[Review] Old China Cafe, KL
We rolled into Kuala Lumpur a little after lunchtime on New Year’s Eve. There were five of us: me, BH, GJ, BM and ST. The guys decided to make for the food court at Pavilion – the newest megamall in town, which proved to be absolutely ginormous – while BM and I headed to the hotel to drop off our luggage before heading out for some makan. Thanks to a review in the Lonely Planet guide, we ended up at Old China Cafe; tucked away on a sleepy back lane in the Chinatown neighbourhood, the restaurant also doubles as, er, an antique gallery of sorts, as its signboard proudly announces.
And indeed almost every inch of available wall space is given over to old photographs, Qing paintings, Chinese calligraphy, portraits of historic personages etc. – the resulting visual rojak lending a very eclectic and homely, if somewhat claustrophobic, air to the place. For instance, looming over our table was a huge image of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, posed next to – ironically enough – a picture of Sun Yat-sen (below, top). Also spotted were a couple of paintings that were either authentic scrolls from the Qing era, or done up in a suitable style; the figures in the family portrait (below, second and third from top) sported the familiar wraith-like countenance, bare of line and pale of tone, so prevalent in Qing portraiture, especially remarkable for the contrast with often vividly-coloured raiment. Most intriguing though, was a large Art Deco-esque painting which seemed to occupy pride of place (below, bottom). My lunch companion was fascinated by the obvious perspectival distortions: the black figure in the lower right-hand corner is clearly out of whack in comparison to the teeny pink automobile not far off; which in turn looks like no more than a toy car next to those street lamps; which dwarf the Lilliputian figures lounging by the buildings; and the architecture, in turn, is again scaled differently, seeming more size-appropriate for the large figure in black. You get the idea. Other anomalies include the tilted horizon line (beneath the row of white structures), and the rather naturalistic-looking mass of thundering clouds overhanging the landscape – the latter especially rare in mannered Art Deco art, I think.
I’m not sure if any of the stuff is actually for sale, but if you’re ever there and something catches your eye, I suppose asking wouldn’t hurt.
Note: The long brown object with the white thingamajig is a wire belonging to a ceiling lamp; not part of the art.
The décor of course chimed perfectly with the art. The restaurant occupies an old shophouse unit, and – in a stroke of aesthetic and economic genius – the peeling paint and rough cement floors were left as they were, blackened by age and wear and redolent of times long past. The marble-topped tables and dark wooden chairs were pure nostalgic-kopitiam-of-yore (think Old Town White Coffee without the kitsch), and the assorted bric-a-brac, ranging from porcelain displays to a rusting fridge that looked straight out of the 1960s, rounded off the old world look.
The food itself was a tad disappointing. Old China markets its fare as Southeast Asian, with a focus on Malaccan Peranakan. The menu certainly boasted traditional Nonya delicacies; we tried the babi ponteh, which was pretty bland, and the petai and sambal udang, which was better – if only because anything with petai in it is automatically raised a notch in the taste stakes, heh. The roast duck, apparently a festive season specialty, was the biggest letdown: it was well, overroasted, with dry, tough-as-leather skin. The drinks selection, on the other hand, was impressive. I’ve never had nutmeg juice, but, alas, they were out of the stuff – so I settled instead for a beer and a delightful lemongrass concoction, which really hit the spot. (Pics below.)
Swing by the place if you’re ever in KL, if only to soak up the atmosphere.
Old China Cafe
11 Jalan Balai Polis, 50000 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
A wonderfully refreshing lemongrass drink.
Sago gula melaka, a dessert that consists of sago pearls in a pool of rich, creamy coconut milk, topped off with brown palm sugar, or gula melaka – that’s the stuff which looks like maple syrup. The mixture tastes like heaven going down, trust me. According to BM, it’s also pretty simple to prepare; you can find a recipe here.