Outside, illuminated letters spell the way to The Granary, a restaurant whose paint-chipped walls and polished-concrete courtyard wouldn’t be out of place in Williamsburg, Kreuzberg or Shoreditch. But this isn’t New York, Berlin or London, it’s Kuching — a compact city in Borneo’s wild west, whose chief claim is being capital of Sarawak state.
As I enter, The Granary’s lofty, double-height ceilings rise to reveal an industrial corrugated roof, which hints at the century-old building’s history as a grain store. Low-hanging pendant lamps, exposed brick walls and iron beams cement the hipster feel.
Kuching may be known for its cosmopolitan blend of Malay, Chinese, Indian and tribal locals, but the city’s restaurant scene has recently stepped up a gear from street-food stalls and cut-price canteens.
Opened this year, The Granary is the latest in a tranche of hip new hangouts; part of a complex that will hold a chic, 39-room backpackers lodge called The Marian by the end of the year — complete with a hilltop infinity pool — and a smart souvenir shop, the Gift Gallery.
Created by Joanne Chin and Emily Sit — two Malaysians who met while studying in New Zealand — The Granary features a resolutely Western menu (something of an oddity in a city that’s long celebrated Asian cuisine).
The Old Courthouse is another such establishment to have transformed Kuching’s dining scene lately. During its 18th-century heyday, this majestic building served as administrative headquarters for Kuching’s so-called ‘White Rajahs’, a trio of British-born Brookes — James, Charles and Vyner — who ruled Sarawak for a century. Today, a wing of it has been restored to reveal a series of stylish new restaurants and bars, collectively known as China House.
The person behind it is Australian entrepreneur Narelle McMurtrie, owner of Langkawi’s luxurious, all-villa Bon Ton Resort. Having first launched China House on the Malaysian mainland in Penang, back in 2011 — with the same stylish bars and restaurants, housed within three heritage buildings — she has now hopped across the South China Sea to test out Kuching’s appetite for contemporary cuisine.
At Kopi C (Malay for ‘coffee with milk’), I eye up the signature display of 20 cakes, from lemon and pistachio to coffee and walnut, before pausing with an iced coffee in the cool courtyard, surrounded by whitewashed walls and manicured lawns.
As evening falls, I head to Carpenter Street, one of Chinatown’s main arteries, to explore its new wave of cafes and bars. Highlights among the parade of eye-catching drinking dens include The Walk Star Bistro, whose walls are scattered with spare bicycle parts, and Wrong Place, a hip hostel-cum-cafe, that guides me inside with an enigmatic cardboard sign.
The best is yet to come though, as I swing by Zinc, another Western extraction, secreted away on the corner of Jalan Tabuan, with sultry interiors, low-level lighting and candle-lit tables. Opened last year, it’s owned by French émigré Servanne Lo and her Malay-Chinese husband James, and manned in the kitchen a Catalan chef, who pays homage to his homeland with dishes such as gambas al ajillo (garlic prawns).
After a glass of Marlborough Sauvignon, I make my way to a row of 1920s shophouses, where I’ve heard The Junk is not to be missed. The interior doesn’t disappoint: antiques adorn every wall and corner, from grandfather clocks and birdcages to rickety old chicken coops, all lit by atmospheric Chinese lanterns. It’s a dark, decadent and fitting end, to my night in Borneo’s culinary capital.