Saturday, 22 February 2014

Ipoh 2014 - What's Still Good, and An Interesting New Trend

OK, you've put up with my rant about the bad news from my recent Ipoh visit, so now I get to tell you about the good news.  But whether it is in fact "good" depends a lot on what you value.  Perhaps you are, like me, a member of the Ipoh diaspora and want to return to the town of our memories, the town of our childhood.  Or perhaps you still live there, and you want to see the food scene develop with modern trends, new ideas, become more global (and, I guess, inevitably more expensive) in its outlook.  And this is happening; a French restaurant recently opened which serves a RM294++ (US$100) six-course dinner menu.  I didn't go there on point of principle, but it is a sign of the coming apocalypse trends.

1.  Coffee, Coffee, More Coffee

Ipoh has always been renowned for its White Coffee, which is made by roasting robusta coffee beans simply with butter / margarine, eschewing sugar as is the traditional Straits Chinese method of roasting coffee.  The resulting blend is lighter in colour, and with a purer coffee, less caramel-ly aroma.

But Ipoh is in a grip of a new coffee craze, this time, Western coffee.  And I am not talking about the insipid brews doled out by soulless multinationals such as The Coffee Bean and Star*ucks.  This is boutique-roasted, often double-shot coffee with scary prices around RM11 per cup (around US$3.30).  Now for my international readers, yes, this isn't much in absolute terms, but when you can get a cup of Ipoh White Coffee from its most famous purveyors for less than RM1.50 per cup (under US$0.50), you see why this reflects such a seachange not just in the offering but also in the mindset of the clientele.

I had the chance to check out one of these new wave cafés, Espresso Lab in Ipoh Garden, near my old childhood home.

Caffè Latte at Espresso Lab
One look at the caffè latte above, with its coffee art heart, tells you all you need to know about this place.  The coffee is actually very well done, with the milk heated to the correct temperature (i.e. not burnt) and it has good body, aroma and a smooth non-bitter finish.

But to cater to this crowd, you also need uppity food, lest the peasants wish to bring their ta pow (takeaway) noodles from a dirty side street into your clean, immaculate, air-conditioned premises.  So they offer a mille-crêpe (literally, "thousand crêpes"), a super-trendy creation comprised of a stack of crêpes sandwiching a flavoured pastry cream, which has really caught on at Japanese-inspired patisseries throughout Asia.  Espresso Lab offers it in around eight flavours, which incidentally is more than the number of coffee-based beverages on its menu.  Maybe they should call the place "Mille-Crêpe Lab".  The downside is that it costs RM14 a slice.  The Nyonya kuih stall down the road at "Glutton's Square", which is also excellent, costs a mere 80 cents per piece.  Thankfully, my Nutella mille-crêpe is excellent.

Nutella Mille-Crêpe at Espresso Lab
But this is where "the crunch comes".  I strongly believe that a town gets the eateries and amenities that it deserves.  It is up to the locals whether they want this new Western coffee craze to be part of their food scene in the longer-term.  If they do, they had better be prepared to support them with cold hard cash, otherwise the cafés, which sprouted like mushrooms after the rain (I read an article in a local rag which said that 20 (yes 20!) such new cafés had opened in the last 12 months), will drop off like leaves in the autumn.  Hell, I spent RM36 in 30 minutes here, and there aren't many more per-hour expensive things you can do in Ipoh, except maybe hire a lawyer.  

The one thing I dislike about the new wave cafés, though, is their propensity to offer only double-shot brews.  I asked the guy at Espresso Labs and he refused to serve me a single-shot, even though I didn't ask for a cheaper price!  Coffee is a very personal thing, and while I see the commercial rationale of charging more for more product, they are ruling themselves out of a large market who only drink single shots.  This is frankly a myopic, customer-unfriendly policy, and doesn't do the establishments nor their potential clientele any favours.  I trust that in due course, the owners will find reason to reconsider this position.

2. Old Town (the geographic location, not the brand)

Trying to visit one of the grand old cafés in Ipoh Old Town during the Chinese New Year period is always an exercise fraught with disappointment and frustration.  My father's traditional haunt is Sin Yoon Loong; together with its rival across the road, Nam Heong (them of "Old Town White Coffee" fame), one could think of these as being the Deux Magots and Café le Flore, the Florian and Quadri, of Ipoh.

Anyway, we made our way to Old Town to visit Sin Yoon Loong.  They were unfortunately shut for the CNY period.  Looking over the road, the obviously more commercially-oriented Nam Heong was more packed than the Black Hole of Calcutta, no doubt catering to disappointed Sin Yoon Loong customers as well as their own loyalists.

So we went up the road and found a little coffee shop also doing a brisk trade, but not so brisk that I couldn't find a table for three.  Sadly, I didn't note the name of the place, but it has a dim sum stand located at the front, which does a decent Hong Kong-style chee cheong fun.  Their white coffee is pretty decent too.

Thankfully, the mobile fried kueh stall, run by a seemingly ageless old couple who have been frying for as long as I have been alive, was open on the day, and it is still as good as ever (RM3.50 a plate).  Thankfully, some things never change.

3.  Jen Jen Coffee Shop, 22 Jalan Tokong

When the old favourites disappoint, what do you do?  You take your ten ringgit and walk out of there, and try to find something better, that's what.  Oddly enough, we had never been to this corner lot coffee shop before, despite it being behind the Tow Boo Keong Temple complex where my father used to play badminton regularly.

There are two stalls that you should have a look at when you visit here, being the char kway teow and kai see hor fun.  Here is what they look like so you know what to look out for:

Their food is quite good by Ipoh standards.  The kai see hor fun soup feels thicker, more concentrated than the versions served by the old stalwarts, Thean Chun and Kong Heng in Old Town.  And given the difficulty in finding a table there, Jen Jen is a very welcome alternative.

As for the char kway teow, it has that delectable, silky finish so typical of Ipoh rice noodles, and a very nice wok hei.  Delicious.

So not all the news is bad in Ipoh, despite my rather ominous post earlier (link here).  I can also confirm that the quality at a few establishments, such as the hakka mee at Restaurant Tet Shin, Dai Shi Kiok and Hong Kee, has been maintained (per my Ipoh 2013 report here).

Mind you, I don't think it is true anymore that you are pretty much guaranteed a good meal in Ipoh wherever you go.  Selecting a good eating place has become just that little bit trickier, but prices are still so low, and value still so good, that the customer doesn't really have too much grounds for complaint even if the meal turns out to be disappointing.

With those RM11 coffee places, on the other hand...


  1. Hey Julian, which is the French restaurant in Ipoh that is serving that RM294++ degustation menu? Not Indulgence is it?

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    Nope, it is Garvy's in the Park, a new eatery which opened, oddly enough, in the compound of a hospital (BP Healthcare). I haven't tried it, and while I certainly am curious, the idea of spending RM294++ (which could buy you 100 bowls of prawn mee, or 13 coffee-mille crepe sets at Espresso Lab) on a single meal in Ipoh, excluding drinks, is rather daunting.

    Would you care to visit and report to my readers? :)

  3. Hi,

    I'm aware of Garvy's though I did not imagine they would have such a high priced (by Ipoh's standard) degustation menu. Yes, the price is rather daunting and I wonder if they can do justice for what they're asking.

    I've not been there yet but I will probably try something a la carte just to test their mettle before deciding whether or not to go for the degustation menu. Will report here when that happens.

  4. Thank you. You will have my gratitude and that of my readers :)