Across the Causeway from Singapore, Johor Bahru’s new wave of modern, tasteful establishments is leading the way for adventurous foodies to follow.
Delicious eats across the Causeway from Singapore
The old and new huddle side by side here, as increasingly rare dhoby (laundry) shops and decades-old bakeries are bookended by chic, smart cafes and boutiques.
For many Singaporeans, going to Johor may conjure up thoughts of inexpensive hawker food and stocking up on sundries. It’s not the first place you would think of for hip container cafes, wine-centric restaurants and even minimalist European dining, but the last two years have seen a showcase of new dining concepts around town.
What exactly is cooking in Johor Bahru? Independent Singaporean restaurants have tried to enter the market, evinced by names like Fatboy’s the Burger Bar and Piedra Negra which have since pulled out of the state. Maybe they were just too early, as Johor’s slow simmer has only reached a boil in the past of couple years with fresh investments coming to fruition.
A yen for zen
The latest hub in downtown Johor
Bahru is Zenith Lifestyle Centre (thesuasana.com.my), which officially opened in August after being in the works since 2011. Anchor tenant Neverland JB is part of the Neverland Group from Singapore, while familiar brands such as Toast Box and Malaysian Western food chain Morganfield’s have also set up shop. The complex’s competitive factor is its late-night offerings, with more bars and lounges to cater to an increasingly urban local audience who are looking for things to do beyond dining and shopping in this prime shopping belt - the ‘Orchard Road’ of Johor.
Within Zenith is Gogirou BBQ Meat Street (fb.com/gogirou), a Korean BBQ meat joint inspired by similar places seen in Ilsan’s gogirou - or meat street - in South Korea. Homemade kimchi and other banchan complement the sizzle as beef tongue, pork jowl, marinated beef rib and other premium cuts hit the grill on your tabletops. The staff are on hand to tend to the meat, but if you’re fussy about doneness, you’d best take over the grilling yourself. Due to popular demand, the owners have also introduced the classic chimek combination - beers and fried chicken to keep you going till midnight.
Zenith is also part of the Suasana integrated complex comprising a 36-storey serviced residences and Amari Johor Bahru, a much-needed boost in the arm for accommodation options in the city (see Where to Stay).
A street with cred
Just 10 minutes’ walk away from the mall mania of the Zenithkomtar-city Square triangle are the most Instagrammable streets in Johor, and that’s no idle boast. The charming, gently decaying shophouses along Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and Jalan Dhoby were once home to bustling Straits businesses in the early 20th century, which then found a new creative lease when Jalan Tan Hiok Nee was declared a Heritage Walk in 2009. The walk is aptly bookended by the OCBC Bank branch which hosts a historical board outside its premises at the start of the walk, detailing the story of Tan Hiok Nee, one of the most prominent overseas Chinese merchants at the turn of the century.
The old and new huddle side by side here, as increasingly rare dhoby (laundry) shops and decades-old bakeries are joined by chic, smart cafes and boutiques. Container cafes such as Chaiwalla and Co fill out the occasional empty plots, but the shophouses are where to duck in to fill up on a variety of sweets and savouries.
One of the first cafes to offer a serious brunch menu in 2014, Faculty of Caffeine was the start of the journey of the Merk Group's (themerkgroup.com) concept-led F&B offerings. They followed this up with The Replacement Lodge and Kitchen in 2015, a Melbournian-style cafe and hygge-style boutique accommodations led by Nordic simplicity. It’s your choice for classic eggs Benny or crabmeat mentaiko aglio olio with smoked duck and 63-degree egg, washed down by cold-pressed guava citrus or an Old Fashioned cocktail (never too early). In 2016, they then rode the wave of over-the-top sweet treats with Shakespeare Milkshakes, and are still going strong with must-eat waffles and froyo options.
This year, they’ve upped their stakes by going full-tilt into contemporary modern dining with a 120-seater restaurant, almost 20km away from the hipster zone. Tropique Cafe & Restaurant whisks you out of Malaysia with its modfrench decor wrought around marble and wood accents. Casual in the day, the menu turns grown up at night, with sashimi crudo, foie gras chicken breast and carefully selected cocktails and wines.
Also in the same Ekoflora vicinity as Tropique is Peramakan at Palladium (fb.com/ peramakanatpalladium), a Nyonya restaurant unrelated to the one in Singapore. If your taste buds are begging for hearty Asian spices after a steady diet of grain bowls and eggs benedict, you’ll find it here. The modern plated dishes range from assam ikan pari and inchi kabin (an authentic Penang fried chicken speciality) to handmade desserts like the beautifully presented kueh kosui.
Chef Mui Kai Quan, of upcoming Champor Tropique Cafe & Restaurant Chicken with cashew nuts, Amaya Food Gallery