The seeds for the idea of a restaurant were sowed when venture capitalist Andrew Tan met Katrina Wong, the owner of popular hotpot restaurant YeZi at The Roof, Bandar Utama.
“I was amazed by the quality of the food, because she actually brought in very authentic Taiwanese hotpot. I was a regular customer there, so one day I told her, ‘Why don’t we take it to another level and create a more unique, premium dining experience?’” says Tan.
The result of that exchange is Secret Garden, a beautifully appointed Chinese restaurant in the heart of Taman SEA. Tan and Wong (and silent partner CS Lim) spent six months looking for the perfect location for their restaurant, before finally acquiring the four-storey space. While the ground floor now hosts the main restaurant, there are plans to transform the first floor into a private dining area and the third floor into an event space.
Within the eatery, a colourful mural takes up privileged residence on one wall. The mural was designed by local artist XO to evoke the spirit of a secret garden, and is a whimsical take on nature with a little bit of fairytale tossed in for good measure. At the other end of the restaurant, a vertical garden steals the show. Tan’s designer created an indoor filtration system to water the plants, and added charcoal around the plants to absorb additional moisture.
“We spent a lot of effort to curate everything – even the seats – I personally sat on them to ensure they were comfortable!” says Tan.
The restaurant opened in October 2016, but according to Tan, there were a few hiccups and hurdles to overcome at the beginning.
“When we first started with a Taiwanese concept, the reception wasn’t very good. Malaysians are used to stronger flavours, so we actually mixed and matched to cater to local taste buds. So I would say the cuisine here is now Chinese fusion,” says Tan.
The eatery’s main focus is on fresh ingredients. Everything is made from scratch where possible, from the house-made tofu to the seafood balls for the hotpot. The founders also made every effort to source products from local producers and have since incorporated soy sauce made by an uncle in Rompin, chilli sauce from another uncle in Mentakab and chicken fed on duckweed, sourced from a local farm in Bangi.
“We actually go on-ground and meet with local producers, who still do the traditional, authentic way of doing things. The cost might be very high, but we want to bring an authentic experience to the table,” says Tan.
But it is also evident that there is an emphasis on premium, imported produce. So you’ll find things like sturgeon (the restaurant is one of only a handful to offer this luxurious fish, favoured by Chinese emperors), geoduck, Boston lobster, New Zealand oysters and Japanese matsusaka beef on the menu.
The menu is extensive and enticing and if you have the dough to spare, you might want to consider the bespoke dining experience, which basically entails calling to pre-book a curated menu that the chefs will devise based on the budget provided.
Otherwise, there are lots of other goodies on offer. Like the house-made tofu with pumpkin sauce (RM28). The tofu is made from organic black beans and is quiveringly soft, with a tender interior akin to spun silk. The fried dried shrimp, pickled radish and spring onions give it crunch and bounce, and the entire dish is complemented by the dense pumpkin sauce layering the base.
Then there is the classical Taiwanese dong pu yok (RM38 for a medium portion). The pork belly in this concoction has been braised for eight hours to get a melt-in-the-mouth quality and all those hours of tender, loving care show. The pork belly is as soft as velvet and succumbs willingly on the palate with little exertion required on the part of the diner. It’s almost like biting down on melted butter – yum! There is also a petal-soft bun that you can eat the pork belly with, but trust me, it’s just as good on its own! The restaurant only prepares 80 pieces of this a day and it’s such a hot favourite, it often gets sold out!
If you’re after something comforting, the superior soup with clams (RM32) is delicious. The slightly spicy broth is enhanced by specially procured Shiaoxing wine and lots of ginger. It is a punchy, flavourful soup that is enlivened by the presence of nearly 700g of clams, which add texture and an aquatic quality to the dish.
The Nonya fish (RM58) is a fairly ubiquitous offering at most Chinese restaurants and at Secret Garden, you can choose to have all sorts of fish done this way, including the silver pomfret that I had. The Nonya sauce here is delicious – rich and fragrant and bursting with spicy undertones. There are also lots of fruits and vegetables in this medley, including pineapple, tomatoes and ladies’ fingers.
The restaurant is also very popular for its upmarket steamboat, which offers soup bases like premium wild forest truffle and mushroom broth, and imperial chicken broth.
We had our steamboat with the imperial chicken broth (RM78) which is boiled overnight using 10kg of chicken, dried ham and dried scallop to extract maximum flavour. The result is a creamy liquid with potent, intoxicating flavours. You’ll find yourself slurping up bowlfuls of this delicious, collagen-rich broth with hardly a pause in between – it’s that good.
In Taiwanese hotpot culture, everything has to be eaten sequentially as different elements need to be cooked at different temperatures. Tan observed that some Malaysians simply dumped all the ingredients into the piping hot soup base, which meant some elements ended up being overcooked. To combat this, the staff at Secret Garden are on hand to load ingredients into the steamboat for you at prescribed times.
All the seafood balls available in the steamboat are hand-made, which means quality and flavour are guaranteed, but quantities are limited, so it’s best to call in advance and pre-book your favourites.
Of these, the hand-made black truffle balls (RM22) are the most distinctive, with pronounced truffle notes and a distinctly opulent air about them. The tobiko squid balls are also delicious – soft and smooth with strong cephalopod flavours.
For more flavours of the sea, try the seafood dumpling (RM20), which is plump and soft, with great seafood flavours.
Although everything is on the pricy side of the spectrum, it’s well worth giving it a try at least once – especially as you can choose to include luxury ingredients like geoduck, sturgeon and wagyu beef in your steamboat!
To end your meal on a sweet note, sample the avocado cream with sago (RM25). Made by pureeing two whole avocados, this is a creamy offering that has great tropical flavours from the coconut water infused in the dessert. And the sago pearls add vibrance to the satiny, soupy bath.
Ultimately, Tan says his dream is for the restaurant to represent a slice of home. “I was living abroad for over 17 years, but always found myself returning to the flavours of home. So we wanted to create a very spacious, comfortable home dining experience for people – that is why we started this whole business,” he says.
7 Jalan SS23/15
Tel: 03-7887 6999
Open daily, 11.30am to 3pm, 6pm to 11pm