’t well known for its beaches. Thailand has its world-famous Phuket and ultra sleazy Pattaya, while Indonesia has Bali and Lombok. Cambodia is still known as the land of Indiana Jones temples. Angkor Wat is so majestic that it attracts so much attention around it, leaving other parts of the country relatively unknown to most tourists.

When AirAsia started flying to Sihanoukville, I jumped on the chance to explore Cambodia’s beach offerings. While Sihanoukville itself isn’t a remarkable place (no joke, it’s hideous and tacky), I had the best experience at Koh Rong Samloem, a small island 40 minutes off the mainland.

Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem

The two islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem are only accessible via speedboats from Sihanoukville. A return trip to either of the islands is priced at about USD20, which isn’t very cheap for Southeast Asian standard. Good thing is, you can get on a bus right at the Sihanoukville jetty to Battambang and Phnom Penh, which means that you don’t have to spend so much time at the port city before or after your island excursion.

My speed boat took me right to a jetty at Koh Rong Samloem – from there, the staff led a few of us on the boat to a catamaran that took us to Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem.

The boat ride!

The resort is owned by the Mad Monkey group, which operates a string of hostels in Cambodia. I’ve been to their hostels in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and had a really good time, so my expectation was quite high.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

Upon arrival, our group was greeted by the friendly staff who walked us to the registration area at the bar. It’s really sandy, so bring your crocs or plastic thongs! The bar is really hippie and a very social place, with music playing until late. The frontline staff are mainly locals, managed by some Australians.

I booked a private bungalow. There’s no air-conditioning, but at least the place is clean. The bed is alright, with some basic pillows – it’s not 5-star hotel quality but for USD25 per night, you really get what you paid for here. I wish there was a chair though, it’d be nice to lounge at the spacious balcony that faces the beach. The bungalow is a wooden structure, with many small cracks and holes on the floor and the wall, and its location right next to a tropical jungle means that there are many bugs and insects. Fortunately the mosquito net does its job well.

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There’s no wifi or mobile phone reception on the island, and there’s no restaurants, shops, not even a village nearby, so you’re basically stuck in Mad Monkey throughout your stay – which is not a bad thing, since the quiet, unspoilt beach will keep you occupied. There are beach hammocks and swings that you can use.

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The remoteness of the place gave rise to a friendly culture. While it felt a little awkward at first since I came alone, I ended up making new friends throughout the three days I was there. Everyone’s friendly, so as long as you’re open-minded, non judgmental and friendly too, you’ll have a really good time there.

The bar is where the socialising is most of the time. Drinks are quite cheap there, for Malaysian standard, and there are happy hour prices too. The restaurant, which shares its space with the bar, serves alright food. It’s a hit-or-miss. The menu is rather extensive, covering western, Thai and Khmer cuisines. Throughout my 3-day stay, the food ranged from the delicious creamy seafood tomyum and yummy fish amok to the passable breakfast of omelette and terrible Khmer-style fried noodle. The morning coffee is good though!

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Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem shares the space on the tiny island with the military, so the bar stopped playing music at midnight. However, after the music ended, everyone headed to the beach for a tipsy dip. The water was surprisingly warm, considering that it was past midnight, and it was a perfect opportunity to see luminous planktons. These planktons are only visible underwater, and there’s snorkelling equipment that you can borrow.

After three days, when it was time to leave, I felt like I wasn’t ready to. I had a massively good time, and left with no regrets – except for one. I should’ve applied insect repellent on my body more frequently than twice a day. Sandfly bites aren’t cool; my whole body felt so itchy for three days after I got back in KL!

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Some travel advice:

  1. Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem is a party hostel, so if you’re looking for a very quiet destination, this place is probably not for you
  2. Bring coconut oil – it works better than normal insect repellant in protecting you from Cambodian sandfly bites and I learnt this trick too late
  3. Bring USD – the island has no ATM or the internet connection needed for the credit card machine to function. The tab system works here, and you’re expected to settle everything before you leave
  4. Be friendly and kind to the staff – and they’ll be extra nice to you, which helps!
  5. If your budget allows for some splurging, choose the bungalows. Dorms are much cheaper, but facilities are really basic there. The whole resort is sandy, so it’s nice to have your own ensuite bathroom and a little bit of personal space in the bungalow

Speak soon!

FH

Sihanoukville – a city that’s hard to like

Hello from Sihanoukville!

The city is my base this week, from which I went to explore Koh Rong Samloem, an island known for its hippie accommodation offerings and quiet, unspoilt beaches.

