You may remember Chef Lai Noodle Cafe on California Street: the charming, family-run Malaysian restaurant that, for six years, was one of the city’s most beloved places to find home-style food in Kuala Lumpur. Co-owner and chef Jimy Lai, his wife Amy Kerk and their children Nelson, Admon and Gavin were among the restaurant’s assets, known for their tasty food and gracious personalities. Kerk was greatly missed in his affectionate and pleasant way with guests: “We called her ‘mum’,” say former regulars – and my catering partners – Mark Kamleh and Carlo Jensen, who used to visit Lai’s about two times per week.
Lai’s Pantry is the latest iteration of the restaurant, whose closing in September 2019 has left many fans scratching their heads (Nelson: “My parents decided to take a break from the hospitality industry”). As in the old shop, there are few frills. The new spot is little more than four wooden tables covered in protective plastic and a mostly stainless steel open kitchen with standard fluorescent lighting and wipeable menus.
It sits among a block of shops on Hanson Road in Mansfield Park. “In an area dominated by Vietnamese cuisine and pizza places, we thought we could bring something different to the community with Malaysian cuisine,” Nelson says of the family’s decision to move to the ‘burbs’.
Kamleh and Jensen are among the many punters delighted to see the couple come out of retirement. Luckily for those who liked the original and its consistently excellent menu, the food at Lai’s Pantry is largely the same.
A smoky char kway teow with a rich wok hei (wok breath) is punctuated with thick slices of lap cheong sausage. In the pan mee, hand-torn slippery rice noodles swim in a light chicken broth with crispy anchovies and minced pork. There is of course Hainan chicken rice, laksas of different flavors and nasi lemak served with beef or chicken curry, or fried chicken.
Among the heroes’ menu items is yong tau foo, a Chinese hakka dish made with vegetables and tofu stuffed with minced fish served in a clear, yellowish broth. “It is only available on certain days due to the availability of fish,” says Nelson. The modest bowl comes with a side of chili sauce for dipping, and there’s the option to add noodles if you like.
Loyalists will lament the hopefully temporary loss of Adelaide de Lai’s famous fish head curry from the menu. “This curry was extremely difficult to retrieve even when they had the old place – normally it takes 24 hours notice and even so you still may not have it, ”Jensen tells me. “I got it once. I took my own jars and containers for them to fill. It fed five of us, it was so good.
To complete the succinct offering of Lai’s 2.0, teh tarik (Malaysian sweet tea) drinks, kopi and cold milo, as well as desserts. Cendol, a sweet and iced pudding, is a lively blend of coconut milk, green jelly and palm sugar, while iced kacang is a hearty serving of finely crushed ice that arrives under the weight of red beans, jelly and sweet syrup.
“As a family, we are delighted to once again serve the community with delicious Malaysian cuisine,” said Nelson. “It’s great to be able to see our old patrons again and introduce our food to new people as well – and, more importantly, to see customers enjoy their food. ”
Judging by the social media fanfare – and the wait time for one of the four wooden tables when Large format recently visited – Adelaide is just as happy as the Lais.
3/270 Hanson Road, Mansfield Park
Thu to Mon 11 am-3pm, 5 pm-8pm