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Sunday October 10, 2010

Borneo delights

A new restaurant is bridging the distance and bringing east Malaysian delights to the very heart of Kuala Lumpur.

MANY of us are familiar with the favourite foods originating from peninsula Malaysia but when east Malaysian dishes are mentioned, many draw a blank. What, for example, is Anjau Duck, Terubok Masin or Foochow Bagels?

But this may change soon, thanks to enterprising restaurateur Suzianna Wong-Svrcula, who is also the owner of Piccolo Mondo Italian Restaurant. Hailing from Sibu, Sarawak, Wong-Svrcula has recently opened her latest endeavour, the White Rajah Borneo Cafe, at Bintang Walk, KL.

Joint effort: Wong-Svrcula with her son, Nikolai, who is helping her out with business development and marketing.

“I’ve been toying with this idea for a very long time and I finally decided to go ahead,” she says. “Looking at the current offerings, which have become a bit boring and predictable, I feel that it’s the right time to introduce something new.”

Of Foochow descent, Wong-Svrcula is an accountant by profession and has spent a large part of her life working for multinational corporations abroad before she returned to Malaysia in 1983.

The first Piccolo Mondo opened in 1996 at Plaza Damansara, which Wong-Svrcula recalls as a “small outfit” for which she was only an investor then. Two years later, they found themselves doing business at Bintang Walk where another Piccolo Mondo was opened.

In these 14 years, the mother-of-two soon found her interest growing in the F&B industry and it has now culminated in the addition of White Rajah to her portfolio.

“We’re starting out with a cafe for now. In the future, however, we’d like the brand to include a restaurant,” she says, believing that this concept will fly due to the shortage of restaurants serving east Malaysian food in town. “There are a couple here and there, but they’re not in the city,” she laments.

She also believes that this will be a good place for tourists to experience Malaysian food. “We’ve had plenty of tourists asking us for places where they could go to for authentic Malaysian food and we simply don’t have enough in this area,” says Wong-Svrcula.

Foochow Bagels

Opened only a few weeks ago, the White Rajah Borneo Cafe is a refreshing addition to the shopping district. With white-panelled floor-to-ceiling windows lined with flowers as its facade, it looks welcoming and quaint.

Wong-Svrcula explains: “We want to create the feel of an English garden because, as you know, James Brooke, the White Rajah, was English.”

Immediately upon entering the restaurant, one will notice a white plank wall adorned with gardening tools and plants, which reinforces the impression of being in a large gardening shed. Throughout the cafe, white wooden trellises are to be found. And the light-coloured furniture and finishing completes the look.

“The outer area of the restaurant facilitates more casual dining experience,” explains Wong-Svrcula. However, the inner part, she says, is decked in darker colours and sets a more serious and formal mood. This is where a sitting room with classic furniture and native decoration pieces can be found. “This is for a more intimate meal.”

Going back to food, Wong-Svrcula describes east Malaysia as a place of rich gastronomic offerings and adds that she would like to introduce many more dishes but is restricted by pragmatic considerations.

Hot Stone Wild Rice

“There are some native dishes which are very plain looking but tastes very good. However, as a restaurant owner, I find that it is better to serve food that is visually stimulating as well.”

One dish that she would dearly love to serve at White Rajah is umai (Sarawak raw fish salad). But she did not dare to risk it: “You have to be very careful when serving raw fish. I considered replacing the raw fish with smoked salmon but that’s going to compromise the dish,” she explains.

Nevertheless, with approximately 60 items on the menu of Foochow, Sarawakian, Sabahan and Indonesian origins, there are still plenty to eat here.

Firstly, the Foochow Bagels (also known as kong piang) are good. Served warm and available plain (RM8.90 for five) or stuffed with fried shallots (RM9.90 for five), the chewy bagels are a delightful starter. The plain ones resemble the American bagels, only it’s about a fourth of the size.

Kolo Mee

According to Wong-Svrcula, they can be eaten plain, with butter or dipped in sauces.

“This is a very common bread in our community. When I was a kid, we used to string it around our neck and take a chomp whenever we got hungry!”

Then there’s the Sarawak Laksa (RM18.90), which also packs a nice flavour that complements the vermicelli very well. To eat this famous curry noodles dish, Wong-Svrcula insists that the sambal – made of prawn paste, chilli and other spices – is a very important element. “It does two things – makes it spicier and enhances the taste of the soup.”

Another item that comes highly recommended by her is the Anjau Duck (RM22.90). She chides her son, Nikolai, teasingly when he admits he hasn’t tried the dish. “You’re not Foochow if you haven’t had Anjau Duck!”

Basically, it is braised duck served with a thick coating of anjau, which comprises residual glutinous rice and red rice yeast that has been used to make red rice wine. The taste is similar to the red wine mee suah that’s famous in Sitiawan, Perak (another area with a strong Foochow presence), except that it is more diluted in a soup. “This is a dish that surprises although some may find it to be an acquired taste,” she says.

Of course, no east Malaysian restaurant will be complete without the Kolo Mee (RM14.90) Here, they also serve Kolo Mee (RM14.90), a plain noodle-and-minced-meat dish that has won the hearts of many Malaysian foodies. However, as the restaurant is pork-free, those who are hoping to find the east Malaysian version here might be disappointed. Still, the noodles are springy and tasty enough.

The Salted Terubok Lemak (RM22.90) is also a speciality at White Rajah. “This fish is prized in east Malaysia for its sweet meat – so much so that supply is running short due to overfishing,” says Wong-Svrcula, adding that there are times when you can’t even get the fish.

She informs us that Sarawakians eat it plain sometimes, without the gravy. There’s a catch, however: the terubok is infamous for its small, tiny bones, making it necessary to be careful when eating it.

Anjau Duck

The Hot Stone Wild Rice (RM14.90) – a mix of wild and fragrant rice fried with vegetables and egg, and served in a hot stone bowl – is not bad, if a bit oily. The dark brown grains of wild rice add a delightful texture.

For information on the cafe’s latest events and offerings, check out its Facebook page or call 016-228 2454 for reservations. It is located at Piccolo Galeria, Bintang Walk, Jalan Bukit Bintang, KL.

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