The Unseen Ipoh : A Hidden Gem Off The Beaten Track
I embarked on a quest to escape the pressures and stress of corporate life. In doing so, decided to head to the serene town Ipoh, in Malaysia. It is a renown foodie haven with local delicacies such as Chinese Dim Sum and an unctuous springy noodles soaked in an aromatic broth (Ipoh Hor fan). Instead, I journeyed off the beaten track to a restaurant hidden in the sleepy town of Sungkai before proceeding on with my Eat, Pray Love journey.
An approximate hour an a half drive away from Kuala Lumpur lay Restaurant Sun Kee. Masked from the rest of the world and only known to the locals for their traditional methods of cooking using charcoal to roasted sweet potatoes and salted chicken which sells out early in the day. When I arrived, it was almost noon hence it was no surprise that the sweet potato was sold out. Thankfully, I managed to order a portion of salted chicken and stir fried vegetables.
Stepping into Restaurant Sun Kee was like stepping into a nostalgic museum. They served their dishes on simplistic plastic plates against the background music consisting of the endless mummer of friendly neighbourhood conversations. The salted chicken was tender having soaked up the aromatic herbs in the broth over night. The fresh vegetables were crunchy, stir fried and extremely flavourful. A nice place to stop by especially if you are making your way from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh or Penang.
Different people have varying views of what makes a relaxing holiday. Some find dramatic landscapes, mountains and photography a must. Others look for concrete mountains (a.k.a shopping centres) to satisfy their inner fashionista. I define a relaxing holiday as the ability to loose track of time in a place so intimate with nature that technology and screen time turns into nothing but a distant memory.
After an approximate hour drive from Sun Kee Restoran lay the Jurassic entrance with an abundance of lush greenery to The Banjaran Hot Springs. It is surrounded by limestone caves where one may achieve serendipity and do some self reflection in one of the many villas which lay within the majestic lime stone caves in the resort. With a choice of 4 spacious Garden or Water Villas each with their own hot spring whirl pool and private pool within the villa, I never felt like leaving.
Being spoilt for choice, the resort leaves guests with a fine-dine experience in their award winning restaurant, Jeff’s Cellar. It is constructed within a cave giving it a very romantic atmosphere. Alternatively, one can enjoy a candle light dinner in a more relaxed setting at Pomelo. A restaurant by the Geo Thermal Hot springs and surrounded by serene Limestone caves.
My lake villa was decorated romantically with an abundance of rose petals and completed with a rich dark chocolate cake on the bed awaiting my arrival. Aside from the fact the villa is big enough for me to play golf, there was the usual room service menu, an option to arrange for a private BBQ by the villa balcony and even a pretty extensive pillow menu. Out back was a plunge pool and geothermal hot spring water tub which encourages one to pop out the bubbly and a fruit platter on a warm day and simply laze around the pool. That came with a complimentary mini-bar. Views from the balcony were breathtaking and zen like where I enjoyed my breakfast amongst nature in the days to come.
Since my visit, when I place the words exclusive, private and unique together, I now think of Jeff’s Cellar, my first ever dining experience in a cave. It has won multiple awards and is showered with praises by various media power houses hence my expectations were as high as the prices they were charging.
My first impression upon walking into the cave was one out of an Indiana Jones movie set with the entrance of the cave beautifully decorated with wooden finishings and rustic wine bottles emitting a vibe as though I was walking into a treasure cove. The interior of the restaurant was rustically decorated with simple and yet chic furniture and painted a warm yellow by the romantic candle light. They even had a private collection of exquisite wines hidden within the mysterious depths of the cave. Although some might find it a little eerie with the occasional sounds of water droplets falling from the ceiling mixed with the mysterious vibe that already hung in the stale, musky air, I on the other hand, was simply soaking in the atmosphere and loving every second of it.
The Amuse Bouche made a grand and smoking entrance, stirring my gastronomical curiosity as to what lay ahead. The pan seared scallop was soft and tender within, yet charred to a golden brown finish. Topped with ossetra caviar and accompanied by carrot and cumin sand, crispy duck and finished off with a cress.
The Foie Gras was served on a bed of french brioche and accompanied by caramelised onion puree & grape juice reduction which was as soft as a sponge cake and melted in my mouth. An absolute treat leaving me craving for more.
Mid way, I had an assorted bread basket which was a mixture of store bought and home made delights which were so good that I couldn’t tell them apart.
The Lobster Bisque was served table side with to the theatrics of having the wait staff pouring in front of me to my absolute delight. It was bursting with exotic flavours from the pistachio spheres, corn kernels, lobster dust and poached lobster. It was rich and creamy with a lovely texture to it.
The cod fish arrived beautifully plated and looking like an art piece in a museum with its vibrant colours. It was pan fried to a beautiful shade of brown on the top, stewed in tomato consommé and accompanied by saffron risotto, scallops, mussels and prawns. The risotto had a very creamy and buttery texture in my mouth.
