If Only, Taman U-Thant

September 9, 2019

If only there were a sanctuary in KL’s city centre that feeds the spirit while soothing our stresses away: The Malaysian trio of Keith, Jean and Jonathan – who collectively have over three decades of experience in helming eateries, locally and abroad - have brought that vision to vibrant life, birthing one of 2019’s best new cafes, a delightfully distinctive bungalow space filled with hard-wood and rattan furnishing handmade by Balinese carpenters and craftspeople, plus plenty of leafy plants for a tropical-oasis charm to combat our cosmopolitan claustrophobia.

If Only’s founders have been constructing this labour of love for half a year, completing it with graceful flourishes like a marble-and-granite corner that resembles waves crashing on a palm tree beach, creating a confident kitchen that’s dedicated to comfort fare in the most satisfying sense, wholesome nourishment that bursts with honest flavours, prepared with skill and sensitivity. If you visit only one café this month, If Only should fulfil your weekend-escapade fantasies.

The menu seizes inspiration from its founders’ memories of cherished meals – brunch (9am-1130am) kicks off with thick, tempting toast complemented by duck-egg kaya (a lovely recipe by If Only team member Jube, smooth and sumptuous, mellow in its natural nuances), Sarawak pepper, butter and two 63-Celsius eggs, the 21st-century rendition of Malaysia’s kopitiam classic (RM15).

Shakshouka also comes recommended, a meat-free, runny-eggs recipe laden with tender morsels of eggplant, green capsicum, chickpeas and yellow onions, piping-hot in the pan, with rustic bread for soaking up the rich textures of the spiced tomato sauce (RM18) – if this tastes familiar, it’s worth noting that Jonathan, If Only’s kitchen maestro, is also the founder of Good Food & Co, a reliable cafe that opened more than three years ago in Jaya Shopping Centre. He’s meticulous about what he serves; the bread, for example, features simple components of flour, yeast and water, but the resulting dough is painstakingly hand-kneaded, rested for at least 12 hours before reaching the oven, yielding loaves crisp to the bite and dense to the chew, baked fresh daily with no preservatives.

Other morning options span East to West – rice congee with poached chicken and preserved turnips to scrambled eggs with avocado, grilled tomatoes, beetroot hummus and feta cheese (even the kampung eggs are conscientiously sourced, hailing from hens nourished on a natural-grains diet in a free-roaming environment).

For those of us who’ve hankered for an ulam salad that captures the vivacious herbaceousness of locally cultivated produce, If Only’s rises to the occasion, an invigorating medley of four-angled beans, long beans, roasted barley, bunga kantan, guava and daun kesom, with deep-fried chicken skin for even more crunch (RM18). Have that for a starter, then share the substantially portioned nasi lemak, pandan-laced basmati that's fragrant and flavoursome (so moreish, even Jonathan's daughter - who typically shuns rice - requests this for lunch), rounded out with all the essential accompaniments, including succulent chicken rendang as well sambal that's another If Only team effort, a personal recipe of Hassan (RM21). If you relish your spices, the other should-try is the Ooh Lala (RM28), fresh and fleshy clams stir-fried in a creamy, chilli-tinged sauce with curry leaves, sharpened with the best of Malaysian ginger (from Bentong, of course).

It's rare to uncover a menu this extensive where every dish deserves a shout-out - from the Western selection, the rosemary-stuffed roast spring chicken is marinated and oven-roasted to pure perfection, its plump flesh falling off the bone, representing poultry at its most gorgeous (it barely needs gravy), with carrots, potatoes and pumpkin for the complete package (RM35). And while the lamb burger is less of a standout, it's still notable for what it comprises - a hand-pressed, 100-percent lamb patty with a real-meat chew, balanced by tangy tomato relish in a beautifully baked bun (all sauces and bread are made from scratch here), with hand-cut fries for a hefty side (RM29).

Noodles take cues from both local nostalgia to pasta possibilities - Gohma Mee Hun Kueh pays homage to the generations-old recipe of Jean's grandmother, hand-pulled duck egg noodles with a luscious bite, blanketed with (deep breath!) bok choy, minced chicken, mushrooms, black fungus, beancurd skin, slow-cooked egg, anchovies and chilli paste (RM20; served with soup on the side), while the Laksa Pesto Pasta is a hybrid concoction of fettuccine in a buoyant laksa paste (the herbs are harvested from Keith's family orchard of organic produce in Hulu Langat, as is If Only's pandan, curry leaves and some vegetables), bolstered by the sweet brininess of clams, calamari and prawns for land-meets-sea sumptuousness (RM25).

All in all, If Only is about feel-good food, hearty indulgence with less of the guilt, illustrated by superfood bowls that raise the bar for KL, made with South American maqui berries (known to contain multiple times more antioxidants than the more typical acai), lovingly layered with dragonfruit, mango, strawberries, blueberries, bananas, pineapple, granola, goji berries, chia seeds and apple juice - drizzle the ensemble with Seremban-sourced raw kelulut honey from stingless bees for the ultimate healthy bowl (RM22).

Beverages range from rejuvenating juices and coolers made with everything from fresh coconut juice with butterfly pea flower and lime juice to house-brewed chrysanthemum tea with yuzu and soda to fresh sugarcane juice with passionfruit extract. With this level of attention to detail, the coffee has its raison d'etre too, relying on Malaysian roaster Cloud Catcher's Chapola Project, in which a portion of every purchase of these blends is donated to coffee farmers to help them improve their crops for sustainable quality. If Only's heart for communities also extends to subtle touches like its beverage coasters, handmade by Iranian refugees.

Many thanks to If Only for having us here.

If Only

Ground Floor, Regal House, 1, Jalan U-Thant, Taman U-Thant, 55000 Kuala Lumpur. Daily 9am-5pm.

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