That's entertainment

17 Oct 2007 by Mark Caswell

There’s a party at the Asian Heritage Row tonight,” says Tiang Li Ming, director of communications at The Westin Kuala Lumpur. “Why don’t you come?”

It’s a wet Wednesday afternoon in July and we are seated on high stools at Qba, the stylish Latin bar at the 443-room Westin, watching bartender Andy Freeman teach a group of young hopefuls the art of juggling bottles and concocting an espresso martini.

Freeman, who’s based in Sydney and flies into Kuala Lumpur (KL) every two months to impart his bartending skills, soon joins us to praise KL’s nightlife. “Every night is a Saturday night in this city – the options are amazing,” he says. Qba, itself a magnet for after-work musings, has a Latin grill and cigar lounge in an old Cuban setting featuring a grand staircase, dark wood interiors, thick maroon drapes and discreet candle lighting. 

Ask any white-collar Malaysian about KL’s vibrant nightspots and you will be pointed in the general direction of three well-defined areas: Asian Heritage Row (AHR), Changkat Bukit Bintang (where the Westin is located) and Jalan P Ramlee. My friend Li Ming raves about AHR, a “hip street” of ritzy restaurants, clubs, bistros and bars, all within hopping distance of each other along Jalan Doraisamy. That evening, the private party (lots of free-flowing champagne and classy Malay professionals) is at Atrium, a two-level nightclub done up in flame-red lights and serving fiery finger food.

What gives AHR character is that all the outlets here are housed in colonial, pre-war buildings more than 80 years old, saved from neglect and converted into unique concepts offering fare from Japanese and Vietnamese to Indian and Italian. The outlets have patios for al fresco dining to ensure the party spills on to the streets.

“It’s a hub of contemporary Asian lifestyle in KL,” says Isacc Ali, marketing manager of IndoChine, CoChine and Bar SaVanh, located at the beginning of the street and adorned with Buddha busts, terracotta pots and a fishpond. Other popular watering holes here include W Wineroom, Mojo and The Loft, located up a flight of glowing-red stairs with high ceilings, psychedelic lights and retro couches. Even on weeknights, the floor here comes alive with house, R&B and disco soul. A champagne cocktail costs RM76 (£11) and meat skewers RM23 (£3.30), served by waiters sporting nose rings and a lot of attitude.

AHR also benefits residents at the Sheraton Imperial right next to it (currently undergoing a US$12 million renovation, the hotel will reopen as one of Starwood’s Luxury Collection properties in 2008). Janet McNab, regional director of sales and marketing for Starwood in south-east Asia, says the area offers the hotel’s guests “quick access to a kaleidoscope of dining options”.

My next stop is Changkat Bukit Bintang, a steep tree-lined street featuring a strip of two-storey restaurants, pubs and clubs on either side. A quick stroll and you can spot a number of fancy Japanese, South American, Sri Lankan and Iraqi joints here. On any given weeknight, this stretch is filled with trendy partygoers.

Twenty One, the newest outlet on the block, has a kitchen downstairs and lounge bar upstairs. As its owner Dan Thompson, a Briton who has been in KL for the last seven years, puts it, the venue plays “sexy house and retro music” to target young corporate customers.

Thompson says Changkat Bukit Bintang is unique for its diversity. “KL is a bigger melting pot than Singapore,” he adds. “The people are brought up in three different cultures, so they are more adventurous about food.”

On a parallel road, camouflaged by dense tropical greens, is the discreet door to No Black Tie – blink and you’ll miss it – a Japanese gastro bar and live jazz club with an elite guest list. Besides the Japanese menu (soft shell crab agemaki and spaghetti mentaiko), it has an impressive line-up of local and international acts every night. Owner Evelyn Hii says it’s a microcosm of KL’s culture, offering classical music in a bar setting. As you enter, you’ll notice the dramatic lighting, and don’t miss the stunning black-and-white photographs of the artists who have performed here. A set dinner costs RM108 (£16), including the show.

Jalan P Ramlee in the Golden Triangle is next on my nocturnal radar. With the imposing 452-metre twin Petronas Towers (KL’s proudest icon) soaring in the background, this road has a neon-lit ambience which is more American than Asian. As Laetitia Delaire, a young French lecturer at Taylor’s College in KL who’s a frequent visitor, puts it: “It’s a little strip of Hawaii in the heart of KL.”

She’s right. Preceded by Hard Rock Café and Crossroads (which serves blue fruit punches and satays) at the Concorde Hotel, Jalan P Ramlee is characterised by a jamboree of musical sounds and an overriding beach theme. The Beach Club Café, a pioneer of this trend on the stretch, has palm trees and a catamaran parked at the entrance. An aquarium with live sharks tops the bar area and, besides serving copious amounts of Carlsberg beer, it specialises in seafood pizza and Nasi Kampur Beach (rice with fish curry, chicken rendang and mutton masala served on a banana leaf).

Other chilled hangouts on the street includ Rum Jungle and, further down, the 30,000 sqft Aloha, with its thatched huts, dance floor, bistro and VIP lounge. The Hawaiian theme is unmistakable, with the staff sporting beachwear and Batik shirts, 
but you can’t enter wearing slippers.

