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Kayra, Bangsar Village

October 3, 2019


Kayra might be new in Bangsar, but it's a restaurant that's three generations in the making, the culinary culmination of a voyage that Meriam Alfonso's grandparents took from their home state of Kerala on India's Malabar Coast, reaching Malaysia and opening Johor Bahru's first Keralan restaurant in 1949.

Many of Meriam's childhood memories were made in her family's kitchen, infusing the essence of heritage recipes like pachadi, parripu and piralan into the core of her being. So while Meriam spent much of her adult life practising law, she came full circle by launching her own Keralan restaurant, Kayra, in Taman Tun Dr Ismail in 2016.

This year, TTDI's Kayra took a temporary break as Meriam focused on her second venue, now open in Bangsar Village. Even if you've visited the first Kayra, this is a completely revamped experience, illustrated by an interior of distressed walls and curved brick pillars that channel colonial-era Keralan forts, compellingly contrasted with contemporary elements by Supereka Design Studio.

Outside, a lovely, leafy terrace showcases a calming mural of the thatched houseboats, coconut trees and fishing nets that line Kerala's backwaters, surrounded by rattan furnishing and traveller's palm plants, ficus shrubs and bird's nest ferns. It's a setting that's both evocative and exuberant, perfect for a respite from the neighbourhood's bustle.

The menu has also been overhauled for Bangsar, yielding an exhilaratingly distinctive selection unlike any other in KL. Kayra proves that South Indian fare is not only far more diverse than banana leaf rice, it can be reimagined for customers sprinting toward 2020 and beyond, all while still honouring the soulfulness of centuries-old tastes, textures and traditions.

Working together with Keralan-born head chef Sal and a passionate team that's proud of what the restaurant serves, Meriam takes her family's legacy with a sense of profound responsibility, making Kayra in Bangsar one of KL's best new restaurants this year.

While Kayra TTDI (which will reopen soon) was classically authentic, Kayra Bangsar forges ahead with a fresh, adventurous spirit - Meriam and Sal travelled repeatedly to Kerala over the past year, crisscrossing the state from south to north to seek original inspirations.

Start your meal with Kayra's latest creations, like the Kerala dahi puri, a playful snack to perk up the appetite - crisply puffy rice shells packed with creamy tapioca (the most widely consumed carb of choice in Kerala), soaked in sultry tamarind and sweet yogurt sauce, chased down with tomato rasam shots for a mellow tang (RM17).

Other tidbits for sharing include the vazhappu cutlets, more than moreish, featuring banana blossoms mashed, sauteed and pan-seared with sweet potatoes, spiced with cumin and fennel, brightened with a beetroot chutney (RM17), the chemmeen ada, a dumpling-like teatime treat that's typically sweet but is made savoury here, packed with steamed baby shrimp, lightly flavoured with a chilli masala paste that's tempered with coconut oil instead of being cooked, letting the shrimp's naturally sweet flavours shine (RM19), and the Calicut crunch, a tribute to the street food of its namesake Keralan coastal city, a substantial vermicelli-coated ball that's sliced open to reveal a stuffing of tapioca and shredded chicken (RM17).

If you're here on your own for some much-deserved me time, Kayra supplies a solid selection of sustenance for single diners.

Indian and Tex-Mex influences come together in the Dosa Tacos, vibrantly plump with fresh tomatoes, capsicum, potato masala, sev (chickpea flour noodles) and house-made sour cream dressing - a harmonious synergy of Trivandrum and Tijuana (RM22 for the vegetarian version; RM25 with shredded masala chicken).

We've had waffles and we've had appam, but we've never had waffam before Kayra - appam dough, crafted into the form of waffles, firm to the bite and somewhat sticky-soft to the chew, with unmistakably fermented nuances in flavour, completed with roast chicken for a reinvigorating reinvention of American chicken and waffles (RM25).

If you prefer more a wholesome, less-guilty indulgence, the Goodness Bowl is great (RM18, served for lunch, 11am-3pm) - Kayra's take on a healthy grain bowl comes bursting with millet (indigenous in India, gluten-free but still relatively less popularised) at its centre, surrounded by (deep breath!) a cucumber onion salad, masala lentils, grilled brinjals, hung curd raita, mixed thoran (Keralan coconut-based vegetables) and coconut chamandhi (a fiery chutney) for a vegetarian-friendly medley of robust dynamics and rich dimensions.

Feasting with family or friends? Fish might be your finest bet - order the meen pepper curry leaf, for a whole sea bass that's gorgeously, gently grilled in a crushed marination of pepper and curry leaves for a fresh feel, swathed in heady spices both within and blanketing the fish without masking its purity of flavour (RM53) ...

... or for something even more princely, the fish moilee biryani, potentially the most photogenic biryani in our city, assembled to order with a market-fresh sea bass marinated with a punchy blended shallot masala paste, lavished at the table with coconut milk turmeric sauce that's a fragrant, flavoursome foil for the aromatic basmathi rice, studded with fruits and nuts, fit for the noblest Maharaja (easily serving three persons for a full-blown meal, making it a value-for-money fish biryani for RM70).

The snapper with rasam might look more humble, but it's equally exquisite, one of the dishes we'd recommend most at Kayra - fish that's moist and flaky, coated in light spices, succulently baked and served with a tantalising tomato rasam broth to be poured before consuming (RM40).