Anyway, let’s talk about Sihanoukville first.

Sihanoukville is Cambodia’s only significant harbour city and the industrial centre of the country, which doesn’t say much, since Cambodia’s industry is still at its infancy. Angkor Beer (one of Cambodia’s most recognisable brands) is produced in the city. Sihanoukville is also one of the newest cities in Cambodia, with a relatively recent history that dates back to the 1950s. Therefore, it doesn’t have the long, French-style avenues of Phnom Penh or the rows of charming mustard yellow shophouses that make Siem Reap’s town centre look very charming.

To be honest, the city’s rather dreary. Hygiene is a real issue in Sihanoukville, and even the most touristic parts of the city are very unkempt, with piles of garbage taking over the limited space for pedestrians.

Two golden lion statues mark the centre of the town – right next to the statues are tourist traps like casinos, bars and souvenir shops.

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The roads in Sihanoukville aren’t as developed as those in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap – and only main avenues are equipped with street lights, so expect the ride from your hotel to town to be quite rough, as most of the boutique-style accommodations in Sihanoukville aren’t located on the main roads.

I’m staying at Deluxx Boutique Hotel (4 star), which is an amazing oasis of calm and comfort in the middle of the chaotic and unpredictable Sihanouvkville. The hotel isn’t large – it’s a 3-storey building, with rooms orientated to face a nice pool, enveloped in a verdant little garden. I opted for the smallest room, which is actually quite large, with a really comfy queen sized bed and a sofa bed. There’s a flat screen TV, mini bar, and best of all, the bathroom works perfectly, with reliable hot shower (something that you really appreciate when you’re in Cambodia).

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There are several popular beaches in Sihanoukville – Ochheuteal, Otres and Sokha. Ochheuteal is the tackiness of Phuket’s Patpong, magnified. Also known as the Serendipity Beach, Ochheuteal is anything but serene. Rows and rows of cheap bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and massage parlours line the beach. Street children walk from a table to another, selling trinkets. Stray dogs forage for food in piles and piles of garbage that are scattered around the beach area – this happened right next to where you eat.

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Backpackers and hippies frequent some of the bars nearby Ochheuteal. Monkey Republic is my favourite – it’s fairly cheap, with really nice music. There are also some decent spas too, that are doing legitimate business and not at all dodgy. These places are staffed by professionally trained therapists. The staff at Monkey Republic recommended Ocean Spa. Following their advice was a right decision; I had an amazing 60-minute full body massage for USD12. Worth every single sen.

While Ochheuteal is where most of the tourists are eating and partying, for the best traditional Khmer dining experience, head to Sandan, about 5 minutes from the Golden Lions. The restaurant is a social enterprise, which employs young Cambodians from high-risk communities. It also acts as an on-the-job training centre for underprivileged Cambodians to prepare them for jobs in the nation’s growing tourism industry.

I ordered seafood amok and a Khmer seafood salad. Both were excellent, especially the seafood salad. The ingredients were fresh;  the prawns and squids were served juicy and succulent. To wash them down, you can also try Sandan’s inventive cocktails and juices – a tomyam mojito, anyone? I ended up paying USD18 for one salad, one main and two drinks – not cheap compared to other restaurants in Cambodia, but you’re paying for the nice ambiance, great service, fair wages and nicely presented, freshly prepared local cuisine. So it was worth it.

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Safety is a main issue in Sihanoukville. The city, with its casinos and seedy bars, has a rough reputation. Make sure you don’t leave your bags unattended at Ochheuteal Beach as petty theft is rampant there. Practise common sense and general caution, especially at night. The city’s streets are really dark at night, so it probably helps to know your route first before taking a motorbike taxi or Uber – just in case.

While Sihanoukville doesn’t have much to offer, the surrounding islands off its coasts are stunning. The city is therefore an important stopover/transit point for tourists, and since Cambodia’s islands aren’t as popular as those in Thailand, tourists who come to visit are mainly adventurous backpackers or hippies.

However, Sihanoukville won’t be so much of a niche destination anymore in the future. Massive Chinese investments have created several large construction sites across Sihanoukville. New hotels and resorts are coming up. AirAsia has also started plying the Kuala Lumpur-Sihanoukville route, putting the city on the map.

Sihanoukville’s skyline is evolving

Change is coming.

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I’ll write about my experience staying at Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem, soon. Stay tuned!

Living it up, in Cambodia!