KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 2 — In a world where nothing is certain but death and taxes, the relentless search for our next meal is the unyielding beat to which most of us march to.
Whether it's a heartwarming home-cooked meal or a sustaining but convenient FamilyMart corn dog, we all have to eat.
On a recent foray, I found myself back in familiar territory: Jalan San Peng, Pudu, where the previously featured Guang Ji Ipoh Ho Fun and Chicken Rice and Capati Tiger Jit Singh are also located.
The less-than-scenic backdrop of ongoing construction on a massive development nearby hadn’t deterred us from a third visit, this time to ZK Restaurant, a Chinese dai chow not to be confused with Restoran ZK, Kampung Attap, famous for their fish head curry.
A loose gaggle of corrugated steel and patchy canopies house the kitchen, payment counters and a cold room unlike any other, where diners can pick and choose from the selection of fresh fish and seafood on ice.
It also contains what I like to call a "real al fresco” dining experience, with a few plastic tables donning bright red cloth that also provide an unimpeded view of the kitchen in all its chaotic glory.
But we suburban newbies had been beaten to the chase by long-time regulars, so we took our seats in one of the four shop lots, some of which sported swanky new signs and even swankier decor inside.
Golden Sand Sotong at ZK Restaurant.
Plenty of people (myself included) love to talk about the sheer breadth of dishes that can be found at a dai chow, but the menu at ZK Restaurant is truly overwhelming and left us shooting a series of blank and perplexed looks at each other.
This doesn’t even consider the number of special, call-ahead-and-order dishes not listed on the menu.
Eventually, a grizzled veteran of a server came and walked us through the menu, covering most of the bases of meat, vegetables, tofu and seafood.
A small part of the outdoor kitchen.
A cold room like no other, with grouper heads, whole fish and fresh prawns on ice.
Stand-Up Chicken (RM60) was a dramatic affair that formed the meal's centrepiece.
It’s an entire chicken, stuffed with garlic, spring onions and pieces of dong quai, roasted whole.
The chicken is served impaled on a metal rod, with a curved flat bottom where the roasting juices pool together.
We tore into the bird like a pack of vultures at the feast, filling our mouths with moist and juicy flesh that carried hints of five spice and skin that retained a substantial degree of crispness.
The Golden Toufu at ZK Restaurant.
The dish is theatrical, but not flashy and contrived; it tastes like a recipe that’s been around the block, flavoured boldly and presented with little pretension.
This unerring confidence in their food, which says, "I don't need it to look good because it is good," is a theme that ran throughout most of the dishes on the night, and, to a larger extent, most of these old-school places.
A supporting cast of Golden Toufu (RM17), 2 Kinds of Kai Lan (RM20), and Golden Sand Sotong (RM28) arrived, joined shortly after by the Claypot Corrugated Pork Ribs (RM38), which is definitely a case of something lost in translation.
The 2 Kinds of Kai Lan is excellent.
Claypot Corrugated Pork Ribs has a fascinating name and tastes even better.
For the first dish, a round piece of egg tofu sat in a gloppy, eggy bath that carried a consistency similar to that of shark fin soup. It also featured crab meat and was a pleasure to slurp up over rice.
As the name suggests, the kai lan was prepared in the classic two ways, and executed to perfection: the thick, flat leaves were turned into a pile of crispy shreds, topped with pork floss, while the stems were simply stir-fried with garlic, just slightly softened while retaining the characteristic toothsome bite.
Unfortunately, the squid couldn’t quite match up. While the eponymous "golden sand” — which is just salted egg sauce turned into a powder — was tasty, the squid itself was coated in too much batter, resulting in a rubbery and chewy experience that is far from enjoyable.
ZK Restaurant now spans four separate shoplots.
The pork ribs were much better, braised in a clay pot with tendons till tender and a sauce consisting of conpoy, dried cuttlefish, reduced down to a sticky, savoury delight.
Still, it had been a successful night in the city by every metric, and having found a thoroughly fulfilling meal at a place where one can eat simply and affordably, we wandered out as tables started to fill up at an increasing pace.
28, Jalan San Peng, Pudu, Kuala Lumpur
Open Thursday to Tuesday, 12-2 pm, 5-10 pm
Tel: 010-276 4738
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