Fitting snugly in a row of tightly-packed shoplots in Kota Damansara is Front Line Chinese Cuisine. The eatery is easy to miss (possibly because the name emblazoned in Chinese characters on the store front is Yi Xian Guan, which means first line).
But keep an eye out for the place, because it is a rare find – a Chinese restaurant that serves authentic Chinese food from the motherland.
In many ways, the eatery is unique simply because with the passage of time, most Malaysian Chinese restaurants have become heavily influenced by the country’s multiculturalism, developing recipes that incorporate intrinsically local ingredients and bear little resemblance to the Chinese food in China.
Which is why avid foodie Jun Mok and his wife Sangle Liu Heng decided to open Front Line in the first place. The two had visited many regions in China and were amazed by the variety and flavours of the food on offer.
“We wanted to open the restaurant to let Malaysians know what Chinese cuisine is. But China is huge and there are so many famous regions and cooking styles, so we narrowed it down to four styles – Szechuan, Shanghainese, Cantonese and Hunan,” says Mok.
The couple spent a few months developing the menu, which is incredibly diverse and includes a constellation of options that may not ring a bell, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the intricacies of food from China.
Also, because it is ethnocentric cuisine, Mok and his wife are sticklers about the eating culture. If you deign to ask for a fork and spoon (as I did because I am useless with chopsticks), expect to be admonished. “You should learn how to use chopsticks,” Mok might say rather sternly.
But as is often the case, this finicky nature stems from a fierce passion for the food, and this is where things get good.
Start your meal with the Szechuan-style boiled fish in pickled cabbage and chilli soup (RM48). This is a delightful opener to what the eatery is capable of – the soup is filled with plump pieces of fish and has a sour underbelly that is complemented by a light spiciness reverberating throughout. It is a fiesty, bold meal that is likely to leave a lasting impression.
Another Szechuanese dish you should definitely try is the twice-cooked spicy pork slices, which features pork that has been deep-fried twice and is suitably tender and supple. The chilli quotient of the meal might register on your radar, but not enough to cause anything more than a light film of sweat.
Grandma’s home cooked sweet spare ribs (RM38) has its origins in Shanghai and features pull-apart tender pork ribs coated in a sweet, sumptuous sauce. This is a betrothal of two components that couldn’t be more well-suited to each other.
The spicy stir-fried chicken drumstick (RM28) is made up of deep-fried chicken tossed with lots and lots of dried chillies and Szechuan peppercorns. This fiery beast of a dish has quite a tongue-numbing hold, so be prepared for some fowl play.
There is an oft-told, fabled tale behind the Shanghai style imitation crab (RM25). Reputedly, the Empress Dowager Cixi (of the Qing dynasty) had a hankering for crabs one day. As there weren’t any available at the time, the royal chef prepared a meal of scrambled eggs designed to resemble crab meat. Legend has it that this great pretender went on to become one of Cixi’s favourite foods.
At Front Line, the dish is done to perfection. Egg whites and egg yolks are divided into two distinct sections, designed to resemble yin and yang symbols. The egg white has a more neutral taste, although the aroma emanating from it is distinctly eggy. The egg yolks meanwhile offer stronger, more pronounced flavours and firmer bites.
The eatery also has a series of house creations, which are unique to the restaurant. Like the signature eggplant (RM18), a beautifully executed dish that shows off the potential of this purple vegetable to full effect. The eggplant has a lightly crispy, almost glazed exterior that upon biting, succumbs to a petal soft interior. This textural interplay is enhanced by a subtle lick of sweetness that gives the dish an added edge.
Even if cabbage isn’t your thing, you’d do well to try the restaurant’s stir-fried shredded cabbage (RM18). The cabbage has a lively crunch, while the vinegary sauce that coats it is unusual, but unfathomably addictive.
Perhaps the most visually triumphant meal to come out of Front Line is the dessert of purple taro in hot toffee (RM18). The dish takes five to 10 minutes to prepare and is made to order. Aesthetically, it resembles a work of art, with a majestic pile of taro towering on a plate as wispy threads of spun sugar and toffee form an intricate spider’s web around it. Happily, this enchanting fairy tale splendour is just as delicious on the palate with the crusty toffee plying the taro with sweet endearing qualities
Although the restaurant is now two years old, Mok says his goals for the place remain the same: he wants more people to know what authentic Chinese food tastes like.
“We are still looking at other delicious food to put on the menu. But mostly, we want people to know what Chinese cuisine really is,” he says.
Front Line Chinese Cuisine
23-G, Jalan PJU 5/20
Open daily: 11am to 3.30pm; 5.30pm to 10.30pm (closed on the 2nd and 4th Mondays of each month)