Friday, 3 June 2016

ToKB Café: In A War Against Limited Food Choices

I'm sitting here, surrounded by assorted war paraphernalia, distracted by the weight of the cold metal sheet under the pages of the menu. Several of these are taped together - a recent modification, I suspect.

Two large model planes hang from the ceiling - upside down, I note - from cables attached to their wheels. Antique military motorcycles sit on ledges or catwalks, while more seats are hidden behind sturdy metal fencing, from which a couple of helmets or framed photos hang.

Ten-hut, soldier! Welcome to the ToKB Cafe. They're setting up early (about
a month old, I think), so they haven't quite found a way to properly set up
the decor. Can't imagine what the pilot's going through.

I see tiny plastic army men perched atop the metal frames around me or on huge steel drums. All around, looms a sense that the interior designer is trying to convince patrons they're in an army mess hall or a bunker.

One doesn't come across a war-themed café often, less so within walking distance from one's workplace (I can walk it if it's about ten minutes away). But one visitor didn't seem impressed, and this fellow, from what I understand, is hard to not-impress.

That carved Harley-Davidson probably costs more than the real thing.

I'd been to ToKB Café before, after reading what Mr Hard to Not-impress said about it. Short for "Tastes of Kota Bharu", the café serves up fare from the capital of the Malaysian state of Kelantan. Some are familiar, like nasi kerabu and nasi dagang, while some, like laksam, aren't.

But what's a concept café without its own signature items?

Take nasi roket, layers of rice and fish curry wrapped up in an elongated cone that tempts one to wear it like a unicorn's horn. The Teh Atom, a pulled-tea beverage sweetened with honey whose mound of froth reminds one of a mushroom cloud. Roti C4, a kaya-and-egg toast combo, explodes with bursts of treacly coconut jam and smooth runny soft-boiled egg as one bites down.

The Teh Atom (left) packs a sweet, smoky wallop. At right, plastic army men
drama. Sergeant: "Get moving, soldier!" Soldier: "Can't PUFF Sarge WHEEZE
It's KOFF too GASP far..." Sergeant: "Prepare for a butt-whacking!"

At least, that's what the images promise. The café even has a Colonel Sanders or sorts, a Kelantanese makcik who has been cooking for three decades.

On my last visit, I'd taken a nasi kerabu to go. Takeaway versions of several signature dishes are compact promises of what the full meals have, nicely wrapped up in patterned paper and sealed with a branded sticker.

ToKB Nasi Kerabu - for me, the Malaysian east coast on a plate or, in
this case, a woven tray. The dryness of the rice and chicken left me
unsatisfied and a little thirsty.

I'm back here now, ready to dine in. Instead of the takeaway nasi kerabu I had a couple of days ago, the full spread is laid out on a woven mengkuang tray lined with banana leaf: desiccated coconut, herbs and vegetables such as torch ginger flower, cabbage and sliced long beans, with saucers of sambal and possibly budu and a fried marinated chicken leg.

But it was a long wait. Do they, like, have two people in the kitchen? And more people are arriving. My atomic tea goes down sweet and smoky - the honey's a nice touch - but I worry about my blood sugar levels at that point. Which part of the body does sugar nuke again?

Sorry, have to leave some traces. I can't digest metal or bone,
and the tray's way too much fibre to handle.

From my nasi kerabu, the quality control seems consistent. The dish is dry and the herbs do little to help. The chicken is scored so that the heat went deep down and, yes, transformed it into jerky. A minor complaint, which can probably be fixed with a saucer of curry gravy, or more sambal and budu.

As I strip the bones as clean as possible, the buzzer rings. An LED screen, part of a table-based waiter-calling system, kept flashing one number. Eerie. And a sign they haven't quite gotten their act together yet.

Takeaway versions of several ToKB dishes for those who can't wait.
Of course, minus the big, big pieces of chicken.

Bill in my pocket, I look around the front. The takeaways table now has boxes of kuih. Okay, seri muka or pulut kaya?

While I pondered my choices, I look around some more. The ToKB crew took great pains to carve out a military concept café, sparing no expense it seems. They did splash on a billboard, and buntings were hung around the neighbourhood. Not to mention the web site, on-screen video presentations in the premises and, my goodness, the car.

Yes, even a car

I suspect the café's backers might be related to whoever developed the building it's in. The marketing that went into it is beyond what many similar cafés can put up. But it also reeks of kitsch, sadly, the way the props were put up. C'mon, army men? Model planes and ships? And is that a carved wooden motorcycle up there?

I also have problems with a mural at the non-smokers' dining area. British and Japanese soldiers are depicted laughing and partying with the café's signature items, with who I think is a smiling Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita on the right.

Dunno how real war veterans gonna feel about this

I don't know what the soldiers who fought in the war would think of that tableau. Nor could I comprehend how they would feel, eating Malaysian east coast fare here. Kota Bharu is also where the Japanese army began its invasion of Malaya in 1941.

"You guys open from noon to 9pm?" I ask the cashier, who replied in the affirmative.

"You have breakfast fare and you're only open from noon to 9pm?" I ask again.

"We plan to extend our hours," he said.

"But you already have breakfast items," I press him. The dissatisfaction from the dry kerabu is showing.

"We don't have enough staff at the moment."

Ah. I see.

I eventually pick the seri muka, one of a few varieties of kuih that appear outsourced from another manufacturer. Maybe I'll come back for the pulut kaya and bingka ubi sometime.

I'm hoping there will be improvements, and more stuff from this place. Though some modern joints have sprung up and food trucks have dropped by occasionally, PJ's Section 13 is a barren wasteland when it comes to dining options and any attempt to liven things up is always welcome.

ToKB Café
Avenue D'Vogue
No.3A, Jalan 13/2,
46200 Petaling Jaya


Now the site of Black Castle Bistro


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