Thursday, 26 November 2015

Mellowing Out at Merchant's Lane

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 26 November 2015

Several weeks ago, makan kaki Melody was back in town.

However, it also meant having to chauffeur her as she caught up with the local restaurant scene.

C'mon, Mel, it's not like two hundred restaurants have opened since you went away.

We (finally) ended up at Fifth Palate, where she dug into her ramen. The next stop was another place that's opened and run by another mutual acquaintance.

Look for the teal doors next to 150 Jalan Petaling and
take a break from the city.

Merchant's Lane, located along Petaling Street, is the brainchild of the guys who opened Butter+Beans OUG. Much has been said about it, particularly its Instagrammability. From the décor to the food, every aspect was crafted to compel one to frame it within a viewfinder.

Ken Ho, one of the founders, admitted to this. "It's about creating the buzz," he said, "We want to get people to come here and share the experience."

As I sat in the tastefully hipsterised main dining area, I don't see why anyone would have anything negative to say about– oh look, a fly. Shoo, shoo.

Getting there was easy enough, especially on a Friday morning when school's out. I parked the car at a lot across a street, next to a police station. Finding the entrance, however...

(Psst, look for the entrance next to a stationery shop; Merchant's Lane is on the first floor.)

Up the wooden stairs was the kind of place that's been mushrooming in the old Chinese parts of KL, George Town and Ipoh. Pre-war chic, I call it, with rough unpainted walls, rattan chairs, stainless steel tabletops and wooden floors.

Beyond the salubrious environs of the main dining hall (left) is the
airy al fresco seating area (right). The steel-grill floors are not
for the faint-hearted.

More seats and a rattan swing-chair dangling from the ceiling, plus the kitchen and washroom, were at the back of the building, which is connected to the main dining area by an al fresco seating area that– GAAAH, why are parts of the floor made of steel grills?

Walking to and from the wash basins felt like a test of courage. Not that it deterred a couple of hijabsters, who were selfie-ing for all its worth, seated in chairs that seemed to float in the air. One of them was even wearing high heels.

"Tak gayat ke?" I asked. Apparently, no.

...Food, yes. Food calms the nerves. But I'll never understand why I also ordered coffee. Curiosity, perhaps. Thank goodness they make a good brew here.

My makan kaki's "Hongkie Beef Stew" - so good, I forgot
it wasn't mine. Same goes for the coffee.

Even the menu items are buzz-worthy. Melody chided me when I wanted the "Eat Die Me" big breakfast (no longer available). "You can put one together," she said. "One that can eat die you, your neighbours and their pets if you wanted to."

Chastened, I picked another item. She went for the plain-sounding "Hongkie Beef Stew", a bed of creamy mash potatoes covered by a thick beef stew with meat so fork-tender, it's part of the gravy. I vaguely recall Ken pooh-poohing the idea of serving the stew with rice because "I wanted mash with this."

I had to agree with Ken, and before I knew it I was taking more than my share. My skull throbbed with the familiar sensation of my makan kaki's "save me some, you glutton" glare.

Like its namesake, Merchant's Lane's "South China Sea" was the focus of much contention. Ken said opinions were divided over this dish of pan-seared salmon, eggs poached sous vide and rösti-like hash with a palate-cleansing salsa that didn't taste like any ocean I've ever swum in.

Like its namesake, the "South China Sea" appears to be a bone of
contention among patrons. I like it, however.

"Some people don't get this dish," he said. "They said they can't taste much. It's about clean, fresh flavours - that's the point."

Several even complained about the "small" amount of salmon. At over RM20, what did these people expect? As if there aren't enough reminders of how our currency is doing.

After the beef stew, a little "South China Sea" was what the doctor ordered. The fish wasn't heavily salted and still pink in the middle, while the salsa provided all the other flavours the dish needed.

With a relatively clean palate, came the hankering for a dessert. Two new menu items were introduced, and one of them caught my eye.

The people of Merchant's Lane says this dessert is "Better Than Sex".
I leave the verdict to those who know.

We didn't have to wait too long for it. "Here you go, sir, 'Better Than Sex'," said the waitress as she brought the order to our table.

I couldn't resist asking, "Hard to even pronounce the name, isn't it?"

The waitress chuckled and left. Aiyoh, Ken, can change the name, ah? One of these days?

So, according to the good folk at Merchant's Lane, a combo featuring pandan-infused roti jala tucked under a blanket of mozzarella cheese and several scoops of Forty Licks' custom kaya toast ice cream (with real toast, from the look of it), drizzled with melted gula melaka, is "better than sex".

"Yes? No?" you ask?

I'd say "debatable".

But it is a delectable after-lunch or after-dinner item. Do watch out for the frozen cranberries which are– DAMN, THEY'RE SOUR! But at least they work with the richness and sweetness of the other components, prepping your palate for the next mouthful.

We didn't feel like going anywhere else after such a heavy but satisfying meal.

Meanwhile, more people showed up at this refreshing oasis of calm, with its multicultural staff and clientele. And like this country, Merchant's Lane is still a work-in-progress.

"We've got ... maybe forty-plus things lined up for the menu in the future," Ken said, adding that he's keeping the "South China Sea" (please do!) along with a few other staples. He also has plans to make Merchant's Lane a happening events venue - if he had the time and manpower.

Give it time, Ken. After almost six decades Malaysia is becoming a happening place. I'm sure Merchant's Lane will become the same – if not better.

Merchant's Lane
No, 150 Jalan Petaling
59000 Kuala Lumpur


Daily, 10:30am-8pm

+603-2022 1736

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