My first impression of Marta’s Kitchen: spacious, beautiful natural lighting, modern and empty during lunch hour. I had an appointment to meet the owner, so I find it weird that she isn’t here. The manager looks confused, but sits me down and answers all my questions anyway. All goes well until I ask a question that changes the course of things.
“So who is Marta?”
The manager looks at me and says, “I’m sorry. But you are at the wrong restaurant. Marta’s Kitchen is a few doors down.”
I bolt right out after muttering my apologies because now I am late for my actual appointment.
The entrance to Marta’s Restaurant is pretty hidden, so do keep a lookout for the little signboard lest you make the same mistake. It is also closed every Monday, but that is about to change real soon as the restaurant will start to operate daily in the middle of the year.
My second impression of Marta’s Kitchen: cosy, inviting, and bustling with life. The owner Marta Alonso Garcia greets and forgives my tardiness. The restaurant was opened in September last year, and is already a favourite among Spanish food lovers. Make that good Spanish food lovers.
“I made a promise to myself to only make food that I would serve my own children. Everything is homemade here, and everything is made with love,” she says.
Garcia moved to Malaysia five years ago with her Dutch husband Finn Leijnse and two children.
“I was bored with the expat lifestyle. To overcome my boredom, I conducted weekly cooking classes with my friends,” says Garcia before her husband interjects, “They were more like therapy sessions for women, with food and lots of wine thrown in.”
Then Garcia started a catering business, cooking for small-scale events before her clients convinced her that opening a restaurant is the natural next step. Marta’s Kitchen was born and it features a collection of dishes that reminds Garcia of her hometown of Salamanca in northern Spain. She brought everything she could from Spain, including the paella pans and even the tiles on the floor. “Just to give a feel of home,” she says.
Garcia and Leijnse make a formidable team. He takes care of the business front while she runs the kitchen.
And run the kitchen she does. Diners can peek into the action that goes on behind the glass, watching the cooks prepare Paella Valenciana (RM35) that takes at least 30 minutes to prepare. It is cooked fresh in batches, so make sure that the waiter takes your order or you would have to wait for the next batch if they run out of it – which happens very often.
“This is how we ensure freshness. Your paella is fresh off the pan, and not something that’s pre-cooked and reheated later when the orders come in,” says Garcia.
The paella is bursting with flavours thanks to the mixture of seafood, chicken and vegetables. Five days later, you will still be dreaming about your next plate, and this time, you won’t share it. Here’s a revelation: the paella is made using sushi rice.
“Malaysia has all kinds of rice but good quality rice from Spain. The next best thing we could find was the Japanese sushi rice with similar texture. It’s a fortune to pay but we want the best for our paella,” says Garcia.
But if Valenciana doesn’t scratch your paella itch, talk to the chef and they can prepare off-the-menu paella dishes for you (like the squid ink paella in the top image).
The seafood is freshly bought from the Taman Tun Dr Ismail wet market in Kuala Lumpur, to which Leijnse makes a trip at least four times a week – sometimes even more depending on their needs.
They get their vegetables from a local supplier and Garcia proudly shows off a plate of Carpaccio De Tomate (RM17). “Look at how fresh these tomatoes are!” The thinly sliced tomatoes are drenched in a combination of balsamic vinegar, Maldon salt and fresh basil. Marta’s Kitchen uses at least 15kg of fresh tomatoes sourced from Cameron Highlands.
“We try to get everything locally, except for the Iberico, cheese and octopus which we get from several suppliers in Spain. Our lamb is exported from New Zealand,” says Garcia, who is annoyed with the Malaysian weather that forbids her from curing her own ham or making cheese.
“It is so humid here. You cannot dry anything in Malaysia but clothes,” she jests.
Garcia has been cooking since she was a child, getting her start by helping her mother make jam and tomato preserves. Her first solo venture in cooking happened at 14 when she made croquetas from scratch, and customers can order theirs here.
The Croquetas de Jamon (RM19) is filled with the result of a beautiful marriage of bechamel sauce and ham. It is soft with each bite and is best devoured while still warm. You can also try the chicken and mushroom version of the fried goodness, but my vote goes to the ham. Another family favourite that Garcia has included on the menu is Tortilla de Patatas (RM18), a specialty every Spanish mother makes for her children. The onions and potatoes are caramelised in extra virgin olive oil for over an hour on low heat before being wrapped in a kampung egg omelette. The result? Something that is fluffy, soft like clouds and tastes like heaven.
“If you can find any other place that serves better Tortilla de Patatas than here, you tell me,” challenges Garcia.
The local potatoes are also the star of Patatas Bravas (RM16), a dish that Garcia is hell-bent on serving right.
“I have been to many places that serve this classic tapas, but none get it right. I want my clients to come here and taste Patatas Bravas the way it is meant to be eaten.”
And if that means scraping every last bit of the creamy aioli and signature spicy tomato sauce off the bowl with the soft and sweet potatoes, then I’m sure I got it right.
I am not the only one who scrapes the plates clean here. There is nary a plate with leftovers in sight. The patrons love the food, and if my Spanish is to be trusted, they also love the people who run this place like one big family kitchen.
Okay, I can’t speak Spanish, but nobody is yelling and there are lots of smiling and contented faces around me, so that’s a good sign.
Garcia insists that I try the Calamares a la Romana (RM19) – deepfried squid with aioli sauce; Gambas al Ajillo (RM23) – chilli and garlic prawns pan fried in extra virgin olive oil, and Escalibada (RM19) – roasted pepper and eggplant marinated in balsamic vinegar. Uhm, like I could find any fault with them?
If you worry that the smaller price tags equal smaller portions, don’t fret because that is far from the truth. You get decent-sized tapas that will fill you right up and even the tapas set that is meant for one person is big enough to feed two not-too-hungry-or-greedy people.
When you hold a glass of their excellent sangria (RM19 per glass or a jug at RM95 if you’re feeling really thirsty), eat the good Spanish food and listen to the passionate music, you can tell why Garcia misses her beloved Spain.
The experience is so addictive, just like the plate of churros that finally arrives at my table. I dip those perfectly-fried babies into the melted Valrhona chocolate and savour every bite.
At the end of the meal, I thank Garcia for the excellent Spanish food and promise to come back. You should see the surprised look on her face when I do return … three hours later for dinner.
3 Jalan Sri Hartamas 22
Desa Sri Hartamas
Tel: 03-6411 0832
Opens Tuesday to Sunday, 11.30am-11.30pm