A fresh fusion
This journey through Johor Bahru would not be complete without a foray into a movement that's all too familiar to Singaporeans. Like the mod-sin wave that's washed over Singapore since 2005 when lawyer-turned-chef Willin Low coined the term, mod-malaysian cuisine has been gaining serious ground in the last five years. Fine dining restaurants in Kuala Lumpur, such as Dewakan and Beta are leading the way, but that doesn't mean that cities like Johor Bahru aren't forging their own paths.
Mrs Whó (ohmywho.com), opened in August 2017 by sisters Ren and Mel, takes its mission seriously to amp up Western favourites with a touch of Malaysian inspiration, whether through swapping out ingredients or adding a spicy twist. Sure, there are modernised versions of nasi lemak Nyonya and rendang burger, but where it gets interesting is in originals like the laksta - pasta, clams and stir-fried prawns in spicy laksa gravy. Or the curried ramen bowl, where their own house curry broth is paired with sesame honey tofu, sweet corn and ajitsuke tamago. A deserving finale of popiah pisang brings together banana, nutella, shaved cheddar, crush peanuts and a chocolate dip - truly Malaysian.
Meanwhile, Sprout (sproutjb.com) - Johor's earliest modern European restaurant opened in 2015 - is on hiatus. It will reopen as a popup kitchen which will share the kitchen with new concept Champor, a casual diner with local flavours, in December. Sprout's founder is 28-year-old local chef Mui Kai Quan, who has worked in Singapore at Esquina and Osteria Mozza, and espouses a manifesto to celebrate fresh Malaysian produce. His previous dishes incorporate ingredients, such as fresh-caught orange spotted garoupa and squid from Pontian, and micro greens from Kempas. With so much promise and talent just waiting to take the stage across the border, you'll be well rewarded for venturing out of your comfort zone.