Georgetown

Sep 8, 2013

Penang: Relaxing by the beach

A return to Malaysia, Truly Asia

Our apartment in Batu Ferringhi overlooked the beach
Art in GeorgetownOn Penang HillThere were some wicked rain stormsEating at Gurney PlazaMore public art in GeorgetownDad at Penang Hill

This time around, we stayed in a rental apartment — with pool! — across the street from the beach in Batu Ferringhi, the northern cost of Penang island. The area was packed with tourists, and it was a completely different experience than our last trip — where we were nestled into a local residential community — but we had a good time nonetheless: swimming with families from all over the world, drinking with the foreign retirees at the dive bar near our apartment, enjoying beach-side dinners with the other tourists.

The weather, surprisingly, was cooler than when Peter and I had visited in January, so we got to do a lot more walking around. Touring Georgetown one afternoon, we got to stumble upon the city’s public art projects that we had missed this winter while we were whizzing around in air conditioned cabs. It was pretty cool.

Of course, there was the eating. In Penang we set the food-ordering precedent for the trip: too much is just enough. The most egregious incidence of this being at Sri Ananda Bahwan, an Indian joint recommended by Liza, the woman who owned our apartment. But between the deep-fried cauliflower, the billion kinds of naan, the lovely and smokey tandoori chicken, the smooth saag paneer, and the banana leaf sets, I regret none of it.

Penang was my parents’ first stop in Asia and over our week, among us all, we compared it to: Florida, San Francisco, an Indiana Jones movie, and the Dominican Republic. Aside from some of the food, however, it was nothing like China.

Drinks on the beachBig Bamboo

Feb 21, 2013

Winter break: Eat this nasi kandar

The best meal ever at Line Clear

Hello 8-bit Eating
Choose your meats
Line up hereThe foodLine ClearIt's just deliciousPeter, in his new shirt
Right before dinner, Peter bought this shirt at Sam’s Collection!
Fish headA bubbling pot

Anthony Bourdain told us to go to Penang, and Anthony Bourdain told us to go to Line Clear. And now I’m telling you: Go to Penang, and GO TO LINE CLEAR! It was by far the best meal of our trip, and possibly one of the best meals of our lives. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Line Clear is a Georgetown restaurant that specializes in nasi kandar. Nasi kandar is a famous Malay dish that consists of gravyed stuff over rice. Not too complicated. But, oh, what Line Clear does with that simple formula.

The restaurant is near Soho Free Pub on Jalan Penang. It’s tucked back down a deceptively quiet corridor that opens into a large open space. Metal picnic tables are lined up under a tin roof, and the food is stacked in large steam trays along one wall.

We weren’t really sure how to get the process started, but as we stood and stared hungrily at the piles and piles of food, two servers kindly rushed to our aid. One of the guys scooped a plate of biryani rice for me and pointed out the options: “Chicken, mutton, chicken, fish …” I went for a chicken and another chicken. He delivered two healthy portions, flooded the plate with extra sauce from other trays, and pointed me toward the check-out.

While this was going on, Peter was trying to explain to another server that he just wanted some vegetables and sauce on his rice, leave out the meat. There was a bit of a language barrier, but when Peter dropped the word “vegetarian,” all was understood. Our man whisked Peter over to another station full of vegetables and vegetable-based curry. No need to compromise on chicken stock, they have vegetarianism here!

Both of our meals were absolutely out of this world. My chicken was melt-off-the-bone succulent, and the two curries — one sweet and one spicy — melded together beautifully with the rest of the melanged sauces. Peter’s plate was just as flavorful and hearty, with large helpings of okra, potatoes, cabbage and dark leafies, covered in tomato- and eggplant-based sauces.

Line Clear doesn’t serve beer — it’s a Muslim shop — but we were pretty giddy on food alone. We raved to each other between bites, and wished there was more when we were done. We vowed then and there that this would not be our last trip to Penang. It was that good.

Tony truly steered us right.

Feb 20, 2013

Winter Break: Georgetown bar crawl

Boozin’ along Jalan Penang

Visiting the Argylle
Margarita time
Peter magically doubled our margaritas at D’Joint.
Slippery Senioritas
Slippery Señoritas doesn’t actually have tapas, but they do serve the best mojitos.

