During the Prohibition era (from 1920 until 1933) in America, the production and consumption of alcohol was outlawed, and not even the threat of prosecution could separate Man and booze. Bootlegging became a lucrative business and speakeasies – bars where people could imbibe in secret – proliferated. Fast-forward to today, modern bars have appropriated – or rather, misappropriated – the term to give themselves a mysterious aura. A number of modern speakeasies have sneaked into Kuala Lumpur; though they are legally operated, they do not have a discernable façade or clearly visible entrance, nor do they openly advertise their presence. That being said, with the existence of social media today, they are the city’s worst kept secrets.
If you make your way to the basement of Bangunan Menara Ming Annexe, you might come across a forbidding ventilation door that warns you against entering, in four different languages no less. If you take courage and push the door open, you will find yourself not inside an electric closet, but in Omakase+Appreciate, an intimate room with two mixologists behind the bar whipping up unique concoctions for their patrons.
If you prefer somewhere brighter with more breathing space, then head to Barlai, which occupies the ground floor of Sekeping Sin Chew Kee, a building that aptly dates back to the 1920s and has been converted into a guesthouse by Malaysia’s famed landscape architect, Ng Sek San. Here, an alcoholic spin is given to local beverages, creating cocktails like kopi-O-tini and whiskey-laced Milo. Finding other speakeasies in the city is like looking for hidden gems that aren’t trying very hard to stay hidden at all.
Some chefs have the skill and the passion, but don’t have the capital to set up a restaurant, but it does not mean that the dream has to die. Enterprising hobby chefs have found ways to turn their interests into a sort of part-time employment, by hosting dinners in their own homes or in borrowed venues, commitment-free.
Pop-Up Dining KL runs supper club-like events every two to three times a month. Themes and venues are only announced through social media a few weeks prior and seats – ranging from RM100 to RM200 each – are limited; the host restaurant or café is given a percentage of the profits for the use of the venue and kitchen. The masterminds of the events, who are also the chefs, have kept their day jobs despite the success of the popup dining concept.
Other aspiring chefs simply use their own kitchens and open up their homes to diners. Huck’s Café is really a residential bungalow tucked away in Bangsar, belonging to autodidact chef, Huck Seng, whose expertise was learnt from cooking for his family.
The success of dining outlets can be as much reliant on its ambience as the quality of its food and service. A wave of nostalgia seems to have washed over Kuala Lumpur as restaurants and cafes are occupying old buildings and retaining the charm of antiquity, such as Barlai does.
Not too far away, along Petaling Street, a turquoise door stands out at the end of a block of old shoplots. It is the entrance into Merchant Lane, through which you enter only to be beckoned by red lights to climb up the staircase into the café; the choice of illumination is evidently a nod to the building’s former vocation as a brothel in the eighties. Today, it is a popular brunch haven for KLites. Peeling walls and hints of the past are still evident, evoking curiosity about the lives that moved through this space in a time gone by. The décor is a fusion of Malaysian, Chinese and modern influences, an instagram-friendly theme that continues even in the one-page menu featuring dishes born from the same delicious fusion.
Other restaurants like Wondermama’s outlets do not occupy old buildings, but recreate a similar ambiance with a “mix of colonial design and industrial chic”.
When you lose one sense, the others are enhanced. The concept of removing your vision to enhance the dining experience began in Germany, and found its way to Malaysia a few years ago, with Dining in the Dark KL on Changkat Bukit Bintang. First time diners are often taken aback at the pitch darkness, but it is surprising how quickly the other senses heighten to compensate. It is not unusual for diners to abandon their utensils and revert to eating with their hands, an almost sensual experience when performed in the dark and while sipping wine which smell and
taste are also enhanced. The question that often gets asked is how the servers find their way around, and like most dark dining restaurants, they are usually blind or visually impaired.
The menu remains a secret throughout the meal, and it is not unusual for dinner conversation to become a guessing game as to what you and your fellow diners are feasting on. The dishes and their ingredients are not revealed until you reemerge from the darkness, after the meal ends, and you will be surprised to discover how much you really rely on sight to discern your meals.