Ensconced along the ground floor of Wisma Lim Foo Yong is Improv Bistro. The eatery is incredibly charming – a large, sprawling space with art pieces by Iranian refugee artist Komeil Zarin lining the walls, a cosy corner filled with books, a stage smack in the middle and a curiously whimsical, almost fairytale quality about it.
“It was always a dream to open a small cafe with lots of books and paintings – somewhere where people who love the arts can come and sit down and just have a coffee and discuss things that matter – so that was the idea,” says Keira Ouali, one of the founders of Improv.
Ouali is a trained lawyer who once worked in the Attorney General’s Chamber and UNHCR before doing a massive pivot and opening Improv with her mother and sister-in-law. Interestingly, Ouali’s family once ran a fish & chips shop in Bangsar, so the family’s love of the F&B scene goes way back.
With Improv, Ouali is hoping to create a space where people can come and eat good food and enjoy live music, art exhibitions and eventually, comedy nights – in keeping with the name of the place.
“We want to bring improv comedy here, and not necessarily big names – anybody can go, it will be like an open mic concept but it has to be something appealing to the crowd. We haven’t started on the comedy side of Improv yet but in the future, that’s what we plan to do,” she says.
The food is also an important component at the eatery, and is guided by seasoned chef Lance U’ren who has had experience working at Michelin starred eatery Le ‘Esprit du Vin in France (now closed).
U’ren was once also the head chef (at the tender age of 24) of jazz bar Bagan in Penang and the famed The Dining Room at Macalister Mansion in Penang. In many ways, U’ren says he has come full circle after learning some valuable lessons as a young head chef.
“There was something about being young and in power – the cooking skills were there but I hadn’t learnt diplomacy yet. I ruled the kitchen like a Gordon Ramsey because that’s how we were trained back then. And I reached a point where I was just totally lost,” he says.
After getting married and taking time out to travel around the world and work on a yacht, U’ren has found his bearings in the kitchen.
“When we started this project, it was supposed to be French regional food, nothing over-the-top, but I think when you start something like that, people are a bit afraid.
When they read the menu, they’re like ‘What is that’? So we said ‘Let’s change strategy, let’s do something that people are more familiar with but let’s keep the techniques and skills’,” he says.
The menu at Improv is very, very diverse and gleans from U’ren’s roots (he is Eurasian but has Turkish and Thai lineage) as well as his travels and international work experiences.
Start your meal at Improv with the French mussels (RM38) which is essentially steamed black lip mussels in tomato sauce and fennel, served with a toasted baguette. This is a light, uncomplicated meal fuelled by fresh, velvety mussels coated in a pleasant tomato-imbued sauce that adds fresh, zesty underpinnings to the meal.
The squid salad (RM22) is made up of crispy squid with coconut biscotti and a lime dressing. The salad is competent – the squid suitably crispy and everything else quite good too, but there is nothing here that really stands out in any memorable way.
The same cannot be said about the Improv gourmet burger (RM39) which is an ode to U’ren’s Turkish roots and encompasses Mediterranean spices entombed in a beef patty, with cheese, Tunisian sauce, cucumber raita and fries rounding out this ensemble.
The burger is delicious – the patty juicy and yielding, and melding fluidly with the cheese, sauce and raita, which add a sumptuous quality to the meal.
Next up, sample the boneless duck leg confit (RM52), a meal which also features sidekicks in the form of mashed buttery potatoes, barberry gel and duck jus and shows off U’ren’s French training.
“It’s not easy to execute a good duck confit but over the years, I think I’ve mastered that technique,” he says.
And he’s right on the money, because the duck has beautifully burnished, crispy skin that gives way to tender, pliable meat.
The mashed potatoes on the side are a thing of beauty – putty soft and flavour-packed while the duck jus lends flavour to the meat, although it would be nice to have more of it.
Perhaps the star offering on the savoury menu is the oven baked butterfish (RM46) which is essentially a fat piece of butterfish laid atop grilled turmeric eggplant, tomato salsa, potato puree and balsamic glaze.
The fish is the real scene-stealer here, with a fresh, flaky quality that proves extremely endearing, while the turmeric eggplant on the side adds a lovely, luscious spice-laden undertone to the dish.
To cap your meal here, have a go at the pavlova (RM22) which has passion fruit, bananas, fresh whipped cream and dark chocolate shavings. This is a really good rendition of the classic dessert, with a texture akin to a light, wispy cloud.
Moving forward, Ouali says she hopes to get the performance aspect of Improv off the ground soon while U’ren is hoping to do more exclusive wine dinners, where he gets to show off his culinary skills. Both agree that there are no immediate plans to expand Improv into anything more than it is at this point.
“We don’t really feel that Improv is a franchisable business – it is very unique on its own and you can’t really replicate it in another location,” says Ouali.
Wisma Lim Foo Yong
86, Jalan Raja Chulan
50200 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-2771 3748
Open Monday to Thursday: 11am to 10pm; Friday to Saturday: 11am to 11.45pm