Thursday, April 20, 2006

5 Things to Do When in KL

It's not like we're experts on KL. After all, the last time we were there before this trip was in 1999 or 2000, so long ago I can't even remember precisely. But if, like us, your idea of a good holiday is to potter around, do some light shopping, do a lot of heavy duty eating, sit around and soak in the local whatever, drink lots of coffee while people-watching, then this is our five sens' worth (two cents' worth in SGD).

1. Stay at the Ritz-Carlton - be pampered without having to pay a bomb.

2. Gawk at the chic eateries in the basement of Starhill Plaza on Jalan Bukit Bintang, even if you don't eat there. If you think Singapore is hip, check this out:

The Village Bar

It's a designers' wonderland and, wandering around in it, we felt a little like Alice through the Looking Glass. Don't forget to pee, so you can check out the toilets.

(for more details, visit Starhill Plaza's website)

3. Go shoe shopping - it is the land of shoes.

4. Buy Nike socks. It's a little known fact but Nike apparel in general, and socks in particular, retail for less in KL.

5. Eat, drink and be merry for a fraction of what it would cost in Singapore. With the exception of some of the international chains such as Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (a regular latte was M$10 or S$5), most places are cheaper than their Singapore equivalents, because of the favourable exchange rate and the lower cost of living.

One last piece of advice: if you are in the Bukit Bintang area and want to get to KLCC, take a cab. Unless you are alone, don't bother taking the LRT. If there are two or more of you, the cost of the train tickets will exceed the cost of the cab fare.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Where We Stayed

The last time we were in KL, we stayed at the KL Lodge Hotel which the travel guide Fodor's describes as a little hotel where "everything is a little shabby -- carpets have stains, and bathrooms need some plaster repair -- but the rooms are clean, the staff is friendly, and the coffee shop stays open, albeit sleepily, round the clock". Touche. We liked it well enough then, but our economic circumstances have changed. Now that we can afford a little better (eh, we work hard for our money, real hard!), we plumped for something a little better.

The Ritz-Carlton is our favourite hotel back home in Singapore, but sadly given the room tariff rate a rare treat. At half the price of its Singapore counterpart (the weekend rate is S$180 to Singapore's S$342 including taxes and service), the KL Ritz-Carlton became the obvious choice and we weren't disappointed.

On the downside, the hotel is built on a smaller scale altogether, with fewer amenities. While there is a gym and a pool, both are small. The pool area is little more than functional, and does not seem to be blessed with sunshine, at least not when we were there. There is just one restaurant, Li Yen, serving Chinese cuisine. If we were into amenities, the hotel would have been less than satisfactory. For us, this wasn't a problem. With just 3 days 2 nights, we barely had time to paint the town red.

There is a spa though, run by the same people who run the spa at the renowned Pangkor Laut Resort. It seems to have "choped" the best spot on the 4th floor, at the expense of the hotel pool and deck perhaps. The spa has its own pool which, although small, looked lovely. (mental note to self: must try the spa next time round)

The hotel location too may not be everyone's cup of tea, located just behind Bukit Bintang, KL's equivalent of Orchard Road, rather than on the main drag itself like the Marriott. And the view isn't much to talk about, facing mostly back lots, nothing like the breathtaking view of Marina Bay in Singapore. The location wasn't a problem for us though. We like the fact that it is off the main road and yet only 5 minutes' walk away from everything anyway. We love the fact that it is linked by a covered air bridge to the exclusive Starhill Plaza, our favourite hangout for rubbing shoulders with the tai tais of KL.

The room itself was perhaps not as spacious as the Singapore one but it was as well appointed.

mmm, comfortable

tastefully done up

let's lounge around

ah, the famed Ritz-Carlton bath, downsized

But the best part of the Ritz-Carlton is really its service. The physical setting of the KL Ritz-Carlton may have been less than impressive but the quality experience provided by its staff was non pareil, except of course by its counterparts elsewhere in the world. From the peanut butter cookie treats that were delivered to our room, to the surprise* birthday treat comprising birthday cake and birthday bath prepared by our butler, to the unseen hands who helped us acquire a box to house the said cake for its journey to Singapore, the service and attention we received was warm and professional. As they say at the Ritz-Carlton, it was our pleasure.... to have stayed there.

service with a personal touch

*It was a surprise because we hadn't spoken to anyone about it. At 6 p.m. that day, we received a phone call from our room butler, Syaiful, with warm wishes for a "blessed birthday". He then went on to ask my permission (no, really, he asked for permission) to send a cake up to the room and to prepare a bath, with compliments from the Ritz-Carlton.

