By SeeFoon Chan-Koppen
Pics by Vivien Lian & Luqman Hakim
Ipoh is beginning to edge out Penang as the food capital of Malaysia. However, with Cafes and restaurants popping up all over Ipoh, it is difficult to keep track of the comings and goings of what has opened and where. And most importantly, what type and how good is the quality of food.
I arrived in Ipoh 22 years ago, having spent most of my working life in the hotel and F&B industry and dining around the world in some of the best and (worst) places. Food has always been dear to my heart and the first irresistible item I fell in love with, here in Ipoh, were the Udang Galah or Tualang prawns – in those days at least six inches long with a huge head to boot. And the best place to have them was in Mun Choong restaurant in Pasir Puteh.
Which led to me to thinking about Ipoh’s ‘Enduring Restaurants’, those restaurants that have stood the test of time, survived the fickle palates of their clients and continue to produce quality food. In this issue, I shall highlight some of these enduring restaurants, their special signature dishes and explore the reasons for their enduring success.
Quality of food above all ranks highest in ongoing success of any restaurant
The Big 3: Food Quality, Service and Perceived Value
While ambiance is a nice-to-have, many a restaurant have opened and closed despite heaps of money spent on decor and conversions.
The fine balance between the Big 3 of food quality, service and perceived value is a subtle one. While some may save up for years for that once in a lifetime taste of a Michelin-star meal, others may splurge occasionally for special occasions and celebrations. And then there is that vast majority who seek out quality meals at reasonable prices, especially in these days of rising food costs.
And here is where that magic Big 3 balance plays a big role.
The food may be superb but if the service is surly and sloppy, it's guaranteed to turn customers away, even if the ambiance is magnificent.
And the reception is important. I go often to Crab House for meals when entertaining my out-of-town guests because Fanny the front-of-house proprietor is always accommodating and willing to adapt dishes to my and my guests’ palate. For example, one Singaporean friend wanted to eat ‘kah heong choi’ or country-style home cooking. With two hours notice, she managed to produce a steamed minced pork with salted fish (it’s not on their menu) and a few other dishes. That is service and the reason I will always stay loyal to Crab House.
However, if ambiance and service is superlative but the food itself is middle of the road and the price is high, then the ‘perceived value’ (it is all in the customer’s perception after all) is not going to be favourable.
A customer who is accustomed to paying RM500-600 for a wild-caught steamed fish will not recoil at RM1000 meals, but for someone who eats at the stalls, RM8 for a plate of fried noodles is high. However, if the quality is superlative, then chances are, even the budget diner will acquiesce.
The most enduring restaurants in my estimation maintain consistently good food quality. The operative word is consistency…..not mood- dependent on market (as in food markets) conditions nor the whims and fancies of the chef!
Customers always look for the same taste they had ‘the last time’ and if this is not forthcoming, as in a change of chef, then they are bound to be disappointed. Unless the new chef has some new recipes up his sleeve and service staff introduce these as ‘something new’.
The biggest obstacle for consistency lies in hiring outside chefs who subsist on a salary and have no vested interest in the success of the restaurant. So they come and go like the weather, occasionally stormy, other times, sunny and breezy and worst of all, like when a hurricane blows and the Chef and all his kitchen helpers quit!! That is when the customer suffers!
So what do restaurants do to survive and sustain their popularity? In this article I will be detailing some of the best strategies that restaurants in Ipoh have used to keep customers returning to them, whether to impress clients and visitors or simply for a celebratory meal.
Some restaurants rely on their trusted old favourites as in Mun Choong’s Tualang Prawns (can be done two ways: tails pan-fried and heads steamed) and their smoked chicken with garlic rice, beef soup and Patin fish in claypot. And here is where you can have the famous Soon Hock (marble goby) fish steamed, as well as their soya sauce baked crabs. Mun Choong has gone from being a one-level restaurant to a three-storied edifice where banquets and big celebrations can be handled with a capacity of 900.
I suspect that the reason for Mun Choong’s success is that the owner, Choong Fong Keam is a chef himself and even today, when old buddies host dinner, he will personally cook. Sourcing for supplies is also their strong point as they always have good fish, crabs and prawns. Also the service is impeccable and unless you order all expensive dishes, the price is reasonable. Dodo (her nickname) gives excellent service and do offer her a glass of your favourite tipple if you happen to BYO. She loves it.
MUN CHOONG511-517 Jalan Pasir Puteh, Taman Camay, 31650 Ipoh.GPS: 4° 34' 37.902''N 101° 4' 51.906''ETel: 012 529 5155 or 05 321 2815Business hours: 11.30am-10pm daily
SUN LEE HOW FOOK
Sun Lee How Fook is another enduring restaurant (since 1967) that has been winning loyal clients for the past 51 years purely on the quality of their food.
Their suckling pig has been wowing customers for years and those in the know will always opt for this restaurant when Suckling Pig is on the cards. Also their Fatt Tiew Cheong (Monk Jumped Over the Fence – superior broth with abalone, shark’s fin, black mushroom, fish bladder and sea cucumber) or as is the case nowadays when a lot of folks are opting for not eating shark’s fin, their Fatt Sui Yuen, same soup and broth but minus the shark’s fin, is unbeatable.
