Bor­der Town

Across the Cause­way from Sin­ga­pore, Johor Bahru’s new wave of mod­ern, taste­ful es­tab­lish­ments is lead­ing the way for ad­ven­tur­ous food­ies to fol­low.

Epicure - - CONTENTS - By June Lee

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 (the­, 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 (­girou), 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 (the­merk­ 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 ( 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

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