Friends always seem a little surprised whenever I suggest a visit to Kuala Lumpur for the many delicious cuisines on offer. I can hardly blame them. Unlike Singapore, Bangkok or Hong Kong, where most good food places are concentrated in the city centre and easily accessible by public transport, Kuala Lumpur's top food places tend to be spread out all over the city and the neighbouring satellite town of Petaling Jaya.
The public transport system can be a nightmare without a local guide or car, unless you're in the right location where restaurants and shops are easily accessible on foot. For this, there can be no better location than the Bukit Bintang area.
A decade or so ago, the area bordered on the seedy side, with cheap hawkers and down-market shopping malls. But a concerted effort by local tycoon Francis Yeoh to spiff up and rebrand the street as Bintang Walk, by introducing upmarket malls and restaurants, and art galleries, has turned the area around.
There's also lots of good eateries you can get to, with just some simple instructions from the concierge.
Hutong Food Court
Malaysia's first Gourmet Heritage Village and arguably Yeoh's best gift to the city, the sprawling food court in the basement of the Lot 10 Mall is one of Kuala Lumpur's best-kept secrets - even to locals. The food court is a veritable food heaven. All the stalls are branches of hawker stalls that locals have known and loved for decades in separate parts of town which has made it difficult for tourists to try them. All have been handpicked by the YTL Corporation chairman and invited to operate in Hutong.
Hutong has the rare distinction of being the only food court in the country where pork can be served which means that many of the stall owners can offer their most authentic dishes because pork and lard form an essential ingredient in the local Chinese cuisine. The Imbi Road original pork noodles, which is served with a rich dark soy sauce and a topping of minced pork, is simply to die for. The ducking roast duck, served with pork lard rice, is also another firm favourite. But you can't go far wrong with any of the stalls inside Hutong.
From a simple breakfast of toast, nasi lemak and local "kopi o" to stalls with long histories, such as Soong Kee beef noodles, Kong Tai Singapore Hokkien noodles and Campbell's popiah, you can find the best of local hawker fare under one roof.
The former downtown red-light district, Jalan Alor is a bustling hub at night for tourists and locals looking for a late-night supper. The street is lined with restaurant after restaurant offering similar food so it can get a little confusing for novices, but don't be tempted by any of the eager touts. The old-timers, however, know how to make their way to Wong Ah Wah (WAW Restaurant) at the end of the street.
WAW's grilled chicken wings are generally acknowledged as the best in town and the sight of the "master" deftly grilling rows and rows of skewered chicken wings over a smoky charcoal spit can be mesmerising. The shop, which has grown from a roadside stall to about five shop lots, also offers a great stingray, grilled with spices and served on banana leaf. The Hokkien fried noodles and the seafood - including the blanched cockles - are also surefire hits.
If you still have space in your stomach after the meal, try out the durian stalls along the streets: the musang king and D24 are top of the crop. You can also buy delicacies such as freshly roasted pork slices and biscuits at Loong Kee.
Medan Imbi is hidden from the main Bukit Bintang thoroughfare, but easily accessible on foot by cutting through some small lanes behind The Ritz-Carlton or Piccolo Hotel. The small square is home to a number of bah kut teh places, the best of which is Sun Hong Muk Koot Teh, which is open from 5am to midnight daily.
Once you reach the square, it's hard to miss the restaurant because of the busloads of customers trooping in at mealtimes. It's hard not to feel hungry when you smell the claypots of pork and ribs served in bubbling hot herbal soup. The restaurant also serves a great fish head steamed with lots of ginger.
At night, just across the road, the Soo Kee Mee Stall is also a regular eating spot for locals. It's one of the more typical open-air local restaurants and famous for its freshwater prawn noodles. The prawns are served on a bed of crispy fried noodles. Those who prefer a little red meat can also go for the fried beef ho fun or some satay.
Food Republic, Pavilion Kuala Lumpur
Food Republic in the basement of the upmarket Pavilion mall has been the place of many a pleasant culinary discovery, albeit minus the pork. Larger than Hutong, it houses every kind of cuisine imaginable and standalone restaurants. One of the favourites is the Ipoh curry mee and the nasi lemak.
If you want service with your food, Madam Kwan's offers some great nonya fare which blends Chinese ingredients and cooking styles with Malay spices.
The nasi bukhari, which is fragrant sultana and almond rice served with some spices, and a crunchy fried chicken drumstick, and the assam curry fish head are definite must-trys. On some days, you might even be lucky enough to see the ubiquitous Madam Kwan herself sitting by the door.
Places to stay
There are plenty of hotels in the Bukit Bintang area, all within walking distance of convenient dining and shopping. The following are a 10-minute walk to any of the restaurants recommended here.
Piccolo Hotel ****
Basic, clean and a good deal
Tel: +603 2303 8000
Grand Millenium Kuala Lumpur *****
A little dated but comfortable.
Tel: +60 3 2117 4888
The Westin Kuala Lumpur *****
Luxury and service make it ideal for business trips.
Tel: +603 2731 8333
The Ritz Carlton *****
Luxury with a spa village, with options for three-bedroom residences.
+603 2142 8000
JW Marriott Hotel *****
Luxury and comfort, more business-oriented.
+603 2719 8000.