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Funky Town: Johor Bahru’s Cafe Culture

A young couple sits next to me at The Ice Cream Project along Jalan Dhoby in Johor Bahru (JB), the capital of West Malaysia’s southernmost state of Johor. They’re completely preoccupied with photographing a three-scoop tower of strawberry, chocolate and mint ice cream, topped with cream, drizzled with chocolate sauce and sprinkled with nuts. As they capture what seems like hundreds of shots from numerous angles, the icy dessert begins to melt. Just next to the slowly liquefying ice cream sits a hot cup of freshly brewed coffee, awaiting its turn in the spotlight – though I fear it may turn cold before this happens!

A pioneer of JB’s burgeoning café scene, Flowers in the Window along Jalan Dhoby is a favourite with the cool crowd for its pared-back design accentuated with various flora. The café also serves decadent desserts garnished with edible flowers.
A pioneer of JB’s burgeoning café scene, Flowers in the Window along Jalan Dhoby is a favourite with the cool crowd for its pared-back design accentuated with various flora. The café also serves decadent desserts garnished with edible flowers.

Somehow, we’ve become obsessed with immortalising our meals in images, which are then shared via social media. As I watch them snapping away, I too retrieve my mobile phone for an obligatory snap – after all, the ice cream does look fabulous!

But then, so do a lot of things in JB’s Old Town, an enclave where heritage buildings have been converted into funky hipster cafés, stylish boutiques, cool museums and illuminating art galleries. This trendy scene caters to patrons who look not just at the attractions on the menu, but at the aesthetics of the establishment, and seek out unique experiences wherever they go.

PLACES WITH PERSONALITY

In my exhaustive search for the most interesting places to visit in JB, I’d devoured information provided by passionate bloggers, vloggers and other enthusiasts, and could not help but notice an obsession with quirky cafés. Of course, the people behind JB’s thriving café scene are well aware of this fascination and respond by continually striving to up the ante on their offerings, displaying remarkable creativity and versatility.

This mural by artist #fiqqyfresh at the corner of Jalan Dhoby and Jalan Pahang is sure to make you smile!
This mural by artist #fiqqyfresh at the corner of Jalan Dhoby and Jalan Pahang is sure to make you smile!

Their unique ideas can be seen competing in the distinctive décor, the vibrant range of colours splashed across store fronts, and the various specialties on offer, with menus shamelessly designed around ‘Instagrammable’ items. But, don’t let me misrepresent their artistic intentions; it must be said that this indulgence is not at the expense of quality.

Sea Wong, owner of whimsical floral-themed café Flowers in the Window and Roost – one of the oldest cafés on Jalan Dhoby – is kind enough to bring me up to speed on the history of the place, and how it has evolved to become JB’s number one café-hopping destination.

According to Wong, Jalan Dhoby derives its name from the South Indian term for washermen – a trade that was common along this street decades ago. With the urbanisation of the old town, the ‘dhoby’ shops and traditional businesses gradually disappeared, making way for a new crop of entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs keen on breathing new life into old shophouses in JB’s Old Town have now taken on the challenge of transforming these properties. Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, home to outlets such as Drum Cafe and Bev C’s is quickly undergoing a facelift.
Entrepreneurs keen on breathing new life into old shophouses in JB’s Old Town have now taken on the challenge of transforming these properties. Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, home to outlets such as Drum Cafe and Bev C’s is quickly undergoing a facelift.

“Just 10 years ago there were no cafés here,” he says. “We were one of the first, along with IT Roo, a famous fried chicken chop joint, just around the corner. Back then, there weren’t many patrons. I had to wait two years before Roost truly picked up. From then on, the café scene began to grow, appealing to people who didn’t fancy frequenting shopping malls or meeting in Starbucks, but preferred a more intimate café experience.” Today, Flowers in the Window offers fusion cuisine and herb- and spice-infused drinks to be savoured amid tropical blooms while Roost caters to those who appreciate a healthier and greener lifestyle, with décor that incorporates recycled and repurposed materials, and a western menu that offers a green bowl they call a ‘superfood bowl’.

Coffee lovers who come to Jalan Dhoby appreciate the opportunity to sample unique brews offered by a varied range of cafés. With prices hovering around MYR10 to MYR15 (approx. USD2.30-3.40) for various coffee brews including a latte or cappuccino, you can café-hop to find the one that’s truly you. Many establishments even experiment with coffee art, creating brilliant designs to keep patrons tickled and tantalised.

A street art campaign, #tanahairku, spearheaded by Malaysian oil and gas company Petronas inspired murals like this one along Jalan Dhoby.
A street art campaign, #tanahairku, spearheaded by Malaysian oil and gas company Petronas inspired murals like this one along Jalan Dhoby.

At Bev C’s, the specialty is Espresso Ice Cubes that come in three varieties – with milk, chocolate and milk, or caramel and milk. The espresso shots are frozen into ice cubes and served with milk on the side. As you add the desired amount of milk, the espresso melts into a delicious, iced latte! It’s such a simple idea, yet, ingenious in that it involves the patron in the experience of preparing his or her own coffee.

