1881 Chong Tian Hotel

Special thanks to Alice Seah for extending this food review invitation.

Update: This business has ceased its operations.

Standing prominently along Jalan Pintal Tali is 1881 Chong Tian Hotel (1881中天酒店), a prestigious hotel-restaurant occupying an imposing block of colonial-era building.
Formerly a merchant hotel during the British colonial days, this century-old building was later infamously made as a brothel. The building subsequently succumbed to disrepair and remained abandoned for many decades.

It was only several years ago when this historical building was given a second lease of life. Mr. Seah, who owns several real estate properties in this city district, decided to restore this building to its former grandeur.
Today's 1881 Chong Tian Hotel is three storeys in height and spans across five contiguous shop lots. The restaurant and kitchen are located at the ground floor, while upper floors house the hotel rooms.
With a price tag of RM15 million and 7 years in the making, this formerly dilapidated building underwent complete makeover to the prestige it enjoys today. To ensure that restoration is carried out as authentic as possible, craftsmen and building materials were specially brought in from China.

1881 Chong Tian Hotel boasts 11 luxurious rooms. Each room has been uniquely designed and is meticulously crafted with fine furniture pieces.
To give the nostalgic feel of a lavish guest house during the dynastic China, no expense was spared even at the welcoming area. The hallway is dotted with countless pieces of fine antiques, prized artwork, vintage furniture and elegant tapestry.
Given the painstaking effort in the collecting so many pieces of cultural ornaments, it is befitting that 1881 Chong Tian Hotel won the "Most Cultural Hotel in Asia Pacific" in 2013.
As for the restaurant, the dining hall used to be split into halves, each catering to Chinese and Western delicacies respectively. However, the Western menu has been discontinued in favor of focusing on Chinese cuisine.
The food menu is primarily presented in à la carte manner. For the convenience of guests, a number of chef-recommended course meals are also available. Tonight's dinner is a 5-dish course meal for 4 persons.
First, we are treated with a dish of Thai-Style Steamed Red Snapper (泰式蒸红狮). The fish is gently steamed with Thai-style herbs, yielding a succulent flavor which is mildly spicy but pleasantly tangy. I also like the liberal use of garlic to bring out the delectable taste of the fish. On the other hand, the flesh is intertwined with small bones, so it may not be the best choice for small children.
The next dish still puts us in the seafood department: King Prawns With Mala Sauce (麻辣鲜明虾). Four large pieces of fresh prawns are stir-fried with a thick coating of spicy mala sauce (麻辣酱), then served piping hot right out from the wok. I find that the sweet prawn flesh blends well with the savory-spicy sauce.
Our next dish is one specially catered for the heavens: Lemongrass Braised Pork Belly (香茅爆花肉). I do not even know how to start explaining because every aspect of the pork is simply perfect: tenderness, flavor, fragrance and "wok hei" (镬气). To put this more meaningfully, the pork is irresistible from the very first bite!
Moving on, the Fried Egg With Bitter Gourd (香滑蛋凉瓜) is an interesting pairing of eggs with vegetables. Having an affinity for bitter gourd myself, this dish strikes a chord with my palate. Fret not, the bitter gourd is not as bitter as it seems. If anything, the bitter gourd primarily serves to provide some degree of sweetness.
The fifth dish for tonight's dinner is Chinese Cabbage With Garlic Slices (蒜片奶白菜). This leafy vegetable with thick stems is gently braised in light oil to maintain its juiciness. Once again, garlic is used to enhance overall aroma and flavor.
This course meal includes a platter of fruits for dessert. Slices of papaya, watermelon and honeydew serve to conclude our hearty meal tonight. The fruits are kept chilled with ice.
How much do you think that tonight's meal costs? This set of 5 dishes plus dessert and rice only costs RM98.00. Considering the exquisite dining atmosphere and scrumptious flavor of most dishes, I find this meal surprisingly affordable. Do check it out as you are likely to pay the same for inferior-quality food at most restaurants.
Name: 1881 Chong Tian Hotel
Address: 38, Jalan Pintal Tali, 10100 George Town, Pulau Pinang
Contact: 04-263-1881
Business hours: 11:00am-2:30pm, 6:00pm-10:00pm
Website: http://www.1881chongtian.com
Coordinates: 5.41780 N, 100.33481 E
Directions: From Lebuh Chulia, turn into the one-way Jalan Pintal Tali. 1881 Chong Tian Hotel is a 3-storey building on the right, almost before the intersection of Jalan Pintal Tali and Lebuh Campbell. Street parking is the only viable option at this part of town, and may be in short supply at certain hours. Valet parking service is provided by the hotel.

Caffé Bene

Update: This business has ceased its operations.

Korean franchise Caffé Bene (카페베네) gained its first foothold in Penang recently with the opening of its new outlet at Gurney Paragon Mall.
It is fortunate that I arrive as the café opens. Caffé Bene has become sort of hype recently. The queue becomes ridiculously long later in the day. The number of seats available is severely inadequate for the weekend crowd.

Caffé Bene is popular for its bingsu (빙수), a series popular shaved ice dessert in Korea. The founder of this franchise was inspired by Western-style coffee shops, and he proceeded to introduce his own brand by integrating Korean desserts into the menu.
However, my visit to Caffé Bene today is not for the bingsu; the serving size of bingsu is meant for 2 or 3 persons. I am here to take advantage of the opening promotional offer: buy-one-get-one (BOGO) selected drinks.

