Cilantro, by common consensus, is Malaysia’s best restaurant. Not Malaysia’s best French restaurant, not even Malaysia’s best European restaurant. The best, period. So does Cilantro, the long-time home of chef Takashi Kimura, justify a spot on any food lover’s itinerary, or is it merely the haute-st blip on the radar of a country renowned for its casual local fare?
Located a stone’s throw away from KLCC in the Micasa All-Suites Hotel, Cilantro has an amazingly devoted legion of local admirers. When Micasa closed for renovations back in 2007, KL diners seemed to suffer from withdrawal symptoms as they were denied their regular intake of black truffle butter. Never mind the fact that Kimura continued to serve his unique Franco-Japanese cuisine at Sage in the interim (good and innovative, but not great by any means), the truffle butter seemed to be the thing on most people’s minds. Apparently, some regulars asked Kimura to serve it at Sage, a request which he duly refused.
On first impressions, Cilantro is not the liveliest restaurant around, with its dim-lighting and semi-circular cone-of-silence-like banquette seating arrangement. It’s the kind of place where conversations take place in the most sotto of possible voces, where conviviality seems to take a supporting role to the cuisine. At the next table sat a tuxedo-ed (!) gentleman and his similarly overdressed girlfriend - yep, it’s that kind of place. (I was hoping that the pretext for their garb was a marriage proposal, but they were pecking away bird-like at the seven-course menu degustation, so I left well before the evening reached its denouement).
The wine list contains entries as diverse as New World quaffers to 1982 Haut-Brion, and is very well-priced for a restaurant of this level. A bottle of Bollinger Special Cuvée goes for around RM400++ (around US$135), Ayala NV for less. There are also a few decent wines below the RM200 mark. Given the alcohol taxes in Malaysia, the sommelier has clearly shown a lot of restraint in marking up his wines, and he deserves a lot of credit for that. Apparently, guests are welcome to bring their own wine, subject to a RM25 service fee per head.
Diners here have three choices. Pure a la carte (the most expensive pound-for-pound, and I suspect priced to deter the one-course diners), three- and four- course prix fixe at RM230++ and RM260++ respectively (full choice of dishes from the carte), and a degustation for RM320++. My companion and I opt for the three-course option.
Amuse Bouche: “Sumu-Gai” with shiso cress
To start, a complimentary amuse bouche of a Japanese clam. I have no idea what sumu-gai is; but that’s what the staff said. It has that rubbery crunch so typical of a fresh clam, mildly sweet, and the cress adds a sharp snap. A good start.
Bread and Butter
Lo and behold, the fabled black truffle butter. Creamed and mixed with shredded parmigiano reggiano and diced black truffle, it creates a fatty, earthy umami overload on the palate, for which slices of wholemeal loaf and baguette are great conveyance systems. Easily spreadable, its texture actually reminds me of (Kimura-sensei, forgive me for this) “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”. Well, it is. And it is good, but I am left wondering what the fuss was all about.
First Entrée: Wagyu Tartare, Oeuf Mollet, Toasts
Perfectly presented with a yolk astride a shaped patty of hand-chopped beef. The beef is vibrant and tasty, and the yolk breaks into a comforting sauce for the dish. Wafer-thin toasts add texture and substance. Very classic and very good.
Second Entrée: Terrine of Chapon with Lobster
A very rich slice of terrine, with foie gras, smoky ham nubbins and the chapon... Subtle in taste but rich in texture, the foie adds creaminess and the very fresh lobster contributes a sweet crunch. If I had to complain, the elements seem very distinct, with nothing to bind them together.
First Main Course: Confit of Loire Poussin with truffle
My French dining companion remarked between mouthfuls that he has a dilemma now whenever he orders baby animals for food, being a new father himself. “And when you have a child”, he adds, chewing intently, “you will understand what I mean”. But that’s why I love the French, they never let their queasiness stand in the way of a good meal. The truffle influence here, however, was virtually non-existent.