Some nights, a refined round of cocktails at the Eastern & Oriental was an end unto itself, but other times it was the prelude to future parties down busy Jalan Penang, a bar-lined thoroughfare just south of the hotel. Whether you’re looking for shots on fire or a cold quiet beer, you can find it there.

The northernmost bit of the street, just a short stumble from the E&O, is a pedestrianized home to a bunch of cheesey tourist bars that WANT YOUR BUSINESS. Touts sit out in front of each bar, throwing enticing deals at anyone who walks by. The competition is fierce. We chose D’Joint, ‘cause they had 2-for-1 cocktails. They were as good as you’d expect 2-for-1 cocktails to be.

Across the street from that passel of pubs is “tapas bar” Slippery Señoritas. To be honest, it looks like the kind of place where people go to party ‘til they puke! There was a sign on the wall reading “Platform dancing: For ladies only,” and the lights and music were both flashy and loud.

But! They make a damn fine mojito; potent and with plenty of mint. Go on the early side, and you’ll have the whole place to yourself.

A ways down Jalan Penang sits the far calmer Soho Free House. They have “more draft beers than any bar in Malaysia.” Four draft beers, to be precise: Guinness, Kilkenny, Strongbow and Heineken.

I quickly got over my initial disappointment that they weren’t the 100-tap craft beer paradise I was unrealistically expecting. Draft Guinness is still delicious, and I was happy to have it. The atmosphere was chill, and the people were friendly. What more are you after?

We went back a few days after our initial visit and met Dan, a local of Chinese descent, who struck up a conversation with us about the beaded bracelet that Peter was wearing. Buddhists wear beads like that, he told us, because “they remind you not to get into mischief.” From there, our discussion meandered from reincarnation to local history to international travel. Typical pint talk, and bar buddies for an afternoon.

Still further south, there’s Cafe Argyll, another simple pub, but with a full menu of Indian food. The cocktails were much better than D’Joint’s, and the curries we sampled were amazing. After having only snacks our first time there, we made time to return for a full dinner later in our stay. Delicious.

Soho Free House
Why would you even want more than four kinds of beer?

Feb 19, 2013

Winter break: Eastern & Oriental Hotel

Cocktail hour(s) at Farquhar’s Bar

Peter, poolside
A martini at the barPeter, on the patio, looking like a boss
“Peter looks like a boss,” Young Jane said admiringly of this photo.

The E&O is touted as a fine example of colonial architecture in Georgetown, and, indeed, it’s a stunning white beauty. It was constructed in the 1880s, though the current incarnation of the business dates from 2001, when the hotel reopened after years of restoration work.

But we didn’t go there looking for history. We were looking for drinks.

Farquhar’s Bar, in the hotel lobby, is a dark wood paneled pub that looked almost too fancy for us the first time we walked in, but martinis must! We sat at the bar and watched the bartender go about his work meticulously. And the drinks he made us were amazing. By far the best martinis we’d have in Penang. Even better, one of the waitresses served us small bowls of cashews and delicious seasoned olives (also the best) while we waited.

Our tab came to about 100 ringgit, or US$30, which was a little pricey but still reasonable. Considering that our dinners were averaging less than 30 ringgit for the two of us, our budget could stand it. So, from that day on, Farquhar’s was our local. It became our regular evening ritual: Drinks on the bar’s poolside patio as we wound down from the day’s excitement. We eavesdropped on the other guests — all urbane sophisticates, many of them in their 70s and 80s — and made our plans for adventures to come. It was heaven

Looking at the blue horizon

Feb 17, 2013

Winter break: Let’s go to the mall!

And the boutiques, and the street markets, and the grocery store …

The Rainforest Cafe has great bagels
The Chocolate ShopThe night market

The triforce that creates the perfect Penang vacation, we read in our pre-trip research, is made up of eating, beaching and shopping. Check, check and … meh. Neither Peter nor I are big shoppers, but two out of three would be perfect enough for us. We’d leave the shopping to everyone else.

Or so we thought.

Our first trip to the mall was out of necessity: I needed a new bathing suit. But once that was out of the way … we kept on shopping.