The Japanese Wagyu Beef was succulent and cooked to a perfect doneness, medium rare, which melted in my mouth like butter. It was served accompanied with truffle mashed potatoes, burnt onion, porcini mushrooms, charred spring onion & beef jus.
Concluding the sublime meal was a rich debauched Double Chocolate Brownie accompanied by Ipoh white coffee mousse, pistachio gelato, sea salt, 23k edible gold leaves on a bed of almond crumbs. It was an extremely creative way of adding a splash of local flavours to a traditional dessert.
Setting Banjaran apart from many other resorts is their very own organic herbal garden which supplies their kitchen the garden fresh ingredients. Towards the end of my dining experience in Jeff’s Cellar, a cart of pots was wheeled over housing a variety of tea leaves and herbs used to make tea hence completing the meal.
Bright eyed and bushy tailed, I crawled out of bed to the mystic sight of the misty lakes. It felt like I was stepping onto the film set of the Phantom of The Opera. Unlike most hotels and resorts which tend to serve over cooked food buffet style, I had the choice of having breakfast in my villa with quite a variety to choose from. After spending a couple of soul searching moments with the menu, I decided to choose the dishes which had the most potential to go very wrong. Brioche French Toast, Steak and Eggs and the Norwegian’s.
Most french toast either ends up too soggy due to condensation or is over toasted like a biscuit. These however were nice and crispy on the surface and fluffy within with a little sprinkle of icing sugar.
Steak and eggs are not one to age well when left to sit. The steak however, was surprisingly, perfectly done. It had not arrived overcooked and went well with the roasted potatoes and eggs.
The Norwegian could have gone wrong in so many ways from the egg to the sour dough, right down to the salmon. However, the entire dish was put together like a well rehearsed orchestra. The salmon was fresh and the eggs cooked beautifully.
Last but not least, a nice platter of fresh fruit. My eyes might have been a little bigger than my tummy but it was well worth the calories.
Mid-way through my breakfast, a pair of eyes emerged from the depths of the murky waters beside me. A little intimidating initially but I eventually figured out that my cold blooded companion was just out for breakfast too.
After breakfast, I embarked on a journey to the caves on foot which took me on a scenic path through the lush greenery. Round about 9.30am, though the mist over the waters had lifted, the beautiful water lilies were in full bloom. The winding path continued along the lush foliage against the peaceful backdrop of countless miniature waterfalls.
A cave, a natural void in the ground or simply a tourist attraction for curious souls in search of glow worms and bats, or at least till I discovered the caves in Banjaran. Not only did they create a mystical and exclusive dining experience in the caves, they also have 3 other caves on their premises, Steam, Crystal and Meditation.
There is no better sauna than a natural one within the steam cave. Living up to it’s name, it is pretty humid and warm within making it one of the most lethal locations for electronic devices be it your DSLR or mobile phone. After enjoying a sauna, one may cool off in the dipping pool just steps away from the cave’s entrance.
Should you be seeking your inner peace, you may proceed onto the Crystal Cave where one may sit on one of the many pillows provided to practice yoga, admire the starry ceiling or simply achieve a sense of zen. Needless to say, the cave is also filled with beautiful crystals, some highlighted with various spot lights and LED lights.
Individuals looking to release some pent up emotions within or simply to embrace their closet Tarzan may proceed to the Meditation Cave which has a very interesting echo due to its unique structure. But please ensure there’s noone meditating prior to making any sort of war cry.
After a day of exploring, I decided to indulge in some room service. Having already accustomed to the high quality of food, I had pretty high expectations even though it was room-service.
For a start, I ordered a delicious plate of crispy chicken which arrived warm on a bed of vegetables accompanied by a generous amount of lime and chilli.
This was followed by a plate of Fried Kway Teow served on a banana leaf with the lovely wok-hei fragrance and flavour which many of us long for, sprinkled with a generous amount of garnishing.
Both the soup and brownie arrived emitting a fine-dine vibe with their petite plating. The soup was served separate from the spices giving the diners the pleasure of adding it themselves and mixing it all up to create a melody of flavours which one would expect when dining in a restaurant.
The brownie was crusty on the outside yet warm and moist within. Striking a perfect balance of sweet and sour with the dark chocolate and syrup.
In many ways, more often than not, as a critic, I am in a situation where I risk next to none yet deliver my judgement with the flick of a pen. Though negative criticism is both fun to write and read, new discoveries and unorthodox experiences are one which are more meaningful and heart-warming.
Unlike many of my other trips, this trip was soul searching and peaceful. Instead of spending my time on the road and maximising my Leica, I spent much of my time getting intimate with nature yet in a luxurious setting.
From the lush greenery, to the mystic caves I always felt at home with nature, having given much room to breathe by the Resort staff yet knowing they are just a phone call away like a genie in a bottle fulfilling one’s every need.
My Gastronomical Experience was nothing short of breath taking and one of a kind both flavour and setting. Though some may claim that the resort charges astronomical prices, I believe that for the service and quality I experience it was money well spent. Not only was The Banjaran a resort where quality is over quantity, it is where luxury basks in the glory of serendipity. I will definitely be back, hungry for more.