Yet another nightspot off Jalan P Ramlee is Luna, on the rooftop of the Pacific Regency Hotel Suites. A contemporary designer lounge serving spicy prawn cocktails and Thai chicken wings, Luna has a restaurant and poolside bar with 16 cubicles and views of KL from the 34th floor. Packed even on week nights, it’s great for informal corporate entertaining. Yet another rooftop venue is SkyBar, at level 33 of the Traders Hotel, which is a swimming pool by day and bar by night.

Many of KL’s hotels have their own share of popular haunts. The 468-room Hotel Nikko Kuala Lumpur, a five-star business property near the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre is notable for its Benkay Japanese restaurant – complete with a teppanyaki room, sushi bar and tatami rooms – while the hotel’s all-day Café Serena Brasserie has lavish buffet spreads and is a great place to start the day. The 921-unit Renaissance Kuala Lumpur (which faces Zuok, yet another hot spot) has Dynasty, a restaurant which serves dim sum and Cantonese specialities. Business travellers will also find the 565-room Crowne Plaza Mutiara Kuala Lumpur appealing because it offers the Angsana Spa – the only one in Malaysia – with 22 treatment rooms set in a true tropical environment to rescue you away from the monotony of meetings.  

 Most hotels are in the throes of renovation to tie in with Malaysia’s celebrations of 50 years of independence. There are posters everywhere, announcing 2007 as “Visit Malaysia Year”, and the city is reinventing itself with shiny real estate projects. Low Gee Tat, president of the Malaysian Association of Hotel Owners and a local tycoon whose family has been in the hospitality business for the last five decades, says the country offers the upmarket corporate traveller value for money. “Visit Malaysia Year 2007 is only part one,” he says. “There are bigger things in store.” Tat is also celebrating 50 years of the Federal Hotel, which his family started and which was KL’s first big hotel.

Malaysia, a courteous nation which has Selamat Datang (“welcome” in Malay) written all over it – at the airport as you arrive, in the streets and the hotels – is on a drive to woo over 20 million visitors in 2007. And as one of Asia’s culinary hotspots, Kuala Lumpur is, quite literally, going the whole hog. To attract Arab tourists – the period from June to September is popularly known as the Arabic season – some parts of the city had acquired an Arabian slant during my visit, with a plethora of food festivals. 

“Suddenly, the shishas and shawarmas start appearing,” says Bakhtiar Allany, general manager of World Commerce Holidays in KL. “Bukit Bintang looks like anywhere in Saudi Arabia or the UAE.” That’s also when small, smokey Middle Eastern restaurants such as Al Basha televise popular football matches to lure the Arab crowd.

After the mandatory rounds of tourist sights, including Petronas, the Eye of Malaysia (KL’s version of the London Eye) and the KL Tower, visitors can explore the city’s cuisine which, like Malaysia, is a mix of Asian cultures – Malay, Chinese and Indian. Food is a popular pastime, whether at upmarket joints or hawker centres, and always a conversation point over tall glasses of chilled barley water or iced lemon tea. Ask Zanita Anuar, director of research and development at the National Art Gallery, who is of Indian, Malay and Chinese origin. “Our food is so mixed,” she says, pointing to her lunch from the café at Istana Budaya, “we can eat curry [Indian], satay [Malay] and noodles [Chinese] off the same plate.”

To encourage the culture of food and art, an arts garden, Laman Santai, is soon coming up in the open area between the National Art Gallery and Istana Budaya (a high-end theatre which stages international productions such as Saturday Night Fever and The King and I). Anuar calls it a new concept which will host “celebrity artistes who can also cook”. Sounds like there’s yet another entertainment zone in the making in buzzing downtown KL.

Upcoming hotels

KL currently has around 20 five-star hotels, with more due to open soon. New properties slated to be completed between now and 2009 include:

  • Four Seasons hotel and apartment complex with 200 rooms and 223 apartments
  • 400-room Grand Hyatt
  • 300 rooms in The Gardens, Mid Valley City
  • 394-room Conlay Plaza

Fact file

  • The Petronas Towers are connected by a sky-bridge on the 41st floor which is open to visitors.
  • Other popular nightspots are at the Bangsar markets and Sri Hartamas, both of which attract a large expat crowd.
  • Besides malls such as Suria KLCC, Starhill and Lot 10, The Curve is newly popular, and coming up is The Pavilion, destined to be the biggest mall in KL with 450 shops.
  • The KL Tower, at 421 metres, offers a 360-degree view of the city and has a revolving restaurant with evening buffets.
  • Upcoming events include the Malaysia International Gourmet Festival from 2-29 November and the A1 Grand Prix from 26-28 November.  
  • Karaoke bars are also popular in KL. While clubs in neighbouring Singapore are open 24 hours, in KL they are only allowed to open until 3am at present, although club owners are said to be lobbying for change.
  • You can’t leave Malaysia without tasting tropical fruits such as mangosteen or even the notoriously pungent durian. If you smell the durian, you can be sure a hawker centre is nearby.
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