The malls of Penang are big and modern. They’ve got all the familiar chains — The Gap, Crabtree & Evelyn, ESPRIT, Subway, Carrefour (and its not a vacation without a visit to Carrefour’s import section) — and, importantly, air conditioning. They’re also a good place to find massage chairs and junk food; We ended up using them as giant rest stops when Georgetown’s streets got a little too intense.

But these big boxes of international commerce are the least the island has to offer. We basically tripped over shopping experiences everywhere we went. Upscale boutiques to rink-a-dink flea markets. Our spoils from our spree included handmade jewelry, a Daredevil-shaped USB flash drive, T-shirts galore, bagels(!) and cheesy-cute sunglasses. And what fun we had acquiring them!

The coolest — and maybe most stereotypically touristy — transaction was at an Indian clothing store called Sam’s Collection. They offered beautiful men’s and women’s clothing in cotton, linen and silk. The lovely patterned fabrics, some with intricate embroidery, were the height of southeast Asian traveler chic.

Malaysia has a bargaining culture, just like China does, and at Sam’s I decided to try my skills — partially motivated by the fact that I didn’t want to go back to the ATM. Peter had some RMB in his wallet and they liked that, so we ended up making a deal in two currencies. How cool are we! As we paid up, an onlooking clerk threw a “Nice haggle!” our way. I felt pretty boss.

Sam's Collection

Feb 8, 2013

Winter break: Eat this veggie burger

Modern Malay fusion at Cafe Leaf

Vegetarian food at Cafe Leaf
Vegetarian food at Cafe LeafCould veggie burgers be this good?
The Leaf’s vegetarian fare was fresh and flavorful.

We spotted this small cafe just north of Little India on our first jaunt through the neighborhood. Attracted by the window boxes growing fresh basil, mint and betel leaf we knew that we had to eat there.

Upon return, we found inside a cute little eatery, with a college town atmosphere. There were quotes pained on the wall about peace and sharing, and the space was open and bright. The menu was all vegetarian fusion, with a definite Malaysian influence.

We split a few dishes, like we do, to try to maximize our flavor per meal. The veggie burger: In my notes, I described it as “curried wonderfulness on a whole grain bun,” which is not the most helpful concrete description, but is a good indicator about how eating it made me feel.

We also went for the pasembor, a local style of mixed salad. Cafe Leaf’s was made with potato, jicama, peanuts and cucumbers with a crispy flake topper and a velvety tomato sauce. It was super light, with really subtle and delicate flavoring.

The noodle salad was made with fresh, whole wheat noodles and garnished with chopped lettuce, carrots, sesame seeds and some sort of nutlet, perhaps a sunflower seed. The whole thing was bathed in an airy, fantastic pumpkin sauce. Really, really delicious.

The iced coffee deserves special mention as well, only because we never get good coffee in China.

We were kind of on the late side for lunch, so by the time we tucked in, we were the only customers in the joint. Our server was a hip, younger girl, but there was also an older Chinese man hanging out with a chill-owner vibe. He looked up from his newspaper to ask us if we were from Europe. Almost no one pegs us for American here, because it’s just so far from Asia that we’re a much rarer commodity. It’s kind of fun to be special!

Eaten at: Cafe Leaf, Georgetown

Feb 7, 2013

Winter break: Batu Ferringhi

Where the Rules of Acquisition are replaced by the Rules of Relaxation

The beautiful beach at Batu Ferringhi
I'm at the beach
Say hello to tropical Emily! She’s much more fun than indoors-coat-wearing Emily.

Batu Ferringhi is a rather touristy strip of beaches along Penang’s northern coast. It’s about a 40-minute ride outside of Georgetown. Our guidebook tried to sell us on some of the more out-of-the-way beach and fishing villages on the southwest of the island — Batu Ferringhi is all concrete and hotels, they said — but our normal daily life happens off the beaten path, so we felt pretty OK not being so hard core on our vacation. Taxi, take us to the Hard Rock Hotel!

