Malaysia is a complex nation of over 31 million. It is a country halved by the South China Sea, where the corridors of power lie on the peninsula of 11 states while Sabah and Sarawak – two culturally distinct entities sit on the north of Borneo.
These states, brought together by the tides of history has seen royal families rise and fall, and the Portuguese, Japanese and British colonisers have more than made their mark. Like many nations, there is an urban-rural divide. Where the cities are dense, the countryside is agrarian. Much of the north, like the state of Kedah, is regarded as the rice bowl of the country, and there lives a sizeable 70,000 strong Malaysian Siamese community along the border states.
And then there are the ethnic distinctions; this country, much like Singapore, is where the great cultures of Asia converge. These lines are like parts of a Venn diagram; sometimes they chafe, other times they jostle, but most times, their voices are a sonorous whole strong enough, in fact, to have recently dumped a corrupt regime.
Oh how that voice sings at Beta KL. The space is opened earlier this year by chef Raymond Tham and his team – the same people behind Skillet 163 just a few metres away. The premise? Modern Malaysian cuisine with food and drinks that reflect the nuances of Malaysia’s gastronomy.
Walk in through the camouflaged doors at Fraser Place and you’d instantly be hit by its swish décor — a brooding interpretation of Malaysiana. The walls and ceiling are black, and majestic tropical trees take residence in the corners. A round bar sits in the middle of the space, and the kitchen is girdled by window panes to watch the brigade in action.
Notice that the floor of the dining room is a chessboard, and it is here that the game begins.
First, the drinks.
We order the harvest sour – where a spirit base of genever meets rice wine with rambutan for sweetness and grapefruit for a strong sour note. There’s curry leaf which lends a hint of spice and egg white to form the froth on top.
When asked what the rice wine was, the server brings forth a cloudy bottle with no label. “It’s tuak,” he explains, referring to the Bornean rice wine. This particular bottle is sourced from Miri, a coastal city in Sarawak near the border of Brunei.
He pours a sip into a tasting glass. The first nose is reminiscent of young lychee and barley with a hint of grassiness. The taste itself is similar to sake, except it has a thicker viscosity and more acidity.
Such is the care and ethos that runs through both the food and drink experience. Here, some 80 per cent of the ingredients are procured locally and the staff go to lengths to explain the origin of each dish. Given that the approach here is Modern Malaysian, it’s quite unlikely diners — be they local or foreign — would accept things any other way.
It’s a fantastic platform to showcase the flavours and produce of Malaysia.
The first dish to arrive is a deep dive into Malaysian flavours. The spiced prawn on a crispy sago chip with laksa aioli is an ode to the laksa from Sarawak, the ox tongue on toast with belimbing buluh is a deconstructed version of Negeri Sembilan’s Minangkabau dish of gulai lemak while the deep fried ball that resembles an arancini references Pangkor in West Malaysia for its use of salted fish.
These snacks set the tone for what’s to come, and thankfully the flavour cannon doesn’t stop firing.
Take for instance the dish simply named ‘Garden’ which showcases common herbs and vegetables grown in Malaysian homes. Here, a tangle of greens like ulam raja sit on rose apples and cherry tomatoes accompanied with a dollop of sambal and the most unconventional element in the whole menu: cincalok granita.
Yes, cincalok that pungent fermented shrimp is turned into a granita in all its unapologetic icy glory. As strange as it sounds, it’s an element that works for cincalok has always been served cold.
The dish of the evening is hands down the chicken served with a puree of ginger from Bentong — grown in the mountains of Bukit Tinggi where the soil is pure, unpolluted and water is from the highlands. This is made into a pesto-like consistency with coriander and spring onion and served on the side of tender chicken breast that’s been cooked sous vide and pan seared to perfection.
Now, there’s far too many contemporary interpretations of chicken rice (mostly in Singapore) and most fall flat upon execution. It’s almost like flogging a dead horse. Yet this dish is an example of what a modernised version should look and taste like.
That’s not to say that the other dishes are off the mark. The Penang hawker dish of rojak sotong kangkung is reimagined with a plump scallop sitting on a bed of rojak sauce along with peanuts and sesame seeds. The kangkung? Deyhdrated into a powder and sprinkled on the wafer-thin dehydrated-and-fried scallops that garnish the entire ensemble.
The fish course was decidedly less fiddly. Here, barramundi is lathered with tamarind sauce and then wrapped in an intricate weave of pandan leaves like ketupat and then grilled to perfection.
The streak of one good dish after another however, ended when it came to the duck. The course was inspired by the Peking duck, interpreted with Malaysian sensibilities. The duck is confit in a traditional French technique, dressed with Peranakan-style pongteh sauce and then served folded into a roti canai in a bamboo basket.
It’s a brilliant idea that fell short in execution. For when we picked it up like a taco, oil dripped forth from within, like a fruit being squeezed of its juices. It could be that the duck confit wasn’t drained properly before being served – a pity as it was otherwise conceptually sound.
The desserts were decent but its worth noting that the final dish — a mousse cake to be sure, presented a missed opportunity. The earl grey tea mousse was delicious and what’s remarkable is that it’s made using tea grown in Cameron Highlands. The accompanying tiny chocolate tree could’ve otherwise similarly been made using Malaysia’s locally grown cocoa, but it wasn’t.
Still, that could be because the restaurant is in its early stages, and procuring such niche ingredients takes time.
It’s worth noting at this point that Beta KL in no way desires to fool around with modernist techniques that characterise contemporary dining. There are no displays of dry ice or smoke here and neither are there gastronomic wizardry with all its bells and whistles.
What it is essentially, is a restaurant that presents traditional flavours in new ways with a dash of Western technique. Could more be done? Dishes can be tweaked for further refinement but for a restaurant that’s so new it hasn’t even had its grand opening party yet, it’s off to a flying start.
Beta KL is at 163, Fraser Place, No. 10 Jalan Perak Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Tel: +603-2181 2990