Kota Kinabalu in the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah is a thriving city. Luxury apartment blocks with views of the South China Sea or Mount Kinabalu are popping up so regularly it’s hard to keep up.
There are more BMWs and Range Rovers on the roads than ever before, and now there a host of new places for the well-heeled and young urbanites to gather.
Places like Adelphi & Co, in Damai Plaza, on one of the main thoroughfares in the city. Among the more traditional Chinese and Malay eateries, it’s a beacon of style.
The staff wear fashionable fabric and leather aprons, the eclectic food is served on slate, and the industrial-style lights throw a gentle glow on the racing-green hues of the walls.
But Adelphi isn’t all about looks—there’s a serious ethos behind it.
Roy Chiew, who was born in Sabah and educated in England, founded the eatery with his brother Sam to celebrate local produce and encourage a sense of community.
‘We want to impart joy and positivity … through our food, coffee, service, music and environment,’ Chiew says.
‘It’s what we love: good food, good coffee and wine, good laughter, good fellowship’
‘We hope with Adelphi to change people’s perspective about food. We hope that eating will be a lifestyle and an experience.
‘From quality tomatoes the size of golf balls from Kundasang to beautiful mushrooms grown by local farmers, to fresh prawns and fish caught in the South China Sea, we try to showcase the best of what we can get our hands on.
‘That being said, there still is a limitation on produce here in Sabah, we can’t get things like truffles, good quality lamb, beef, white fish, etc. For these items we fly them in’.
But KK is a young market and I ask Chiew if it’s really ready for Adelphi.
‘I have friends in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore who tell me even in their cities, there aren’t too many places, if any, that practice our food philosophy,’ he responds.
‘But the drive for me and my brother is still passion. Regardless of the market, it’s what we love: good food, good coffee and wine, good laughter, good fellowship.’
The B Side, in Lido Plaza, is in one of the city’s more affluent suburbs. White metro tiles line the walls and black retro lights hang from the ceiling, making it look straight out of one of the hip neighborhoods of London or Sydney.
The flat white is seriously good, as is the salted caramel cheesecake and soft-shell crab pasta.
Young, well-dressed families rub shoulders with groups of bright, interesting twenty-somethings and affluent older types who will drive across the city for lunch or dinner.
Its sister restaurant has just opened on one of the coolest streets in the city: Lorong Dewan.
Woo is in the old arty quarter of town, and the cafe sits among ancient print shops and across from contemporary stationery boutiques.
The decor is similar to The B Side but with a conservatory area that backs into the green jungle of Signal Hill.
For founder Ling Jeat it’s about an all-round experience.
‘We want to offer something that speaks for our generations. It’s the experience and diversity we are trying to provide in one space by hosting art-maker markets, pop ups, workshops, exhibitions and performances.
‘We want to provide that extra human touch in the space, a space that leaves you experiences, memories, not merely the food and coffee,’ he enthuses.
There you can buy seriously good bread and bagels (a rare commodity in KK) while you wait for the best macchiato in town.
All of these places have another thing in common: service. They take it seriously, from the ability of staff to speak other languages, particularly English, to serving food for the table at the same time—still a novelty for most places in KK!
There is, of course, one catch: Prices are higher than at most restaurants in KK.
Coffee will set you back the same amount as in London, Paris or New York—but if you’re a coffee fiend, you won’t mind. Dinner, though, you’re still winning.
You’d be hard-pressed to find the same value for money in any European or Australian city.
So is it worth it? I’d say so, and it’s a welcome trend in this increasingly fashionable corner of Malaysian Borneo.
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