Not to stay, sillies. After a brief perusal of the Hard Rock’s artifacts in the lobby — they had one of Ronnie Wood’s pre-fame basses, a jacket of Bon Jovi’s, and a guitar that was signed by all of the Red Hot Chili Peppers! — we cut through their passageway to the beach.

The water we were on is the Malacca Strait which, zoom out enough, is fed by the Indian Ocean. In fact, on the way out, Balan, our cab driver, pointed out some areas that were hit by 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — a little establishment called the Tsunami Cafe now stands on one of those sites; I’m not really sure what to think of that. But, when there’s not a natural disaster occurring, the water is calm and the waves are small.

Having been raised on different coasts of the U.S., Peter and I have different ideas of what a good beach should be. But Batu Ferringhi, with its flat, smooth white sand, surrounded by jungle beauty and gorgeous mountains, fit the bill for both of us. Yeah, there are restaurants and hotels and bars that encroach on the waterline, but that only means there’s something to do. What, are we just going to sit in the sun? We’ll burn!

As we walked west to east, things progressively got busier. We took lunch at a small beach-side cafe that served Malay and western food. It wasn’t terrible, and they served beer in frosty mugs. A little further down the beach, we spotted a grass-roofed hut massage parlor. We joked that we should get massages. And then we decided we weren’t joking.

It’s pretty glorious to listen to the rustle of the seaside while someone eases out your aches and pains with aromatic oils.

Dotting the coast line all the way from west to east are boat guys, who will rent you any type of boating experience you want, from a ride out to Monkey Beach to a drag along on a banana boat. One of the most fun things for us to do, however, was to watch the parasailors land. They come in all fast for a landing kicking their little legs. It’s hilarious.

Feb 6, 2013

Winter break: Eat this forkless

Banana leaf at Karai Kudi

The Banana Leaf setEat samosasEat with your hands

“Have you had banana leaf yet?” a cab driver asked us early on in our stay when we mentioned that we liked Indian food. We assured him that it was on our list, and on his word bumped it up several levels of importance. Always listen to the locals’ food suggestions.

According to our guidebook, Karaikudi in Little India had both banana leaf and air conditioning, so that was our destination. When we walked in, there was a group of tourists at a large table in the corner, but most of the clientele appeared to be Indian.

We puzzled over the extensive menu for a bit — “which one is banana leaf? None of them are called that!” — before a waiter came over to help. He directed us (without rolling his eyes) to what we were looking for, and explained that there were essentially two options: vegetarian or non-vegetarian. We ordered one and one. And some samosas for good measure.

Two large platters were brought to our table, each lined with — you got it! — a banana leaf and containing small tin cups of various sauces and curried things, with a heaping pile of rice in the center. You basically dump the cups on the rice, and scoop it up with your fingers. (There are forks, if you want to go that way.)

Guys, it was freaking amazing. Each sauce was delicious on its own, but they mingled in an alchemical way that took it to the moon! The chicken that came with the non-veger was juicy and tender and slathered in a fantastic brown curry. The non-veger also came with biryani rice as well as white — sorry Peter.

I don’t want to give short shrift to the samosas, either. Though they weren’t the main event, they were possibly the best samosas I’ve had in my life thus far. A thick and crispy fried outside surrounded beautifully soft potatoes inside, and they came with a squirty bottle of this tangy red sauce that was also quite lovely.

We came away from this meal pretty stuffed and happy. Later we learned that this style of food comes from South India, with Karaikudi specializing in Chettinadu cuisine. There, a free geography lesson for you, too.

Eaten at: Karaikudi restaurant, Little India, Georgetown

I'm eating with my handsOutside the restaurant

Feb 4, 2013

Winter break: Little India

Finally, some hustle and bustle

Georgetown's Little India
Georgetown's Little IndiaGeorgetown's Little IndiaNR Sweets' exteriorOur Thali from NR Sweets
The exterior made it look like the food might be made out of plastic, but our meal at NR Sweets was truly satisfying.

We had a hard time getting the rhythm of Georgetown’s protected World Heritage zone. Most of the cultural attractions were letdowns, and it seemed like most of the storefronts and restaurants were closed whenever we were there, which made for pretty boring ambling. In fact, a lot of the time it felt like the Georgetown colonial area was a bunch of empty old architecture and tourist-baiting cafes and hostels.