Kayra this month also launched a special mud-crab menu, served the Keralan way, in grilled, masala or coconut curry preparations, all of which sound lip-smacking, available on weekdays (Monday-Friday).

Not a pescetarian? Fear not; customers can still construct a completely land-bound meal with meat and vegetables galore.

The beef pepper fry is a classic that Meriam's family makes for Christmas each year, their version of pot roast - thick, fleshy cuts of beef loin coated in freshly crusted peppercorns, rounded out with potatoes and beetroot, perfect for communal celebrations with loved ones (RM35). Bovine cravings might also find their match in the beef moorierachi curry, another speciality of Suriani (Syrian Christian) kitchens in Kerala, combining beef and potatoes with whole cardamoms, cinnamon and cloves for aromatic allure, a protein-with-carbs heap of heartwarming heartiness (RM35).

In pursuit of poultry instead? The 'old-school' chicken pepper is a delight for all ages, a can't-fail crowd-pleaser of spice-marinated fried chicken tinged with black pepper powder and onions (RM25). If you're preaching healthier eating though, order the chicken breast marinated with yogurt and betel leaves, buoyed further by a salad tossed in wholegrain mustard oil (RM18).

Fibre is respectably represented by the an okra curry, delicately simmered in a sauce of coconut milk laced with turmeric, sweetened with ripe mangoes (RM19), and tender baby brinjals, bolstered by a sauce that speaks of roasted coconut, tamarind and peanuts, soulful and sultry with its earthy tang (RM19).

Ultimately though, everything comes back to seafood here, brought full circle with another one of our top five favourites here, the squid pera chamandhi, a dry-fried delicacy sauteed with spicy coconut prawn powder, a full-bodied recipe that's simultaneously rustic and refined at Kayra, resonantly lingering on both the palate and in the memory (RM23).

Prawns play a pivotal part in a triumvirate of very different concoctions that display the kitchen's versatility with crustaceans: If you're ordering rice, soak it with prawn mango curry, saluting how seafood and fruit can bring out the best in each other for beautiful bursts of liveliness (RM35; a one-time Kayra special that proved so popular, it's now on the permanent menu).

Alternatively, the prawn puttu is a self-sufficient light meal, lovingly layered with masala prawn within the mound of steamed rice (RM28; puttu is a household staple not only in Kerala but throughout South India), while the chemeen achar with pongappam positions prawns as a pickled pleasure, partnered with papadum and steamd appam that can be ripped and dipped into the achar (RM23; conventionally a fish pickle in Kerala, but Kayra does this with prawns, which KL's patrons would probably prefer too).

Even if you're only here for dessert, there's much to munch on: For customers who want more waffam, this time in a nectarous ensemble instead of savoury, the waffam with burnt coconut ice cream demands deliberation, the waffam's crispness the perfect foil for the ice cream's lusciousness, completed with jaggery cane sugar and crushed peanuts for a creation that would look totally at home in a Melburnian cafe but tastes thoroughly Asian (RM21) - if you're tired of the typical waffles with ice cream served throughout KL, a change has finally come.

Other desserts run the temperature spectrum from frosty to warming - Kayra churns its own ice cream, once again shining a light on intriguing ingredients like jackfruit (fun fact: Kerala's government declared jackfruit to be the state's official fruit in 2018) and basil leaf; these temptations bear mellow but unmistakable flavours (some might favour the tropical sweetness of the jackfruit, while others prefer the bracing herbaceousness of basil leaf), with a textured bite that's the hallmark of homemade ice cream, potentially evoking kulfi for some patrons.

Jackfruit resurfaces for the jaggery payasam, a porridge-like pudding prepared with palm brown sugar and coconut milk, mingling with morsels of jackfruit to make this the most decadent dessert we tried at Kayra, fit for indulge-yourself afternoons (RM21). The vatalappam brulee should also satisfy the sweet tooth without being too sugary or cloying, a caramelised custard baked with coconut milk, cardamom and palm brown sugar, South Asia's close cousin of the creme brulee, proving that the French have no monopoly on creamy comfort (RM19).

Kayra's repertoire is extensive - we've scarcely scratched the surface of the menu, with much, much more, like an afternoon tea selection of everything from jaggery-steamed bananas to layered pancakes with raisins and cashews, still waiting in the wings.

Beverages also make a memorable mark - take a break on the leafy terrace with limeades that showcase indigenous Keralan ingredients like coconut water or raw mango for a taste of tradition in each sip (RM14 each). Other notable drinks come blended with rejuvenating combinations like coconut milk with palm brown sugar and cardamom or ginger and cumin; even a simple-sounding iced honey tea feels like a healthful tonic, courtesy of the restaurant's reliance on an abundance of natural produce.

End your meal with pink-tinted tea, boiled with shavings of sappanwood, cultivated in Malayali nurseries from Kerala to Karnataka, believed to help soothe and cool the body during sweltering summers, with plenty of antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-allergic properties in each piping-hot pot (RM13).

All in all, Kayra is the most engaging restaurant to launch in Bangsar Village in a long, long time - many thanks to the team here for having us.

Kayra Authentic Kerala Cuisine

F-8, Bangsar Village, Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar, 59100 Kuala Lumpur. Daily, 11am-10pm. Tel: 03-2714-2932 or 017-2152921


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