On a lazy Friday evening, the sun is a bright orb in the sky, buttering the Earth with heat so scorchingly fiery that even the most intrepid mortals are inclined to scuttle away to the nearest air-conditioned haven.
But at Curious Kitchen, perched on the rooftop of Petaling Jaya’s Tropicana Avenue, that stifling, oppressive heat is miraculously non-existent, although no air-conditioning can be discerned. Instead, the eatery is swatched in patchworks of sunlight that lend a dreamy quality to the afternoon, while a gentle, recurring breeze lifts sweaty hairs off sweaty shoulders with all the skill of a talented masseuse kneading the knots out of overworked muscles.
In the foreground, an open kitchen offers unparalleled views of chefs in action and delicious aromas wafting through, stirring rumbles in hopeful stomachs. All in all, the stage is set for a wonderful night.
The brainchild of college buddies Andrew Lai and Mark Lee, Curious Kitchen was birthed following the success of the duo’s first F&B foray, Curious Grocer, an online grocer specialising in Iberico pork.
When Curious Grocer first started, the friends used their office in Sentul, Kuala Lumpur as an education space for customers. Initial interest in their produce proved so positive that they soon started a private dining kitchen, catering for up to 14 people. Eventually, they decided to set up their own restaurant.
“We thought of a restaurant concept that we could pull off that would be interesting for customers to experience. And we found this place which is honestly a great event space because it’s a rooftop, and how many rooftop places are there? Very few and far between.
“Funnily enough, we met some people through our private dinners who asked us if we had any expansion plans. So we told them, ‘Oh, yeah, we saw this nice place in Tropicana Avenue’, and they said , ‘Oh yeah, that’s our space’. They are our silent partners now, so it was a nice turn of events,” says Lai.
The kitchen is helmed by Spanish executive chef Rainer Michael Krieger, who in tandem with Lee and Lai, places a heavy emphasis on quality produce and ingredients, including the famed Iberico from Curious Grocer, which plays a prominent role on the menu.
Start your gastronomic odyssey here with the onion soup (RM18), made in the style of the classic French onion soup. Here, onions are the first, last and often, only, thing you think of as you bite down on mouthfuls of this deliciously sweet, still slightly firm root vegetable slow-cooked for two hours to reach caramelisation point. Other players in this constellation also have something to offer – the tiny slivers of Iberico ham in the mix provide nice salty bursts of flavour while the melted mozzarella and gruyere cheese add an opulently creamy quality to the meal.
Next up, try the smoked duck (RM32), which is probably one of the most interesting things to emerge out of Curious Kitchen and takes its inspiration from the Thai mango salad. In this incarnation, jackfruit is the star of this salad, and rightly so, as the fruit has been sourced from Lai’s father-in-law’s award-winning farm.
“He is one of the country’s premier jackfruit farmers and has been growing it for the past 30 years. It is the top grade – this is really one of the country’s best jackfruits,” enthuses Lai.
The jackfruit is truly in a league of its own – gently sweet with a velvety mouthfeel. This superstar is interspersed with other cast members like cherry tomatoes, spring onions, shallots, cili padi and an orange vinaigrette, all of which combine to offer volume, texture and heat. The smoked duck laid atop adds a tender, meaty overture to this euphoric meal, but to give you an indication of just how good the jackfruit’s role is here, let’s just say that if this salad were a movie, jackfruit would be played by Meryl Streep. Enough said.
The barramundi (RM60 for 300g) is essentially grilled barramundi fillet, served with lemon butter sauce, tomato concasse and capers in what proves to be a delightfully symphonic flavour pairing. The fish is very fresh with crisp skin and tender, flaky flesh and this aquatic quality is contrasted with the creamy, zesty underpinnings of the viscous lemon butter sauce. Add a dollop of the tomato concasse and a few capers to this amalgamation, and the flavour profile shifts again, offering tartness and a salty underbelly that speaks volumes about the meal’s ability to offer a transformative experience with every mouthful.
The show-stopper at Curious Kitchen is definitely the Iberico top loin (RM95 for 220g). The top loin is one of the most prized parts of the black-hoofed Iberico pig (otherwise known as pata negra), which is famed for its intramuscular fat.
Interestingly, Iberico pigs typically weigh a whopping 200kg, but the top loin extracted from each animal only comes up to a measly 300g, hence the desirability factor.
The top loin is cooked so that it has a lovely pink blush in the middle. This level of doneness is relatively safe because Iberico pigs are fed on a steady diet of acorns (around 8kg to 10kg a day), and this heavily controlled diet lends itself to safer consumption, even when it is not cooked all the way through.
Taste-wise, the loin has an evocative nutty taste and a tender, almost silken mouthfeel. It isn’t quite melt-in-the-mouth but the mastication required of each morsel is pleasant rather than tedious.
Amazingly, the meat does a great job of imitating a piece of steak, until that is, the flavours start to settle on your palate. That’s when the porcine elements start to kick in and your brain realigns to the idea that this is indeed a piece of pork. The only slight quibble you might have about the meat is that it’s a tad underseasoned, but that’s easily solved with either a salt grinder or a dab of the addictively good kazumi wasabi served on the side.
Then there is the Iberico ribs (RM110 for a half slab) which require pre-ordering (one day in advance). The roasted ribs are incredibly pliable and can be easily pried clean away from the bone. The meat itself is very flavourful on its own, but if you like your ribs slathered in sauce, go ahead and dunk them in the homemade bourbon barbecue sauce, which charges the meat with a sweet alcoholic undercurrent.
Keep some storage space in your belly for a sweet denouement in the form of the chocolate mousse (RM16). Based on Rainer’s family recipe, this dark chocolate mousse offers lightly sweet, pillowy soft satisfaction that is offset by the slight astringency of the forest berries compote and the crunch of roasted hazelnuts.
Although transitioning from a private kitchen to a full-blown restaurant is akin to diving in a shallow pool and then immediately trying out for the Olympic diving team, Lee and Lai have done a remarkable job of plunging into the deep end. So much so that they are raring to do it again.
“Running a restaurant is not easy, there are so many things to overcome. But having said that, when you actually see people enjoying the food, I think that makes it all okay,” says Lai.
2nd floor, Tropicana Avenue
12, Persiaran Tropicana
47410 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Tel: 010-666 1048
Open daily: 5pm to 1am