What and Where We Ate

The last time we had been in KL we had eaten mostly Malay food. This time, we started out wanting to "soh lup sup" which in Cantonese literally means to "collect rubbish", in other words, eat different types of junk food aka street food. KL has its own distinctive brand of Chinese street food, mostly Cantonese-inspired with a touch of Penang, while Singapore's is more Hokkien and Teochew-inspired, so we were eager to taste the difference.

Take, for example, this meal at Dragon View Restaurant, located at the corner of Changkat Bukit Bintang and Jalan Alor. As the first "proper" food outlet a tourist would encounter in the hustle and bustle of the Jalan Alor area, Dragon View is the perfect place for tired tourists to plonk themselves down for a good ol' fashioned Chinese meal. The two mainstays of the menu are the Cantonese roast and the typical Cantonese-style zhi cha menu.

We were there for a late lunch and had:

KL-style kon loh mee, sans chilli

roast duck and roast chicken

prawn wantan soup

These noodles were served with little more than soya sauce and oil (see yao sok yao). That suited us fine because we would normally have asked for noodles without the chilli sauce or tomato sauce that Singapore hawkers are wont to serve kon loh mee with, yuck. The sauce was a little sweet for HM's liking, but the noodles were suitably al dente. Interestingly enough, the duck had herbal overtones which was a nice touch. Lastly, we had the ubiquitous KL dish, prawn wantan, which is again not common in Singapore where you get either pork wantans or shrimp dumplings.

Together with 2 glasses of Chinese tea, the meal cost us M$28 (S$14). Incidentally, while we were satisfied with the meal, it was by no means earthshakingly good. There must be cheaper, or better, or cheaper and better Cantonese roast places in KL; there was nary a local in sight at Dragon View each time we passed by.

Another familiar yet novel meal was the beef noodles we had at Tengkat Tong Shin, the lane behind and parallel to Jalan Alor. The hawker stall, Ngau Kee, is a local favourite. To locate it, look for the end of the road where Hotel Corona is situated; you'll find Ngau Kee along a five-foot way near it.

The beef noodles were quite different from the Singapore style ones. In Singapore, the dry version would have been drenched in a thick gooey starchy sauce. Here, the noodles were topped with a light sauce made with minced pork, quite like the topping used as accompaniment for hakka yong tau foo noodles. The same sauce was added to the soup which in Singapore would have been flavoured with salted vegetables instead. Last but not least, instead of the thick bee hoon that is usually served in Singapore, the KL stall offered either lo shi fun (bee tai mak) or hor fun.

dry beef noodles, with everything (tripe, beef chunks, beef balls)

Two bowls, one soup, one dry, cost us M$9 or S$4.50. Our verdict: Ngau Kee is a must-try. A word of warning: to eat there, one must be prepared to avert one's eyes from the state of cleanliness, or lack thereof, surrounding the stall, but the food will be worth it.

Ipoh hor fun is another dish that is quite different. In KL, the default seems to be the soup version, rather than the dry, and there are no mushrooms, only shredded chicken.

We had ours at a coffee shop just off Jalan Imbi, next to the popular Weng Heng Coffee Shop. We liked the soup stock there for it was made with prawns. Sedap! Incidentally, we also had the lime juice with sour plum, a refreshing accompaniment that many KL stalls serve.

ipoh hor fun

more prawn wantan soup

chin chow (left) and lime juice with sour plum

For two bowls of hor fun, one bowl of prawn wantan, and two drinks, the bill came up to M$18 (S$9). Cheap and good, we say.

Then we moved our street food experiment upmarket, to check out Madam Kwan's, a popular eatery in KL. We went to the branch at KLCC; the other is in Bangsar. Madam Kwan's is like a Kopi Tiam, the one at Swissotel the Stamford. It serves street food at hotel standard quality and prices. The decor is updated coffee shop chic.

