KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 14 — If you stand at the start of Jalan Rembia (off Tengkat Tong Shin, besides SK Corner) and look upwards to your diagonal left, you would see a pair of painted birds that appear to “perch” on the big trees that line this small road off Tengkat Tong Shin. Adorning a side exterior wall of Hotel Melange, one of the newest boutique stays this part of town, it’s the work of Athens-based street artist Alex Kataras. Go around the building and you can see another of his creation, a black and white half bird-half tiger standing against a flamingo pink backdrop.
The hybrid creature represents his collaboration with Malaysian photographer Daniel Goh, and is the logo of the latter’s newly-opened Rococo Café that occupies the hotel rooftop. Trained in Paris, Daniel cut his teeth shooting documentaries, fashion campaigns and editorial spreads across Europe, and has travelled far and wide in the last 10 years or so. “I love the South of Italy...the food is really good Mediterranean fare that’s representative of the region,” he reveals. “To prepare for Rococo’s opening, I flew to Rome last year to learn the basics of Italian cooking from a head chef.”
It is those classic Italian flavours that he’s bringing into the kitchens of Rococo. Currently in its soft opening phase, the introductory menu is highlighted by sandwiches and pastas. Brunch is available till 3pm, featuring eggs and sausage-based breakfast favourites. Of that, the Grande Rococo delivers fantastic value for money: Grilled sausage, free-range egg, rocket salad, sourdough and pancakes, all for RM28. The pancakes are practically a meal on their own — two thick and fluffy slices served with a choice of raspberry or lemon butter — and can be ordered separately as well.
Rococo uses ready-made pastas at the moment but plans to offer handmade variants in the future. There are four cooking styles: Bolognese, Vongole, Carbonara and Pesto. To suit local preferences, they make the pasta a little softer than al dente but if you like yours the authentic Italian way, let them know. Prepared that way, the linguine Bolognese is particularly delightful as every strand gives a firm bite that carries the meaty sauce well.
While the pastas are kept classic, the sandwich offerings are imaginative, with eight varieties that appeal to different palates. The La Bianco has already proven to be a hot seller, combining juicy shelled snow crab claws with thin slices of grilled beef pepperoni over slices of creamy avocado in between poppy seed bread and garnished with fresh coriander. The sweet-savoury combination is satisfyingly umami, and it’s not uncommon to hear grunts of approval in between more-ish mouthfuls.
The Volare is another refreshing option, featuring smoked turkey breast with rocket and smoked buffalo cheese that’s wholesome yet light on the palate. For stronger flavours, get the Il Pollo of grilled chicken chunks with garlic and mint Greek yoghurt that has comfort food written all over it.
Simple and rustic sum up the Salumeira of Bresaola beef drizzled with rosemary olive oil garnished with raw onions and finished with Fontina cheese. Thin, almost translucent slices of beef recalls the satisfaction of fine Iberico ham while the cheese imparts another level of saltiness. For a touch of Malaysia, the Gambaretto spices grilled prawns with bird’s eye chillies and chilli flakes. The remaining two options are a vegetarian sandwich and a lamb sandwich. Some of the key ingredients are specially imported as Daniel is particular about quality and authenticity.
Freshness is another emphasis at Rococo, with every sandwich prepared upon order. Even the breads, all baked in-house, are only sliced when a sandwich order comes in. “We ferment the dough for 16 hours and par bake them up to 80 percent,” Daniel elaborates. “The bread is toasted just before a sandwich is assembled, to cook it through thoroughly while ensuring it’s not over baked.” While he has selected specific breads for each sandwich, customers can also opt for other types. About 10 types of artisanal loafs are presented on the long cake table that takes centre stage at the petite cafe, alongside about 20 varieties of cakes, pastries and desserts.
Sitting invitingly under clear glass cloches, the cakes are set to be a crowd puller on their own, particularly the La Rosso, or red velvet cheese cake. An interesting update on what has become a cafe staple in Kuala Lumpur, the brownie-style cake has a striking marbled appearance and is a good balance of sweet and tangy, moist and crisp. Their Torta di Carote (carrot cake) is equally deserving of the spotlight, studded with generous amounts of shredded carrots and pecans, and delectably sweet without being cloying. If you enjoy Earl Grey, you will love the Conte Grigio, a soft chiffon cake with a strong tea flavour that’s not easy to achieve.
Pair your selected desserts with tea, espresso-based drinks or go full Italian and ask for a cuppa made using the traditional Moka pot, colourful little contraptions that are found in every Italian household. Ground beans and water are placed in the bottom chamber which, when heated over a small fire, uses steam pressure to extract the coffee that is then pushed through a spout into the top chamber.
The sandwiches and pastas are currently available through dinner, but in time to come, Rococo will transform into a fine dining restaurant in the evenings. The decor already hints at that, with Daniel’s penchant for European flair showing in his selection of designer furniture, most notably the iconic Kartell Louis Ghost chairs and bar stools. A fan of Philippe Starck, Daniel also acquired a piece of the designer’s Guns Lounge lamp that guests will see upon walking into Rococo.
A similar aesthetic can be seen throughout the hotel, which Daniel designed as well. His fine arts background enables him to wear many artistic hats, including that of creative director for the hotel, the second boutique property he’s designed after a seven-villa resort in Buenos Aires. It was through working on Melange’s interiors last year that he found out this rooftop space was available.
The F&B business is actually part of Daniel’s upbringing; his family owns the popular Oasis Seafood Restaurant in Kuala Kedah (it’s now managed by other parties), so it was a childhood playground for him and his cousins. They were not allowed into the kitchens, but Daniel would often sneak in to steal food!
The restaurant was truly a family affair and there’s an interesting tale behind it. “My grandfather was originally in the cinema business, and ran into some legal dispute with the Shaw Brothers back in the 1970s. After a five-year battle, he became bankrupt... my father and his siblings, who had all been sent to study overseas, had to return home,” says Daniel, adding that his grandfather had long been firm friends with the late Tunku Abdul Rahman. It was upon the latter’s advice that he decided to fight the Shaw Brothers in court. “The late Tunku, upon hearing of my grandfather’s misfortune, felt bad and decided to gift him a piece of land in Kuala Kedah. That’s where Oasis was built and still stands. My father, his siblings and step-siblings from my grandfather’s second family... the whole kampung worked at the restaurant.” The restaurant’s opening was officiated by not only Tunku but also the then-Sultan of Kedah, who is the current Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia, His Majesty Sultan Abdul Halim.
Rococo may be a world away from the bucolic seaside settings that he grew up around and has put a stop, at least temporarily, to his globe-trotting lifestyle. But for Daniel, it’s just a matter of putting his art where his heart is. His dream to own a small eater (Rococo can seat less than 30, including on the outdoor terrace) is partly inspired by the Parisian café culture he had grown accustomed to, where “proprietors don’t do it solely for money but more importantly, to live their passion and perfect their food craft.”
Vivian Chong is a freelance writer-editor with a penchant for travel and good food. She documents her adventures at http://thisbunnyhops.com