Jeff's Cellar, The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat, Ipoh

September 21, 2018

For more than 250 million years, these limestone caves stood silent and dark, explored only by occasional swiftlets and bats. That changed less than a decade ago, when The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat opened in early 2010 in peninsular Malaysia's northern city of Ipoh, little more than a two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur.

One of these natural caves nestled within the resort's nearly 10-hectare valley is now home to a shimmering restaurant and bar that has been a magnet for visitors from across the globe. Comparable perhaps solely to Puglia's Grotta Palazzese in Italy, Jeff's Cellar is a venue that inspires awe and reverence from the moment you step inside its hall, surrounded by stalactite formations that predate humankind's history. It's cavernously ethereal but somehow miraculously intimate.

The memorable restaurant, named for the founder of Malaysia's Sunway Group, immerses guests in this geological wonder, with an elegant flourish. Throughout the evening, the stars in the sky are replaced by the gentle glow of man-made lights that illuminate the interior, with cheerful conversation and the clinking of wine glasses reverberating through the space, as classic tunes like Quizas, Quizas, Quizas waft from the speakers.

For such a magnificent setting, the food would certainly be expected to complement the unique experience offered by Jeff's Cellar. Thankfully, the kitchen currently led by The Banjaran's head chef Boon Lee, is up to the task. Boon is Ipoh-born but has long honed his skills across Malaysia and abroad, returning to his hometown to helm its sparkling gastronomic gem.

The ideal introduction here is The Chairman's Favourite five-course degustation menu (again, a nod to the Sunway Group's leader). While our photographs deep within this cave can't do justice to the dishes, each course looks splendid when served.

A swirl of smoke dramatically announces the arrival of the opening salvo, dubbed 'Almost Raw' - a very lightly pan-seared scallop, its plumpness crowned with a generous shower of Osetra caviar, their brininess blending harmoniously with the earthiness of crispy duck chips, carrot, cress and cumin sand.

Dishes here pack a punch of flavour, made nuanced nonetheless with entire ensembles of ingredients; the foie gras, layered atop French brioche, is partnered with equally robust accompaniments such as house-made apricot jam, caramelised onion puree and grape juice reduction.

The menu strives to be a journey through different textures, vividly coming alive in one of the most magical places in the state of Perak. The string of starters concludes with liquid bliss, steaming in a creamy lobster bisque, fleshy with poached lobster, nutty with pistachio spheres and sweetened with corn kernels. Palate-cleansing sorbets lead us out into the main courses.

Meat or fish is the tempting choice; for hot-blooded carnivores, the A5 Japanese wagyu beef is one to sink your teeth into, a sacrament of sheer bovine succulence that you'll slice through smoothly with French-made Laguiole steak knives, rounded out with truffle mash, charred spring onions, porcini mushrooms and beef jus.

There's a time-honoured sense of classic European culinary craftsmanship in offerings like the cod fish, fresh and flaky, stewed in tomato consomme and served with scallops, mussels and prawns with saffron risotto, irreproachably executed.

Desserts deliver their own dose of mystique to send us out on a soaring high: For chocolate devotees, don't miss the Valrhona chocolate sphere, decadent with a filling of pistachio gelato, resting over a berry crumble with caramel sauce.

Paying homage to one of Ipoh's most iconic beverages, the Ipoh white coffee cheese cake is the other alternative for dessert, infused aromatically with the city's local coffee powder, made exuberantly elaborate with a caramel egg jam dip, vanilla dust and berries.

Service at Jeff's Cellar is, without hesitation, superb.

True to its name, Jeff's Cellar takes pride in a wine selection that's purposefully curated, with plenty of intriguing vintages that span numerous respected vineyards, including rare and organic bottles. We paired our feast with the Joseph Drouhin Fleurie 2013, which charms with its supple silkiness, considered the most delicate of the Beaujolais region's Crus.

There's a genuine cellar within the restaurant to explore, as well as a bar section that's separate from the dining enclave. Jeff's Cellar is also open by advance bookings for customers who aren't guests at The Banjaran - but it's well worth staying the night, returning comfortably to your villa within minutes after your meal.

Dinner at Jeff's Cellar was our first food-and-beverage encounter at The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat, just hours after we checked in to a warm welcome that included a lovely tea ceremony, helping to set the pace for us to slow down and absorb the lush beauty of this resort. In our upcoming posts this month, we'll reflect on The Pomelo, The Banjaran's all-day-dining venue, as well as the multitude of activities available at this resort.

Many thanks to The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat for having us here.

Jeff's Cellar
The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat, Persiaran Lagoon Sunway 3, Sunway City Ipoh, 31150 Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia.
Website: thebanjaran.com

This feature first appeared on eatdrinkkl.com

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