The exception to this was the few blocks in the center of the zone that made up Little India. Now this is a city!

There was an energy to this part of town that was largely missing from the surrounding area. The streets were crowded with pedestrians and automobiles, and commerce and music bubbled over from the tightly pack clusters of shops. You could buy anything from DVDs to cheap plastic trinkets to a complete, tailor-made sari. My favorite were the amusingly named Fancy Stores, which sold jewelery, barrettes, wigs and other lady-type fancification products. There were obvious tourists wandering these streets, but also locals just going about their daily business (some of which was selling stuff to tourists).

Of course there were restaurants, too. While planning this Penang trip, one of the things that we got most excited about was the availability of well-made Indian food, A) because we love it, and B) because the cuisine supports a tradition of vegetarianism. And, boy, oh, boy, were we not let down. We only had the stomach room for a few meals in Little India, but each one of them was a winner. Even the cheesy-looking NR Sweets delivered: We a split a thali — which consisted of a bowl fragrant seasoned rice and several spicy sauces — and a cheese masala naan with a paneer butter masala. The atmosphere wasn’t much to speak of, but the food was fantastic.

I did have a mini-cultural crisis while walking through the neighborhood one afternoon: The restauranteurs of Little India are pretty aggressive when it comes to landing your business — if you’ve even walked down that stretch of 6th Street in New York City, it’s a similar level of intensity. Now, in China, it’s been our policy to stop and talk with pretty much everyone who wants to; we want Americans in China to have a good rep and, more importantly, we want the curious to be satisfied. But, back in New York, if you talked to everyone who approached you, you’d end up being asked for money all day. So I felt a little bit conflicted about how to act.

But Peter pointed out that ignoring a hard sell is a different thing entirely than snubbing a six-year-old Chinese girl who has never seen a foreigner before. Western-guilt assuaged, it was back to picking a place to eat, on my own terms!

Shopping in Little India

Feb 1, 2013

Winter break: Teksi!

Riding around Pulau Penag in style

Our taxi driver

The public bus system in Penang is extensive — but kind of confusing, and the appearance of the buses themselves is rather infrequent. So, after a few instances of waiting for the wrong bus for upwards of 40 minutes, we decided that despite our love of mass transit, it was taxis for us.

Which added a whole new dimension to our trip: talkative taxi drivers! Occasionally we’d get a guy who didn’t speak English — or didn’t want to speak English with us — but for the most part, everyone who picked us up was delighted to have the chance to show us around their home.

At the very least, the driver would point out the different tourist sights as we passed them. Many had travel suggestions as well — it was on a taxi driver’s word that we visited the Chocolate Boutique, and he was not wrong. We’re still enjoying our chili-infused chocolate, one piece each, per night.

Beyond this, we got interesting insight into what Malaysians think of America. “Americans can shoot you if you invade their homes,” said the driver who picked us up from the Clan Jetties. “Romney should have been president because he’s a successful businessman who gives thanks to God for his success,” said Michael, who brought us out to the Queensbay Mall. “Americans don’t know where Malaysia is,” said Balan, our driver on the way to the beach at Batu Ferringhi. This last one kind of had the ring of truth about it.

We discussed real estate with a driver who was also dropping his son off at school. Balan had a lot to say about financial development in Penang; besides tourism, computer and pharmacological factories make up a lot of the industry in the area. Michael told us ribald jokes (that cab ride was pretty strange, actually). Our clan jetty man suggested, upon hearing that we were from China, that we visit Yunnan Province when we get back; he’d been to visit 8 times!

Pretty much everyone who picked us up or dropped us off in Desa Permata asked why we were staying out there, but our mistake ended up putting us into contact with a lot of interesting locals, via the long rides we needed to take. It was definitely more rewarding than visiting the Blue Mansion.

The Penang taxi

The cost for all this joy riding? Well, drivers are supposed to use their meter, but Balan was the only one during our entire time in Penang who did. Otherwise, we negotiated a flat rate which seemed to conform to 10RN [US$3] within Georgetown center to 35-40RN [about $12] to go out to Desa Permata. Totally worth it, every time.