Congkak, Beremi Street

November 22, 2019

A visit to Congkak is like taking a step back in time: P. Ramlee and Saloma's 1965 ballad Saat Yang Bahagia plays soothingly on the speakers, while portraits of placid kampung landscapes line the walls. Congkak playing boards take centre stage across the restaurant, inspiring a nostalgic sense of community and heritage.

True to Congkak's pledge of "keeping tradition alive," the menu is chock-full of cherished Nusantara classics that have nourished generations of families across Malaysia and Indonesia through countless village feasts and celebrations - from pecel kuah kacang to urap campur, daging salai percik to itik goreng berempah, pepes ikan to labu masak lemak.

Barely a five-minute stroll from Bukit Bintang, on a street of decades-old shop-houses, Congkak is our best bet for a confidently executed taste of this region's time-honoured recipes, served in a comfortable and convenient city-centre setting.

Similar to its namesake game, Congkak is an experience that should be shared - the star attraction is the ravishingly assembled Nasi Ambeng platters, fit for a kenduri. Customers can choose from portions for one (RM20), two to three persons (RM60), four to six (RM120) or six to eight (RM175).

Our platter, meant for four to six, would be easily fulfilling for the maximum number. It's vibrantly appetising, layered with a treasure trove of at least 15 separate specialities (most of which would be a standout on their own), surrounding a fragrant heap of steamed white rice.

Congkak's kitchen brigade personally sourced many recipes from their hometowns, ensuring an admirable authenticity of flavours and textures. Take a deep breath, loosen your belt, and dive in - from warmly tender begedil to crunchy keropok belindo; ikan masin that's beautifully briny; sambal belacan and sambal jawa that pack an invigorating punch; acar jelatah, acar rampai and serunding kelapa that act as uplifting accompaniments, balanced with kerabu sayur and terung sambal.

Customers have plenty of choices for meat and fish as part of the platter set - pick from rendang tok or daging masak kicap, tilapia sambal ijau or ikan kembung goreng belado, gulai ayam or ayam goreng belado. With a spread this vast, we'd typically forgive a few misses, but everything we had was a hit, lively with rich, vivid dynamics that speak of painstaking cooking - the beef for the rendang tok, for example, was slow-braised to a caramelised, smoky succulence, while the tilapia proved moist and flaky, brightened by the fiery spark of green chillies.

Prepared with fresh, hearty and soulful produce, this is the ideal platter for patrons who believe that variety truly is the spice of life.

Beyond the platter, the a la carte menu is well worth exploring for temptations like tauhu telur, peaking with fried egg and tofu, blending the most enjoyable characteristics of both ingredients, crisp to the bite and comfortingly soft to the chew, standing proud beneath the weight of beansprouts, rounded out with a sweet-and-sour peanut sauce that makes this marvellously moreish (RM25).

If you love satay, bookmark Congkak for your next sampling of skewers: The chicken satay is genuinely great, made from the juiciest poultry parts, with a marinade of herbs and spices that's instantly captivating, charcoal-grilled to sultry perfection, kept naturally warm at the table (RM22). This could lay claim to being some of the most satisfying satay in downtown KL, completed with peanut sauce that we'd happily savour on its own.

For carnivorous cravings, the rusuk panggang masak hitam is also irresistible - again, charcoal-grilled with a plethora of spices, its deep and dark soy glaze concealing the primal pleasure of Australian beef short ribs, full-bodied enough to sink the heftiest of teeth into (RM68).

We've scarcely scraped the surface of Congkak's repertoire, but our stomachs were bursting by now. Still, we had to make space for the soto ayam Medan (RM22; a light yellow, mildly tangy chicken broth that would be popular from Sumatra to Selangor, brimming with shredded chicken, vermicelli, rice cakes, fried potatoes, grounded roast peanuts and shallots) and the gulai pucuk paku (RM15; a gorgeous representative of the jungle's bounty, featuring young fern shoots aromatically cooked with coconut milk and lemongrass).

All in all, Congkak feels like a restaurant that many customers might keep returning to over the years, each time rediscovering their old favourites and potentially finding a few new ones. Many thanks to the team here for having us.

Congkak KL

24, Jalan Beremi, Off Jalan Sultan Ismail, 50200 Kuala Lumpur. Open Sun-Thurs, 11am-10pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-11pm. Tel: 03-2110-6005

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