Again here the balance of the Big 3 makes this one of the enduring restaurants in Ipoh.
SUN LEE HOW FOOK96 Jalan Kampar, 30250 Ipoh.GPS: 4°35'04.9"N 101°05'27.6"ETel: 05 253 3268, 241 3268 & 254 3551Business hours: 11.45am-2.30pm & 5.45pm-10.30pm
Although a new kid on the block (since 2012), Crab House, which has been operating now for six years has joined the ranks of enduring restaurants in Ipoh. Fannie and her partner Chef Ah Seng, has worked in some of the top Chinese restaurants in Ipoh and together have produced an equally enduring restaurant that can hold its own against the ‘big boys’.
Small by comparison, Fannie makes up for size in service and Chef Ah Seng in innovation, producing new dishes regularly to satisfy customers’ fickle palates. Their exclusive rights to the total production of some private farm’s white spinach is a case in point, as well as Fannie’s zealous efforts, travelling regularly to Teluk Intan (where she sources the prawns) and Pantai Remis to source for their fresh seafood. Their crabs, most of which are from Indonesia, are some of the best around and cooked in any style to suit your palate.
CRAB HOUSE32 Laluan Perajurit 1, Taman Ipoh Timur, Ipoh.GPS: 4° 37' 1.7472''N 101° 7' 30.4428''ETel: 05 548 3668 or 012 565 7723 (Fanny Chan)Business hours: Open 7 days a week, 11am-2.30pm & 5.30pm-11pm
CITRUS WINE & DINE
Chef Simon Lee needs no introduction having steadfastly built Citrus into the reputable western fine dining restaurant that it is today.
Opened 13 years ago, it began as a modest one-level restaurant in Ipoh Garden East when the area was still an ‘outback’ and customers were asking, “Why so far Simon?” Today, customers are beating a path to his door and with wife Erica manning the front of the house, Simon (who is a trained chef having worked for international hotel chains) has cooked and won a place in the hearts of many an Ipohite who loves good western food without having to mortgage their homes to pay for meals!!
Along the way Simon has taught himself Molecular cooking and has awed many including myself with his mastery of the techniques.
Here at Citrus, every dish is a treat and depending on what your budget is, there is a dish to suit all palates and pockets. All delicious.
If splurging is in the cards, order their Wagyu Tomahawk steak, lobster pasta and finish off with their mixed dessert.
CITRUS WINE AND DINE38-42 Laluan Ipoh Perdana, Taman Ipoh Perdana, Ipoh.GPS: 4° 37' 14.088''N 101° 8' 6.5292''ETel: 05 545 1010 or 012 527 1210 (Erica)Business hours: 11.30am-3pm & 6.30pm-11pm; closed Mondays
When a restaurant has been around for more than 30 years and still garners a faithful following of diners, then you know that it is a restaurant of note. This is Pakeeza, the one North Indian restaurant that has consistently stayed on top of the list in Ipoh for people hankering for North Indian food.
Their secret to success is vigilance over the recipes which are closely guarded secrets of proprietor Rizal’s mother, bearing her imprint. Beautifully plated and presented, the dishes arrive in quick succession served by very courteous and knowledgeable waiters who can happily describe the food as they portion it out.
The pièce de résistance in Pakeeza has to be the Tandoori Chicken, succulent pieces of chicken marinated in their own secret mix of spices and yoghurt, and cooked in the clay oven which has pride of place in their kitchen.
The menu is extensive, with a large selection of breads coming piping hot from the Tandoor. There is also a choice of different styles of rice to go with the various dishes. From plain steamed rice to their Briyani which come plain or with vegetables, chicken, mutton or beef. Must-tries are the boneless Buttered Chicken, Mutton Kerahi and Prawn Masala.
PAKEEZA RESTAURANT (Halal)15-17 Jalan Dato Seri Ahmad Said, Ipoh.GPS: 4° 35.996’N, 101° 5.228’ETel: 05 241 4243 & 05 253 0407Business hours: 11am-3pm & 6pm-10.30pm
Indulgence first opened in a two shop-lot unit opposite the Canning market 22 years ago and moved into its grand heritage premises some years later. As the doyenne of cuisine and fine dining, Julie Song has been instrumental in putting Ipoh on the culinary map with customers beating a path to her door, all the way from Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and further afield.
Julie creates fantasy on a plate, sometimes Japanese, occasionally Korean, add Chinese finesse, local ingredients and always, always with a Cordon Bleu touch.
Now a new Bakery Table for lunch has been launched for takeaway as well as for dine in. Tuck into mouth-watering Charcoal Brioche with black sesame, or Beetroot Milk Buns with red bean mochi, and Salted Egg Yolk Cheese Tarts and a host of other mouth-watering temptations.
Together with lunchtime surprise platters, Indulgence is attempting to remove the perception of it being overpriced and hence not giving value. Which will see Indulgenceoffering all the Big 3 of food quality, service and perceived value.
INDULGENCE RESTAURANT AND LIVING14 Jalan Raja DiHilir, 30350 Ipoh.GPS: 4° 35' 36.636''N 101° 5' 38.6556''ETel: 05 255 7051Business hours: 10am-10.30pm; Monday & Tuesday closed