An unlikely site for a contemporary Asian restaurant, centuries-old Fort Cornwallis has, nevertheless, seen an increase in visitors since KOTA found a home among its crumbling ruins. Historical stature aside, the star fort is only worth poking around for 15 minutes tops; KOTA, on the other hand, warrants repeat visits to sample as much as possible on the captivating menu.
Best described as ‘new Nyonya’, KOTA’s fare sees Peranakan cuisine presented in sleek new packaging. For a palatable prelude to your meal, order the Jumbo platter (RM38): a smorgasbord of small bites including yam puffs, pai tee (also called Top Hats), jiu hu char (stir-fried jicama), kerabu (pickled mango salad), turmeric chicken and tandoori(yogurt-marinated chicken). None stray far from their traditional representations, save for the pai tee, which comes topped with ebiko for an enticing extra crunch.
‘It’s like sushi, almost!’ exclaims my lunch date when we tackle the Satay next. He uses the word, ‘almost’, because the chicken isn’t skewered, but artfully arranged atopketupat (rice compressed into cubes). Chicken roulade was, in fact, the inspiration behind the dish, but whether Japanised of Frenchified, the dish carries global appeal.
One of the house specials, a dish simply called Nyonya, is as multifaceted as its name is straightforward. A triple ode to Peranakan cooking, the tiered rice dish sees bright blue coconut rice sandwiched between rendang and a bed of otak-otak. Crispy, wispy strands of dehydrated leeks crown the lot, looking rather like an outstanding toupee, and tasting like what I imagine savoury cotton candy to be.
But the dish I’m most likely to hanker after when hungry is Kari, a one pot meal of chicken curry like grandma used to make, except crowned with golden puff pastry. As a kid, I’d sop up every last drop of curry with sliced Gardenia, but the double serving of carbs – thick Benggali bread and puff pastry – at KOTA more than suffices.
On a separate occasion, I had sampled and declared KOTA’s Trio of Crème Brûlée (original, Pandan and Gula Melaka) the best dessert on the island. A second encounter with ecstasy is enticing, but curiosity prompts us to settle for the intriguing Nasi Lemak Cake and the Nyonya Tiramisu. While both newfangled inventions turn out more pleasing to the eye than the palate, we take leave of the dining table with few regrets, wowed by the playful possibilities of Peranakan-inspired desserts beyond kueh. It’s little wonder that the restaurant was packed with families spanning three generations; after all, there’s something for ah ma, gong gong, sio moi, ah chim, ah pek, sio tee, and the rest of the household at KOTA.
Originally published on Time Out Penang.