There is something about Shelley Yu’s that instantly makes you feel a little off-kilter. Not in a bad way or anything, it’s just that it’s hard to get an immediate sense of where you are or what to expect.
The décor might have something to do with this – you’ll notice black-and-white photographs juxtaposed against vivid floral artwork; and antique-looking marble-topped tables and rattan chairs set against the backdrop of a sparkling new bar table – anachronistic mismatches that somehow give the place a kitschy charm, once you’ve settled in and had time to look around.
The eatery is the brainchild of founders Tunku Khairil Ibrahim (owner of Ril’s Steakhouse in Bangsar and The Cow & Chicken in Hartamas, both in Kuala Lumpur) and Rachel Henry as well as other partners – one of whom lent his wife’s name to the eatery. It’s a name that evokes images of characters from a Somerset Maugham tale, which in turn gives the eatery an air of mystique, not unlike the enigma surrounding the spy Mata Hari.
“People are always like, ‘Who is Shelley ah?’ It’s a common question that we get from most customers,” says Ruth Sison, the outlet manager at Shelley Yu’s.
While the guessing game about the real Shelley Yu will no doubt continue, there is no big mystery to clear about the hearty, traditional nonya fare served at the restaurant.
The menu was devised by Khairil and head chef Peter Lim, who spent many years tailing and watching his nonya aunties and baba uncles in Malacca whip up all sorts of delicious meals. Lim built his culinary repertoire on that as well as a stint at his brother’s nonya restaurant.
As a result, many of the recipes have been plucked straight from his rich Rolodex. “When you see people cooking this every day from the time you were a kid, you know how to do it already – it’s in your head. That’s how I learnt,” he says.
There are also lots of locally-sourced condiments on the menu, derived from Lim’s long-standing ties with people in Malacca who continue to produce things the old-fashioned way. Like the restaurant’s deeply-flavoured, pungent cincalok, for instance, which is sourced from an aunt in Malacca who has been making it for aeons. “She and I are like best friends lah,” jokes Lim.
There are plenty of things on the menu to titillate your senses, but go slow and start with the Jumbo Udang Pai Tee (RM22), which boasts a large top hat shell filled with crunchy vegetables like sengkuang (yam bean) and cucumber. The pastry shell is crisp but stays clear of being oily, while the ingredients in it are generous and have a nice balance of flavours. It’s a pleasant opening act to some of the bigger stars on the menu.
Like the Rusuk Masak Kicap (RM56) which features a hunk of short rib slow-cooked in the oven for 18 hours in a mixture of spices and soy sauce. The sauce coats the meat like a well-loved blanket and is outstanding – salty, slightly spicy, sweet, thick and robustly flavoured.
The texture of the meat, on the other hand, depends on which part you get – some bits are soft and pull-apart tender, while others are slightly chewier and stringier.
Thankfully, the Udang Sambal Petai (RM48) offers redemption, in the form of plump prawns coated in belacan and lots and lots (and lots) of petai. This is a very good version of sambal petai – the bitter flavours of the beans really come through and the belacan is spicy and well-balanced. And those prawns are great – voluptuous and perfectly cooked.
Then there is the Ikan Goreng Chilli (RM50), which features a reasonably large slab of fried senangin fish coated with a chilli paste made from a blend of chillies, onions and a mysterious addition that Lim calls his “secret recipe”.
“It’s all about the technique of cooking – everything is slow-cooked until all the flavours come together. The secret ingredient is really the cooking technique,” he says.
The fish has been fried perfectly and has a nice crispy crust, rendering bones and joints easily digestible (if, like me, you like those bits best). The chilli paste, however, is a little muted, especially if you were expecting a rich, robust paste.
Lim’s Telur Dadar Cincalok (RM20) meanwhile features a large fluffy omelette that is pillowy soft and lightly crisp on the edges. Studded with red onion and spring onion, the omelette has lots of crunch and flavour and the cincalok undertones are omnipresent without being overpowering.
Lim says instead of putting the cincalok into the omelette mixture, he fries it first so that it doesn’t become too salty, which is key to getting the right balance of flavours in the omelette.
For dessert, have a go at the house-made cendol (RM14). Made up of all the usual suspects – coconut milk, palm sugar and screw-pine jelly, the cendol is very cold and refreshing and has the perfect complement of flavours – tropical and coconut-ey.
A visit to Shelly Yu’s would be wasted if you didn’t try the eatery’s signature Peranakan-inspired cocktails, all of which have been designed by former beverage director Zachary Luther. The eatery specialises in gin and tonics, and makes its own tamarind, bunga telang and pandan tonic water. You can start with the West Winds Sabre (RM26) before moving on to the West Winds Cutlass (RM29).
The former is infused with bunga telang tonic and is a floral, fruity concoction that is very refreshing and light. It’s also deceptively addictive.
The latter, meanwhile, is infused with pandan tonic and is quite a lethal, potent intoxicant that has its edges softened by the plant-based flavours of the pandan.
If at first you walk into Shelley Yu’s a tad confused by the amalgamation of concepts and ideas that don’t seem like ideal soulmates, once you sit back, relax, have a drink and eat, you’ll understand that everything is exactly as it should be.
49, Jalan Telawi 3
59100 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-2201 4139
Open daily: noon to 3pm (lunch); 3pm to 6pm (drinks only); 6pm to 11pm (dinner); 11pm to 2am (drinks only).