KITCHEN WIZARDRY

Used as a freezing agent at The Ice Cream Project, the application of liquid nitrogen to ice-cream is a sight to behold. But beyond just kitchen magic, the liquefied gas freezes ice-cream quickly and prevents the formation of ice crystals, which results in smoother and creamier ice-cream.
Used as a freezing agent at The Ice Cream Project, the application of liquid nitrogen to ice-cream is a sight to behold. But beyond just kitchen magic, the liquefied gas freezes ice-cream quickly and prevents the formation of ice crystals, which results in smoother and creamier ice-cream.

Especially decadent on a sultry afternoon (and Malaysia has many of those!) is a visit to The Ice Cream Project (TIP), which specialises in churning out ice cream made with liquid nitrogen, dessert wizardry at its finest. This technique may have been around for a while, but it’s still novel and capable of eliciting oohs and aahs from even the most seasoned sweet tooth. Here, classics like sticky butterscotch and fudgy brownies and cream are made even more sensational due to rapid freezing that results in incredibly fine water particles, creating a creamy, velvety consistency. Best of all, delights at TIP are made without rennet, animal gelatin, eggs, additives or preservatives.

The only café that offers accommodation along Jalan Dhoby, The Replacement Lodge and Kitchen offers sumptuous breakfasts, in keeping with its bed and breakfast theme.
The only café that offers accommodation along Jalan Dhoby, The Replacement Lodge and Kitchen offers sumptuous breakfasts, in keeping with its bed and breakfast theme.

When it comes to delectable food, The Replacement Lodge & Kitchen, with its eyecatching décor is certainly not to be missed. Their Breakfast Platter, a traditional English breakfast of crispy bacon, plump sausages and silky scrambled eggs served with baked beans is simple, but done with such care that you’ll feel as if you’ve just been served a comforting breakfast in bed. And, if you really feel like a nap, The Replacement is the only dining outlet on the street to offer accommodation upstairs, with a range of minimalist yet stylish rooms.

The unique Drum Cafe pays homage to the 24-Festival Drums ensemble, which originated in JB. The most interesting feature of the restaurant’s interior is its ceiling, from which traditional drums are suspended.
The unique Drum Cafe pays homage to the 24-Festival Drums ensemble, which originated in JB. The most interesting feature of the restaurant’s interior is its ceiling, from which traditional drums are suspended.

Drum Cafe – owned by members of a traditional 24-Festival Drums ensemble, which is based on the 24 festivals observed by the Chinese agricultural community – features a ceiling covered in, yes, you guessed it, drums! And patrons are often entertained by the owners practising on their percussion instruments in the rehearsal room upstairs!

These are just some of the local favourites in the area. The rest? Well, I’d not want to spoil the experience of discovering their delights for yourself. Just be sure not to miss out on Koone, popular for its variety of soft serves; Chaiwalla & Co. Container Café, which offers its own special blend of coffees, teas and smoothies; Sangkaya, with its signature coconut ice-cream; and Culture Street Café (formerly EH-HE), which has a breathtaking art gallery on the second floor.

Culture Street Café serves local fare in cosy surrounds, and doubles as an art gallery with a loft dedicated to the works of local artists.
Culture Street Café serves local fare in cosy surrounds, and doubles as an art gallery with a loft dedicated to the works of local artists.

POWERFUL CHANGES

As I dig deeper, eager to learn about other rejuvenation projects that have transformed JB into an extraordinary destination for trendy travellers seeking out all things quirky, I stumble upon Kilang Bateri, an old battery factory along Jalan Tampoi (a 15-minute drive from Jalan Dhoby) that has been converted into a postmodern, super-hipster food court and shopping venue. It doesn’t take me long to learn about the masterminds behind this enterprise: JOHO, a local organisation that is embracing fresh and innovative ideas to fuel an art movement.

Kilang Bateri is the brainchild of four creative youths from Johor Bahru – Yusri Bachok, Johan Ropi, Zulabas and Samhan Omar. Speaking to Yusri, one of the founders and the CEO of JOHO, I scratch beneath the surface of the abandoned Eveready battery factory to learn about the origins of this inspired space.

Ingenious entrepreneurs are transforming the city’s landscape by finding new purpose for old buildings. Just outside the city centre, Kilang Bateri, formerly a battery factory, has been converted into an event and retail space with quirky cafés and stylish boutiques.
Ingenious entrepreneurs are transforming the city’s landscape by finding new purpose for old buildings. Just outside the city centre, Kilang Bateri, formerly a battery factory, has been converted into an event and retail space with quirky cafés and stylish boutiques.

“It all started in 2009 when a group of creative minds teamed up to bring change to the local community by combining their skills and expertise to form an art movement,” explains Yusri. “By providing a platform for youth to showcase their creativity and entrepreneurship skills, our events managed to gather creative talents from within and outside Johor, and give rise to a local business ecosystem,” he continues. JOHO certainly accomplished this, attracting youth to attend and participate in its arts events, like the annual GEGO Music Festival and the Paso Bumbong (literally ‘rooftop market’), which provides a platform for young entrepreneurs to sell eveything from creative DIY items to vintage clothing.

