George Town’s upmarket newcomers elevate Penang’s beloved hawker food

Our guide to the 5 best restaurants that are reinventing laksa, nasi lemak, mee goreng and rendang in the Malaysian port

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 June, 2016, 6:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 June, 2016, 6:00am

Penang has long been a food destination, but the Malaysian state is known primarily for its hawker food: dishes such as assam laksa, nasi lemak and mee goreng. Apart from enjoying local specialities while sweating in open air markets, sitting on plastic chairs in front of cheap folding tables, there haven’t been many other options.

Until recently.

As George Town’s core continues to be transformed by its Unesco World Heritage status, new Malaysian restaurateurs are bringing sophistication to Penang cuisine. More than just fancy decor and air-conditioned comfort, chefs are refining authentic flavours, and updating tradition with fresh ideas and concepts.

Here is our curated selection of finer gastronomic options in the popular Malaysian port.

The Dining Room is gaining renown as the flagship restaurant of the smart Macalister Mansion boutique hotel. Its executive chef, Johnson Wong, is 25 year-old hometown boy, who performed stints at Robuchon au Dome in Macau, Au Jardin in Singapore and Noma in Copenhagen.

The buzz he is generating is for tasting menus of exquisite presentation and remarkable confidence. It helps that his gastronomic theatre is a stunning all-white room with 19th century French pieces and a surreal white tree in the centre of the space. Here, Wong presents elegant creations beginning with the table bread.

The coffee-flavoured dough balls are a simple nod to Penang’s popular white kopi (coffee). Equally assured is his red Spanish carabineros shrimp dish. Slowly cooked in oil (like a confit) so the shrimp are not completely raw, they’re then dressed with tomato, white balsamic and a touch of olive pesto. A 62.5-degree Celsius slow-cooked egg is covered in shredded kataifi filo pastry and seasoned with anchovy, charred leek, Hokkaido scallop and a hint of bitter matcha.

Wong’s flair for local flavours is exemplified in a pre-dessert called Penang Native. A lemon granita variation with nutmeg, honey and white fungus for texture, it’s the flavour of a popular cooling summer drink turned into a classy fine dining course. Wong clearly has skills and he will be a talent to watch especially if he presents more Penang flavours in his food. The eight-course tasting menu is 268 ringgit (HK$540).

The Macalister Mansion’s owner is Hong Kong native Karen Chan, who moved to Penang when she got married. She recalls an even more parochial town when she arrived in the late 1990s. “There was nothing here,” she says. “Forget fine dining, there weren’t even bistros. Everyone just ate hawker food and by 10pm everywhere was dark.”

Thanks to risk-takers such as Chan, Penang has a few more posh options these days. Chan is also the co-owner of Thirty Two, dramatically set in a 1920s-style heritage home that wouldn’t be out of place on Downton Abbey. The menu is upscale continental with some Asian favourites, but no pork.

Try their house speciality, the crab laksa lemak (39 ringgit) or pasta with salmon, moko rojo and basil (41 ringgit). The spaghetti aglio olio with prawn in crispy “sarong” (42 ringgit) is another delightful Southeast Asian-Italian marriage.

For a break from Malay curries and char kway teow, the bohemian China House is worth a visit. The space is actually three shophouse buildings opened up to hold a restaurant, coffee shop, jazz bar and art gallery. A favourite of the young, hip and arty crowd, its all-day menu is a crowd pleaser. However, what makes China House most memorable are its desserts and pastries. Each day, an entire table of four-layered cakes, pies, tortes, and tarts tempt patrons. It sells more than 7,000 pieces every month.

Just one block over is Jawi House, a more modest restaurant run by chef Nurilkarim bin Mohd Razha (Nuril to his friends). His family restaurant serves Jawi Peranakan cuisine. Peranakan refers to the culture from generations of immigrants – mainly Chinese – mixing with Malaysian Straits locals. Jawi Peranakan is when the intermarriage is with Muslims from the Arab peninsula.

Nuril is another twenty-something wunderkind balancing tradition and modernisation. Jawi House’s menu is mostly sandwiches, rice and curries, but he cooks with the precision of a French chef.

An interesting variation on nasi lemak is the herbal lemuni rice (18 ringitt), a little-known ayurvedic dish prepared with telang flowers (clitoria ternatea), coconut milk, onions, garlic, ginger and lemon grass. His version of assam laksa (18 ringgit) is a fascinating and refined take on the sour soup noodles found across the city. Piled high with shredded lettuce, crunchy turnip and fresh noodles, the tamarind-based soup strikes a nice balance with the fish component. On this day, Nuril used fresh tuna. It was refreshing and appetising.

His signature curry is the lamb bamieh (19 ringgit), a rich and hearty spiced-filled stew that tastes like a French wine reduction (of course, being halal so no alcohol was used). Middle Eastern and North African in origin, there’s a sweetness underneath the strong lamb essence.

For a grand Peranakan meal in Penang, Kebaya sets the standard. Housed in another restored heritage boutique hotel, Seven Terraces, it offers Nyonya food interpretations in a most majestic and ornate setting. The cuisine is as much the effort of chef Zachary Choong as the guidance of visionary owner Chris Ong, a former Hong Kong investment banker turned hotelier and staunch George Town preservationist. Toning down the spiciness and infusing contemporary culinary ideas, Kebaya packs flavours and decadence.

The irresistible Kebaya tamarind beef is essentially a modernised rendang, with a 72 hour sous-vide shoulder, glazed with tamarind and gula melaka (palm sugar) for a bit of crunch. Also delicious is the grilled snapper that was cooked in banana leaf and served in a tumeric curry.

However, the pièce de résistance is its lor ark, a classy Teochew braised duck reinvented as a duck confit with caramelised spiced plum and orange in cinnamon, star anise, cloves and nutmeg. The meat falls off the bones while the exterior crackles. To finish, a perfectly executed pandan crème brûlée captures the kitchen’s bi-cultural ambitions. A set dinner is only 120 ringgit.

Yes, there are now more luxuriant experiences in Penang than a fan blowing the spicy broth sweat away from your forehead.

Thirty Two at the Mansion

32, Jalan Ahmad Shah, 10050 George Town, Penang

tel: +60 4 262 2232

The Dining Room

Macalister Mansion, 228 Jalan Macalister, 10400 George Town, Penang

tel: +60 4 2283 888

Kebaya

2-16 Stewart Lane, 10200 George Town, Penang

tel: + 60 4 264 2333

Jawi House

85, Armenian Street, 10200 George Town, Penang

tel: +60 4 261 3680

China House

153, Lebuh Pantai, 10300 George Town, Penang

tel: +60 4 263 7299