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
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.
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
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.