However, for the first six years, the constant hurdle faced was the lack of a permanent event space. Taking over the old Eveready battery factory guaranteed Yusri and partners a venue for their arts events, and offered plenty of room to grow artistically. Both the interiors and exteriors of this dramatic venue are fascinatingly visual, full of vintage items like antique cars cut in half and placed on top of the buildings; re-modelled, colourful cargo containers; and old-style marquees with dazzling lights, so there’s plenty there to spice up your Instagram account!

While it is open during the day, Kilang Bateri truly comes alive after dusk. Its giant 30,000sq metre retail space, which opened its doors in June 2015, houses about 200 new and experienced local traders, and is filled with fashion boutiques owned by local designers, bookshops, and of course, its main forte, a diverse selection of reasonably priced dining outlets that range from cafés to stalls to a food court. Although no alcohol is served here, Kilang Bateri provides a rich setting for a night out. If you are up for sober fun, the revitalised factory offers sensational shopping and an opportunity to kick back and relax at café-style outlets like Voltage, Chupchai and Full Tank, which offer local cuisine, after picking up a good paperback at Projek Buku, a bookshop that sells a wide range of mostly local literature.

“No one would have imagined that this crazy idea could actually work, but it did. Today, Kilang Bateri is a bustling shopping and dining venue that provides a platform for local and online entrepreneurs to expand their businesses and showcase their products,” says Yusri.

Just a year into operations, the impact of Kilang Bateri was so tremendous within the community that it garnered well-deserved recognition as the proud winner of the Anugerah Wira Sosial Iskandar Malaysia (IMSHA) 2015 social innovator award.

FRINGE BENEFITS

Zooming out to see the bigger picture, JB’s outskirts offer attractions that are no less fascinating. Some of these almost go unnoticed, as it’s relatively easy to miss them as you drive by, so, be patient and ask locals for directions.

Rowan & Parsley in Masai town, located 25km from JB city centre, is one such establishment. Wedged between old, derelict factory buildings, it escapes my notice at first. But once I spot it, I realise that part of its appeal lies in the element of surprise – a sanctuary in one of the most unlikely of places. The one-year-old establishment is situated on the site of an old warehouse that was ingeniously converted into an intimate restaurant with a homey and inviting environment. The restaurant plays it by ear, preferring to experiment with their relatively small menu of mainly Italian and French dishes. By their own admission, they’re still ‘finding their groove’, and are more than ready to improvise their offerings for private functions.

DC Comics uses custom-made templates like the Batman logo to jazz up its coffees.
DC Comics uses custom-made templates like the Batman logo to jazz up its coffees.

Another treasure trove, although a little more established with nine outlets around Malaysia, is DC Comics in Puteri Harbour. A half hour’s drive from the city, this hybrid comic store-café is a real weekend treat. DC Comics is a place you can lose yourself for a few hours, as you retreat into a fantastical world of superheroes.

The establishment displays cool comic merchandise and rarities, from life-size superhero cut-outs to a Batmobile, first edition posters, costumes, games and more. And if that’s not enough, the menu is based on superheroes; even their hamburger buns and coffee foam come topped with Batman or Superman logos, depending on your choice of lycra-clad hero. Mainly offering western cuisine, the most popular item on the menu seems to be the adventurously named Heat Vision Chicken Rice, which comes with a more than generous serving of deep-fried chicken!

To complete your café-hopping experience, Miyakori Café, which specialises in premium coffees and desserts, and Sorella Café, a Japanese-French pâtisserie outlet where the food is truly a visual treat, are highlights not to be missed in Bukit Indah’s residential area. Sorella’s Mango Salsa is certainly worth a special mention.

The treats at Sorella Café are so tempting, to pick just one would be an injustice. Pictured here are Chocolate Heaven, a sinful dark chocolate mousse, and Lemon Tart – lemon-infused curd in a pastry shell made with ground almonds.
The treats at Sorella Café are so tempting, to pick just one would be an injustice. Pictured here are Chocolate Heaven, a sinful dark chocolate mousse, and Lemon Tart – lemon-infused curd in a pastry shell made with ground almonds.

The thriving café scene in JB beckons for a weekend getaway, luring the young and trend-conscious to discover creative spaces fuelled by an energy that constantly reinvents the landscape, reshaping the present, and ultimately the future, of JB.

SOUTHERN COMFORT

While visiting the southern state of Johor, look out for these delightfully local indulgences.

MUAR OTAK-OTAK A must-try when in Johor is otak-otak, a coal-grilled snack made from fish or shrimp paste tossed with chilli, lemongrass, coconut milk and turmeric, and wrapped in banana leaves. Smoky and slightly spicy, and likened to a firm mousse, this flavoursome delight is best enjoyed straight from the grill along Glutton Street (also known as Tam Chiak Street or Hunger Street) in Muar.

KLUANG COFFEE Johor’s Kluang district is famous for its coffee, and one of the best places to sample this is Kluang Station where Kluang Rail Coffee has been serving up aromatic cups of local coffee roasted with butter since 1938. Enjoy the local brew with charcoal-grilled toast lathered with butter and kaya, coconut jam or spread made with eggs, coconut milk and sugar, for a truly local breakfast.

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