Several years ago, while scouting hotels for uber-sexy boutique hotel collections company, Mr & Mrs Smith, I had the pleasure of meeting hotelier and restaurateur Narelle McMurtrie and visiting her boho chic retreat in Langkawi, Bon Ton Resort. I loved Bon Ton, both for its rustic charm as well as for Narelle’s fabulous food. Since that first visit, I’ve been telling my overworked and gorgeous wife S that I’d like to whisk her off there for a relaxing weekend of doing nothing but stuffing our faces.
Fast forward a few years and I still haven’t delivered on that promise — more proof to S that I’m pretty much full of hot air and not much else.
A few weeks ago, we ran into Narelle at a gathering of food media and Southeast Asian jury members of The San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants survey — Narelle, S and I are all members of the jury. During dinner, Narelle told us about her latest venture, a cool set of residences in the historic district of Penang, Malaysia. The Straits Collection is, in her words, “an eclectic mix of retail, restaurants and residences” spread through two separate rows of heritage Chinese shophouses in Georgetown. Narelle suggested we drop by, to check out the property and to do some serious eating. Of course, I said “sure, we’d love to”, thinking we’d get around to it someday, but probably not that soon. But as it turned out, we were actually able to identify a free weekend this month. This is a real rarity for us. We’re usually commited to something or other most weekends several weeks, if not months, in advance. So, we quickly blocked out the dates, jumped on the Internet and booked some budget airline flights and emailed Narelle. This fat fella and his fetching femme were heading to Penang for the weekend! Super-host extraordinaire that she is, she informed us that she’d fly in to hang with us during our stay.
The Straits Collection really is gorgeous. We stayed in an upstairs suite on Stewart Lane. There, Narelle has built 6 suites, each one charmingly furnished in her slightly Spartan but always colourful boho-chic style. The rooms are very comfortable and spacious. I loved that the air conditioning was strong, as was the free WiFi signal — things that are often not the case in heritage residences. We also loved the eclectic mix of furnishings. Narelle’s personality and design philosophy shines through in each and every room. The Stewart Lane property also houses a charmingly laid back reading room and a cute cafe called Kopi Cine.
The Amenian Street property, on the other hand, comprises 4 residences, a cool boutique and a soon to be opened tea salon. 93 Armenian Street is a wonderful duplex shophouse, with a large living room downstairs and plush bedroom upstairs. 91 Armenian Street can house a small family, with downstairs living room, a master bedroom upstairs and also another bedroom with two single beds.
We really enjoyed hanging out with Narelle and at her plush, quirky and oh-so-comfy hotel. We loved that one of the suggested activities for guests was walking JJ, one of the two house puppies. We had a blast tasting desserts at Kopi Cine (all of them yummy — S especially loved the steamed ginger and pear cake while I went mad for the lemon cheesecake) and have decided that the best way to end a long day in Penang is with a gula melaka ice cream sundae (served with homemade banana cake). We whiled away quite a bit of time leafing through Narelle’s extensive magazine collection and were thrilled that she stocks and serves our favourite tea brand, TWG Tea. In all, it was a great, relaxing weekend. And one that S really needed and deserved.
Of course, we didn’t just stay in the hotel all weekend. We made sure to run a few errands as well as eat at a few rather fabulous places. We visited our favourite Malaysian soy sauce purveyors and picked up, quite literally, a suitcase worth of soy sauce, black vinegar and bean paste. We also dropped by the Ng Kee Cake Shop (7-C People’s Court, off Campbell Street / No 61, Cintra Street, Tel: 04 2612229) for the best pepper cookies we’ve had in ages. And we made the trek to a fabulous old fashioned spice mill (No 12, Lebuh China) to pick up several packets of freshly ground and fabulously aromatic spices.
We also dropped into a lovely glass artist’s studio where S picked up 3 bowls and a really beautiful necklace. Fuan Wong, the designer, turned out to not just be a super-talented artist but also a real foodie. He gave us some really good advice and offered to help us plan our eating itinerary on our next trip back to Penang. Fuan’s studio is at No 88, Lebuh Armenian (Tel: 04 2611917), just a few doors down from Narelle’s Armenian street residences.
One of the restaurants that I was determined to visit while in Penang was Teik Seng, which I had first read about on the uber-informative Eating Asia blog. I mean, how could you read Robyn’s post and see David’s pictures and not want to dig into a serving of twice-fried belly pork? We were actually pretty lucky. Teik Seng had moved, closing down for a few days and re-opening on the day we arrived in Penang (it’s moved just a few doors down to No 18-20 Lebuh Carnavon). Perfect timing if you asked me. S and I had one of our two best meals here. The food is simple, but earnest and delicous. In addition to the amazing double-cooked pork, we had a steamed pomfret and some kangkong cooked with prawns and sambal. All super-duper slurpilicious! I also enjoyed the homemade chin chow (grass jelly drink) that we had with our meal.
Our other best meal was a morning plate of char kway teow at Khoon Hiang Cafe, at the corner of Jalan Dunlop and Jalan Dato Keramat. The stall is called Ah Leng Char Koay Teow and it serves one of the tastiest and most interesting versions of char kway teow that S and I have ever had. It was different from both the eggy, sweet black version common in Singapore and the dry version most commonly referred to as “Penang Char Kway Teow”. This had a slightly spicy, sour taste, as well as a slightly “wet” texture that reminded S very much of Pad Thai. We didn’t stick around to speak to the owners, but I’d love to one day talk to him about the influences that went into his recipe — which was, quite simply, fantastic. This was a dish that S kept talking about throughout our whole weekend and (unfortunately) made much of the other foods we tasted pale in comparison. This is, without a doubt, char kway teow worth travelling for.
Another edible goodie worth travelling for is the coffee at the Toh Soon Cafe, hidden in the lane next to No 194, Lebuh Campbell. This crowded little cafe makes some of the best Malaysian style coffee I’ve ever had. S and I stopped in for an ice coffee and were immediately hooked. We’re now big fans of this tiny and, from what I have been told, super popular coffee shop.
Of course, a weekend isn’t really enough time to eat one’s way across a place that offers as much good food as Penang. But now that Narelle has opened what must be the island’s sexiest boutique hotel, and with airfares as low as they are, we don’t really have that many excuses not to be visiting more often. And, since Narelle very kindly offers all of her guests a one page eating/shopping guide (or for crazy, greedy, hardcore people like me, a five page version), all the hard work of trying to figure out where to eat has been taken care of. So, all you need to do to plan the perfect Penang weekend is check into the Straits Collection, grab a copy of Narelle’s guide and start eating and shopping your way across town. It’s really that easy.
So, what are you waiting for? Doesn’t your wife also deserve a nice vacation?