Second Main Course: French Pigeon with Foie Gras, Sauce Perigueux
Breast, leg, goose foie gras with a heavy sear, perhaps a little too heavy. I ask the staff what the black micro-dice scattered across the dish are, and they tell me “Black mushroom”. I try some and remark that it very much tastes and feels like truffles. “No, it’s black mushroom”. Alright then. The pigeon is tender and cooked on the rarer side of medium, and the sauce is so technically sound and delicious that it shuts me up for a moment. Stuff the truffle butter, this is the kind of sauce that cries out for bread to mop it up.
Vegetables. From what I can recall, asparagus, slow-cooked peppers, onions, beetroot, artichoke, and a little nugget of egg yolk. Much fresher than I have a right to expect in Singapore, and a great foil for my almost OTT pigeon dish.
At this point, I’m in two minds. Food’s been great, but where was the inventiveness? This is a cuisine based on amazing produce cooked with “simple” techniques, never more than a few components in a dish so the quality of the ingredients shines. I’m starting to fear that I have missed the point, my internal debate interrupted by the arrival of the cheese basket. Five cheeses are offered, I’m told from the Co-operative Fermier Artisanale or something like that, of which I recall a brillat-savarin, petit Basque and a fourme d’Ambert. Mon ami français pronounces that the cheese is good, which is as high a compliment as you will get from him.
Dessert: Adzuki Red Bean Soufflé with Green Tea Ice-Cream
I’m a soufflé fiend, and I like the dish as much for the taste as for the test it poses for the kitchen. Kimura (or perhaps his pastry chef?) clearly relishes the challenge, offering the choice of five flavours of soufflé to finish your meal. I’m torn between the two exotics, red bean and pisang emas, and opt for the former, just to finish my meal with a bit of a Japanese flavour. Once my mind is made up, green tea ice-cream seems the natural accompaniment. The soufflé is light and airy, and the light bitterness of the green tea counters the sweetness beautifully. Excellent.
Petits Fours, Coffee or Tea
Our busboy brings out a little dish of a canelé and pistachio slice with raspberry glaze. One of each, not one each. “Do we only get one of each to be shared between us?” I ask. He responds, “Ummm, let me go and check”. He returns a minute later and says “Sir, I’ve checked with the chef. The one on the left is a canelé and the one of the right is a...” I interrupt, not too rudely, I hope. “No, I know what they are. I just wanted to know whether we only get one piece each”. He seems to panic and walks off with an apology, before bringing back another dish of the same. At the end of the day, the canelé is a little too small to have a properly custardy interior against the crackly outside, but the pistachio slice is delicious.
Over a decent coffee, my internal debate continues. The kitchen has some serious chops, but the dishes seem so classic, so purist, that I had to go out of my way to get some Japanese influence in at dessert time. Looking back at it, the techniques utilised and flavour profile suggest that the dishes are designed to pair with wine, so maybe I did them an injustice when I decided to go dry.
The service is also a little lacklustre, and this is a problem which we confront time and again across KL. The floor staff did not seem very comfortable when quizzed about the food, and there was a lot of mumbling going on, as if they were afraid of getting the answer wrong. And I have never seen a restaurant (especially at this level) which presents guests with a different petit four each. Maybe I’m spoilt, maybe it was the busboy who fouled up, but to me, it betrays a distinct lack of generosity.
Is this KL’s best restaurant today? I can’t judge based on one visit, and I haven’t returned to Lafite since John Nash took over earlier this year. Based on my 2010 experiences, the food at Lafite was more inventive and packed full of flavour, the service far more assured. So the question I posed at the start still remains. Cilantro certainly is good, but based on the quality of the casual options available elsewhere in KL and Malaysia, I must admit I'm not entirely convinced.
CILANTRO RESTAURANT & WINE BAR
Micasa All Suite Hotel
368-B Jalan Tun Razak
50400 Kuala Lumpur Malaysia
Tel: + 603 2179 8082