Caffé Bene uses an electronic buzzer system for inform customers to collect their orders from the serving counter. This approach reduces the number of employees required to man the tables.
My first beverage is Misugaru Latte (RM13.00), which I opted for large size. Misugaru (미숫가루) is a popular fortified drink in Korea, similar to what Milo is in Malaysia. Misugaru is made from various grains such as barley, sesame seed, rice and black bean. The mixed grains are sold in powdered form and mixed with hot water before serving.
In terms of taste, the Misugaru Latte is similar to Horlicks. The drink is quite addictive once I get a hang of it. I requested for the iced version, but in retrospect this beverage would have been more enjoyable if it were served hot.

The other drink is the Sweet Potato Latte (RM13.00) which I also ordered in large size. As recommended, I asked for it to be served hot as the flavor is more pronounced when the drink is still warm.
This Sweet Potato Latte is quite appealing too. Its starchy composition and slightly sweet taste make this drink truly heavenly. Certainly satisfying to the very last drop.

Since the Sweet Potato Latte is prepared hot, it is served in a ceramic mug. Close to the rim of this breakfast mug are encouraging words to start the day: "the best way to achieve your dreams" (당신의꿈을이루는가장좋은방법은). I don't think many Malaysians can read Korean anyway.
The staff at Caffé Bene is generally courteous and customer-oriented. I believe this is part of the company's culture.

Address: L1.06, Gurney Paragon Mall, Persiaran Gurney, 10250 George Town, Pulau Pinang
Contact: 03-6143-6333
Business hours: 10:00am-10:00pm


Uni Cafe

Update: This business has ceased its operations.

Pinetree Café near the USM entrance opened for business several months ago. However due to dispute among business partners, Pinetree closed down as abruptly as it opened. After several months of unexplained hiatus, the café has been given a new lease of life when it reopened under a different name, Uni Cafe (理大Cafe).
Currently operated by one of Pinetree's former owners, the interior design remains mostly unchanged. The walls still carry the same pine tree motifs.
The menu is also very similar. Most dishes are Western-style comfort food which university undergraduates love and can afford.
My choice for dinner tonight is the Grill Teriyaki Chicken Burger (RM8.90) which comes with a side of crinkle-cut fries. The portion is decently large; certainly has high value for money.
The burger buns are of the no-frills type; so economical that there are no sesame seeds. I do not feel that this is a big deal because the patty is where the burger makes or breaks.

Speaking of the patty, it is a piece of deboned chicken breast grilled with sweet teriyaki sauce. The chicken is grilled to near perfection, resulting in scrumptious flavor within each bite. It would have been nicer if cartilages were also removed from the burger patty.
The burger also includes vegetables such as tomato, cucumber, lettuce and onion. Mayonnaise is also used, but I feel that teriyaki sauce itself should suffice.
Drinks need to be ordered separately. Mine is a glass of Lemon Tea (RM2.00).
Overall, the food Uni Cafe is good and affordable enough to warrant regular visits.

Address: 559-D, Jalan Sungai Dua, 11700 Gelugor, Pulau Pinang
Contact: 04-656-2882
Business hours: 11:00am-3:00pm, 5:30pm-10:00pm, closed on Sundays


43 Café

Update: This business has ceased its operations.

43 Café is an eatery near USM's Sungai Dua entrance. The premises is a residential corner lot unit, which provides ample space of dine-in customers.
The dining section is sheltered but not air-conditioned. This is fine because business starts in the evening when the weather is usually cooler anyway. The place is decorated in a youthful manner. This is unsurprising as most customers are university undergraduates.
43 Café is renowned for its pork burgers, but these have been discontinued since my previous visit. Instead, the restaurant is now focusing on Western meals such as steak and pasta.
Homemade ice cream (or Ice Scream as 43 Café calls it) is also another specialty here. However, I was told that Ice Scream will be discontinued soon too. In fact, my visit today is to catch the Ice Scream before this happens.
The flavor of my choice is Baileys Irish Cream (RM13.90). Baileys Irish Cream is a brand of liqueur which is notable for combining Irish whiskey with dairy cream to form thick emulsion. Yes, this Ice Scream is alcoholic (albeit mildly), so think twice before allowing your kid to have one.
The consistency of this Ice Scream is decent, although I must say that I have encountered better ones. According to 43 Café, the best way to enjoy this dessert is with salt and chili pepper.

Using salt with ice cream is not unheard of; in fact I enjoyed Salt & Straw's salted ice cream in Portland, Oregon.
But using chili pepper is an entirely different story. I just feel that chili pepper does not connect with ice cream. It just tastes wrong. Or perhaps I just don't know how to enjoy artisanal ice cream this way.

Although I did not order any proper meals here at 43 Café, a peek at its menu revealed that the food is not as affordable as one might expect. In fact, its pricing is comparable to air-conditioned restaurants in shopping malls. The fact there are many youngsters eating here indicates that I underestimated the spending power of university students. Or their parents.
By the way, 43 Café is seriously understaffed. The staff are too preoccupied in the kitchen to entertain existing customers, or to notice new walk-ins.

Address: 43, Jalan Sungai Dua, 11700 Gelugor, Pulau Pinang
Contact: 016-430-7009
Business hours: 5:30pm-10:00pm