KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - In the heart of nightlife haven Changkat Bukit Bintang, secreted deep within the recesses of a bar called The Rabbit Hole is Wau Dining, a pop-up restaurant dedicated to Malay food.
Finding this overtly traditional restaurant inside an overtly traditional bar is akin to discovering a waterfall in a desert. It’s so unusual and unexpected that reverse psychology dictates you must try it.
“When you hear about it, you don’t necessarily compute it, but it’s still interesting. We really like that idea of people hearing about a hidden Malay restaurant behind a bar and going, ‘What the…?’
“But if you hear about it, maybe you’ll be interested in trying it,” says Daween Maan, The Rabbit Hole’s corporate communications manager.
The quiet, dimly lit eatery is so removed from the hustle and bustle of its surrounds, you might as well be in a different country. Here, classic Malay rhythms form the background soundtrack, while the ambience is amped up a notch by a constellation of wau (traditional Malay kites) sourced from Kelantan.
The kitchen is helmed by chefs Norhazlina Aisha (better known as Along) and Muhammad Fadzil Ibrahim. They are one of the reasons The Rabbit Hole decided to open an authentic Malay pop-up.
“We wanted to redesign the rooms and were going through ideas of what the next concept should be. We wanted it to be something unique, it had to be pretty eccentric."
“And as we were going through all the concepts, we sort of realised that, apart from Bijan, there are no unique Malay restaurants that people can come to. So we sort of latched onto that idea because our chefs are Malay and we wanted to give them something to show off what they do best,” says Daween.
Along and Fadzil worked together to compile the recipes for Wau, gleaning from their heritage – Along’s mother is from Selangor and her father from Perak, while Fadzil has ties with Pahang and Johor, where his family is from.
The menu is the result of a lot of experimentation with recipes from their family vaults, like the sotong bakar, which Fadzil came up with. The grilled squid is perfection – tender and velvety soft, with a slight char on the outside and a hint of spices running throughout. It’s simple and uncomplicated, but really good stuff.
“It’s not too sweet or too spicy, it’s somewhere in the middle, so it’s very balanced and people of all ages can eat it. It’s so tender, even if you don’t have teeth, you can eat this,” he jokes.
Then there is the satay daging and ayam (RM20.80 or S$7). The chicken satay is flavourful, but perhaps a tad too sweet, while the beef satay nails all the classic flavours of satay and features juicy, succulent meat buoyed by spice-laden undertones. The peanut sauce served on the side is great – sweet, slightly spicy and filled with the satisfying crunch of peanuts.
The ayam percik (RM18.80 for a quarter chicken) features supple, tender chicken slathered in a rich coconut-infused gravy. Because the gravy is pretty delicious, you’ll find yourself wishing there was more of it, so you could drench your rice in it too.
Fadzil and Along devised the oxtail soup (RM28.80) as a sort of Malay version of the classic Indian-Muslim original. “The Indian version uses a lot of spices, but we don’t. Ours uses a lot of carrots, potatoes and celery and is very fresh-tasting,” says Fadzil.
And he’s right on the money because the soup is fresh, understated and mild, with vegetables and fall-off-the-bone tender oxtail swimming in this light pool. It’s pretty good stuff, but if you’re angling after a more traditionally hearty oxtail soup, you won’t find it here.
Another attempt at innovation can be found in the pucuk paku goreng udang (RM18.80), which imbibes from Chinese stir-fries and incorporates lots of garlic. It’s fuss-free and simple, but not particularly memorable.
The highlight of Wau’s menu is the muhibbah set (RM169), which is designed to be shared among at least three to four people. The massive plate features a giant heaping of basmati rice served with ikan bakar, rendang lembu, kacang buncis, sambal telur, tempe, ayam goreng berempah and papadom.
While I didn’t try the full set, I did savour some of the elements on the plate, the highlight of which is the ayam goreng berempah, which boasts succulent, juicy chicken fried to perfection. It’s coated with an array of spices and you can taste this in every wonderful mouthful. The beef rendang is also delicious – pliable beef chunks in an aromatic, coconut-infused thick gravy.
Fadzil and Along say they are hard at work concocting new recipes for Wau and will be looking at adding things to the menu every month. Which makes you wonder just how long Wau will be around, given that it’s been billed as a pop-up restaurant?
“Well, for now it’s a pop-up till the end of the year, but we’ll see how it goes,” says Daween.
The Rabbit Hole
Lot 14 & 16, Changkat Bukit Bintang
Tel: 010-899 3535
Open: 5.30 to 11pm daily