KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 15 — It’s like a game of hide and seek. The café is almost a secret, a myth, nestled away in an unseen corridor. A treasure hunt, then, to find it.
The first clue is to locate the right hyaku-en shoppu (100-yen shop) in Bukit Bintang. This turns out to be the Japanese affordable goods store Daiso on the ground floor of the Fahrenheit 88 mall.
Second clue: Look for a small door on the left. This is the wardrobe that will bring you to Narnia, the Platform 9¾ for students of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Well... no, but you get the idea.
Enter, follow the waft of freshly-made espresso and you’ll find yourself at KITA Coffee, possibly the most hidden café in KL.
Opened in April 2019, KITA Coffee is run by Rain Lee, formerly of Artelier Coffee x Kitchen at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur and an old hand at the Malaysia Barista Championships.
What spurred Lee to finally open her own place isn’t fame, however, but family. She says, “What motivates me the most is my daughter. I wish that I can manage both of my favourite roles which is as a barista and as a mother at the same time.”
The team at KITA Coffee also includes her younger brother Alan (also a barista), cousin Jankis (who is the chef) and barista trainer Masahiro Aoki (currently back in Japan). That sense of camaraderie extends to the name of the café, which means “we” or “us” in our national language.
That notion of KITA Coffee as a warm and stress-free space for everyone was built in from the beginning. Lee shares, “KITA is meant to be a place which is suitable for all, without any differences. No matter our background, race, culture or status. We hope to connect all the single ‘you’ and ‘you’ into ‘us’ together with coffee.”
KITA Coffee’s overarching philosophy also influences its no-nonsense, fuss-free décor. Lee wanted the space to be simple yet comfortable, to be easy to approach.
She says, “I want my customers — my guests — to have this feeling of stepping into their home. I chose for it to be ‘hidden’ so they would have a secret little ‘back to home’ corner away from their busy city life.”
This “back to home” corner has become a haven for regulars who have discovered its existence, both for the superb coffee as well as Lee’s soft roll cakes, a passion project of hers.
The café focuses on serving different single origin coffee beans from various coffee roasters from around the world. The mainstays are Artisan Roastery for espresso-based coffees and The Hub for filter coffees. Seasonal beans change weekly, covering roasters such as JB’s Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters and Oslo’s Tim Wendelboe.
One of KITA Coffee’s signature drinks is their Dirty. First made famous by Katsuyuki Tanaka of cult-favourite Bear Pond Espresso in Tokyo, the Dirty was originally a single shot of espresso poured onto a layer of cold milk, followed by another layer of cold milk and another shot of espresso.
You get the creaminess of the milk and the undiluted kick from the double shot of espresso, its flavour notes prominent as the coffee hasn’t blended completely with the milk. It’s rich, strong and sublime, and as Lee will tell you, she’s still trying to perfect it, day after day.
Nothing pairs better with KITA’s coffees than their Japanese-style roll cakes. Fluffy and melt-in-your-mouth, the most sought after has to be the original roll cake, filled with light fresh cream and fresh Japanese strawberries.
Other flavours include the Houjicha & Genmaicha Roll, full of roasted tea and brown rice tea aroma; the Japanese Sweet Potato Roll, with its delicate violet hue; the dainty Rose & Lychee Roll; and the decadent Sea Salt & Dark Chocolate Roll.
Lee shares, “I learned to make the roll cakes through recipes online and from books. I even got tips from bakers and practised every day. It looks easy but it’s really hard to get the perfect texture, moisture level and flavours just for a piece of cake. I’ve eaten a lot of kuih instead of cake over the years!”
For the Yuletide season, KITA’s 9-inch Christmas Log Cakes are available in both Dark Chocolate & Raspberry and Mixed Berries flavours. These homemade cakes are popular year-end gifts for friends & family. Customers may pre-order until January 1, 2021.
Besides coffee and roll cakes, KITA also has a meatless food menu with dishes such as the Sichuan-style Mapo Tofu served with Japanese rice and a tongue-numbing Mala Drypot, full of spicy vegetables.
Lee says, “Our intention of serving meatless food is just to reduce animal harm in the world. I also wanted to have a menu with Malaysian, Chinese and Japanese fusion influences to reflect the backgrounds and culture in our team.”
One such dish that Lee created with Aoki was the Barista Curry, in which the traditional curry is amped up with... coffee! Lee says, “Curry is like a bridge for both Japan and Malaysia. By adding in coffee into our curry, we wish to create a new connection between our two different cultures.”
The ongoing pandemic has offered Lee a chance to rethink her business strategy and to future-proof her operations. For instance, prior to the movement control order (MCO), KITA Coffee didn’t provide any takeaway or delivery service.
“We worried about the quality if we started doing delivery and takeaway but after discussing with my team, we decided to take this as a challenge — with a crisis, comes a turning point!” Lee says.
After a few trials, KITA Coffee launched their delivery service through social media. (The shop has since settled on WhatsApp and AirAsia Food as their delivery options.)
Lee felt very encouraged when they saw that their leap of faith worked. She adds, “Not only did we manage to maintain our sales during this pandemic, we even increased our brand exposure at the same time!”
Aside from switching their focus from dine-in to takeaway and delivery, however, there haven't been other major changes to KITA Coffee’s operations. Lee is an experienced hand in the local coffee and café industry though she would demur if pressed on this point.
For the veteran barista still very much feels like a beginner, and there is a credible gap between working as an employee and risking it as an entrepreneur. Take the café’s aforementioned “hidden” location — a risky gamble others might not haven even contemplated.
Lee still wonders whether her choice of a venue was the correct one sometimes. She says, “But looking at the number of our regulars growing day by day, I think it’s not a problem at all. My customers tell me that ‘The first time is always the hardest, but it’s fun the next time.’ so I believe they enjoy the ‘treasure hunt’ to find KITA!”
D7, G Floor, Fahrenheit 88, Jalan Bukit Bintang, KL
Open daily (except Tue closed) 12-8pm
Tel: 016-246 3071