Travel Features > The Gastronome's Guide To Kuching

The Best of the West

Mike Reed discovers that you can eat great Western food in Kuching.

Let me make my position clear. I'm not usually a great fan of hotel food. When you live in a place like Kuching, there's a fantastic selection of food available on every street corner, and the idea of eating in hotel restaurants strikes me as an admission of defeat. Hotels are for those rare occasions when I crave steak and chips and can't be bothered to cook it myself.

Or at least that's what I thought until Martin van der Reijden set me straight. Martin is food and beverage manager at the Kuching Hilton, and one of my drinking pals at my regular watering hole. Normally we never talk about work, but he asked me one evening, out of the blue, "How come I never see you in the Hilton?" Not wanting to appear a cheapskate, I gave him my usual excuse; hotel food doesn't turn me on. "We're not talking about hotel food. We're talking about great food, period."

That's how I got an invitation to dine at the Steakhouse the following evening. Now the Steakhouse has always been a decent enough place (pity about the name); nice décor, good service and nicely cooked steaks and grills. The sort of place you take a business colleague or a girlfriend who needs a bit of pampering. Nothing to get excited about though.

I arrived with my friend Wayne, a man with the appetite of a starving rhinoceros, and we were joined by Martin and the Hilton's new PR manager, Jennifer Kang. One improvement was immediately obvious. The irritating keyboard player had disappeared, to be replaced by a decent hi-fi playing jazz standards at a very modest volume. If I want to be serenaded I much prefer a Mexican Mariachi band, whilst buzzing with good tequila. Music aside, the ambience is pleasant; the tables are laid out spaciously enough that you don't have to take part in the conversation at the next table, and the waiters are friendly without being too familiar. However, the reason we were there was the food.

The radical new menu is the creation of Theodore Rudifiera, the Hilton's new chef de cuisine. Chef Theo is a man with a mission. He believes that a hotel restaurant should be like any other restaurant; it should stand or fall by the quality and value of the food it serves. The Steakhouse is the testing ground for his theory.

From a selection of seven appetizers, I chose beef carpaccio, thin slivers of tenderloin scattered around a pile of bell peppers in the manner of a Jackson Pollock painting. The meat, seared briefly in a wok with lemongrass and mustard, was so tender it rendered the act of chewing superfluous. Wayne went for the vegetable cured salmon, served with new potatoes and a chive dressing, which got an unqualified thumbs up. Martin and Jennifer passed the first course; when you have to eat for a living you have to pace yourself.

If the appetizers were good, the main courses were spectacular. Martin and I tried Mediterranean style sea-bass, served with braised spinach and sun-dried tomatoes; as good as anything you'd find in Naples (and the portion was generous). Wayne's Mongolian spiced rack of lamb was cooked pink (at Martin's suggestion) and surrounded with ratatouille and smashed potatoes. His intense concentration and total silence told its own story, and the verdict was "tongue-numbingly good." Jennifer opted for roasted fillet of beef on smoked mushroom risotto "but no crispy onions." Thankfully Chef Theo is not a man to be trifled with, and studiously ignored this request to compromise his art. The beef arrived, complete with a pile of crispy onions stacked up to resemble smoke emerging from a railway engine. We grabbed the onions and Jennifer proceeded to demolish the beef with frequent murmurs of pure pleasure.

Chocolate Chip Tower
©Kuching Hilton
Dessert is usually an anti-climax; not this time though. Jennifer chose tiramisu to jeers of "wimp" and "boring," but the expression on her face reminded me why this Italian favourite is an all-time classic. The rest of us ordered chocolate chip tower, which arrived looking as erotically avant-garde as a Gaudi basilica. Hollow tubes of Swiss chocolate were filled with chocolate mousse and served with white chocolate sauce; no wonder the Incas believed chocolate was an aphrodisiac.

We spent probably an hour chatting over coffee. They don't rush to bring you the bill as soon as you've eaten and you get the feeling the table is yours for the night, something I confirmed by checking with other diners. But the biggest (and best) surprise was the bill, even if Martin was paying. You simply make your own choice of appetizer, main course and dessert, and the price is a flat RM 49 per person. Great food, great presentation and great value.

This is not nouvelle cuisine, or any other kind of culinary fad. It is simply very good modern cooking which allows the ingredients to speak for themselves. Chef Theo might just change the way people in Kuching think about Western food.

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