Madam Kwan's, bustling

We enjoyed the signature dish, nasi bojari. It reminded us of a hotel-style nasi goreng, except the essence was Indonesian rather than Malay. The rice was subtly spiced - we detected laksa leaf! The otak otak was also delicious, although the texture was more like Thai fish cake. The chicken rice was good but less impressive; at least the soup was made from good stock.

nasi bojari, with prawn assam, ayam goreng, and beef rendang (clockwise)

otak otak

mushroom chicken rice

we love our food

All in all, it was a good meal. The bill came up to M$66 (S$33), a steal compared to something similar in Singapore. Madam Kwan's is worth a visit if you find yourself in need of a meal or snack in KLCC or Bangsar.

We would have squeezed in another street meal except that it was raining cats and dogs, far too wet for an evening out on the streets. We decided to take advantage of the Ritz-Carlton's air bridge to Starhill Plaza and pamper ourselves at one of the restaurants in the basement.

KL has a plethora of Middle Eastern restaurants, thanks to the burgeoning Middle Eastern expat community and the influx of Middle Eastern tourists. Tarbush, the Lebanese restaurant chain, is well-known for its good food. The Starhill Plaza branch is beautifully decorated.

the crowd at Tarbush

play spot the camels

Tarbush's food was excellent. The quality and quantity were both good. The meat was well grilled yet not overly oily. The use of spices was complex and subtle. In particular, we liked the foul (fava beans) with hommous (chick pea spread) for the way the beans and the chick peas blended in taste. The dessert, mahalabia, was also outstanding - milk pudding sprinkled with pistachios and infused with cardamom, mmmm.

peppermint crush

kibbeh (deep fried minced lamb patties)

foul (fava beans) with hommous

sweet yoghurt (like a lassi)

Tarbush mixed grill (lamb cubes, minced lamb, chicken cubes ala tandoori)

arabic coffee with syrup on the side, and dessert

The best part was the meal only cost us M$112 (S$56). For a similar meal and experience in Singapore, we would have had to pay at least S$80. We were glad we had made the detour.

N.B. Both Madam Kwan's and Tarbush serve halal food.

What We Bought and Where

We had forgotten how much shopping in KL is like shopping in Singapore, except that in KL, it is mostly less crowded. The shopping centres looked the same, the shops looked the same. There were some notable exceptions.

cookies (foreground) and dates from Bateel

Bateel in KLCC prides itself as being "the world's only gourmet date shop". At M$16 (S$8) for 10 cookies and 7 dates, things weren't exactly cheap, but the stuff was undeniably scrumptious.

Then there were the made-in-Malaysia brands of shoes. Isetan was having a sale - buy one pair, get two 20% discount coupons.

Snowfly leather sandals, for M$143/S$71 (S$90 before discount)

Lewre wedges, M$87.20/S$44 (S$54 before discount)

Lewre heels, M$109/S$55

Then there were the socks. For those not in the know, Nike socks are 10% to 15% cheaper in KL than in Singapore e.g. M$15.90 (S$8) instead of S$9.50. In fact, Nike apparel in general is slightly cheaper there. When we were in KL, Hytex Studio in KL Plaza (on Jalan Bukit Bintang) was having a sale - 20% discount on Nike clothing.

spot the nike socks, duh

Last but not least, we did the "when in Malaysia must buy" thang. How lame, we know, but hey, we don't get these in Singapore.

suckers for pretty packaging

Sure, we get some of these Boh Tea specialty flavours here in Singapore now, but not in this packaging....

aye, you can tell we're Singaporean (M$1.20 or S$0.60 each)

the obligatory tambun piah, in five flavours no less (M$6 for a box of 15 bijits)

The rest of our shopping was more like what would we have bought in Singapore anyway, if we had more time to shop. Stocks were pretty similar in the usual chains, such as FOS and Zara. Prices seemed a little higher than in Singapore. We ended up buying the following simply because we were there, shopping.

from Zara, for M$160/S$80 (available in Singapore for S$75)

from FOS, for M$40 (S$20)

from FOS, for M$60 (S$30)

from FOS, M$44 (S$22)

Communique, from Isetan, M$109 each (S$54 each)

And that was the sum total for our trip.