“A supplier in Kuala Lumpur hosted an event to sample natural wines and we all happened to meet there,” says Rick Joore. “We drank and danced and had a great time. I was a bar manager in the city and when opportunity knocked, to collaborate on a new endeavour [Joloko], I jumped right in.”
Included in that proposition were Shin Chang and Penny Ng, founders of architectural firm MentahMatter, who had themselves recently ventured into food and beverage through their maiden project, Chocha Foodstore. Located in a tranquil pre-war shophouse just outside the bustle of Petaling Street, it emphasises local sourcing and ingredients.
“We had zero experience in F&B — we are architects,” says Shin. “We ran it like we did MentahMatter. Mentah is Malay for “raw” — it is about simple tastes and straightforward applications. We applied those fundamentals of design to the concept, menu and operations. At the end of the day, they are not so very different.”
Chocha, which translates into “sitting down for tea”, or teatime, in Hakka, opened in July 2016. Its deceptively compact façade gives way to a warren of spaces, including a courtyard that invites fresh air and light. Its local fare makes it popular with travellers while families and friends find it a cosy spot to hide in for tea, handpicked by unofficial tea sommelier, Li Youn Chang. She is especially shy at our first meeting, preferring to busy herself with the pots of delicate teas for us to sip.
A year and a half later, Botak Liquor was added upstairs, its “bald” moniker referencing an unpretentious take on cocktails and spirits. That it sounds like an abbreviation of “botanical” is a happy coincidence for this lush space — plants hang from the ceiling and gather in corners, large leaves brushing against the crowd. Cut-outs in the wall go beyond providing ventilation.
“Both Chocha and Botak Liquor were designed to bring the outside in, to make you feel like part of the street and the city,” says Ng.
“I want to be involved in this area,” continues Shin, who, with Ng, is also spearheading the revamp of former cinema, Rex KL. “It is not about nostalgia. Petaling Street has been a trading centre for decades but I think we need to bring life back into it. You might call it gentrification, which has a negative connotation, but it is about regenerating life in an old city. All cities need this or they will die. This place used to be so alive — and it can be again. Businesses — and therefore people — are slowly returning.”
The same can be said about Jalan Kamunting in Chow Kit, where Joloko occupies a vibrant double-story pre-war shophouse. It was a dilapidated remnant on a dismissed street, but that neighbourhood has come up since the addition of Stripes Hotel KL and boutique businesses, including a massage bar, bakery and pizzeria. Joore and Chan Kit Yin, now Joloko’s marketing wiz, were walking their dogs along the street when the shophouse, which was available, caught their eye. They brought Shin and Ng in for a look, shook hands on the agreement to purchase it the very next day and began construction within the month.
Emanating an Afro-Caribbean vibe with its original yellow paint job, the foursome decided to honour its identity by opening the city’s first Caribbean restaurant within the premises. Similar to Chocha, it feels like a catacomb of discovery, seating areas segueing into corridors and a courtyard at the end with a lively bar upstairs slinging the house specialities of tequila and mescal. The kitchen is a marvel, dishing out fiery, tangy and pungent preparations, from flavourful jerk chicken to a trevally garlanded with herbs that did justice to the fisherman’s effort to catch it.
Joloko takes its name from the jolokia, or ghost pepper, one of the hottest chillies in the world, at 855,000 to 1.05 million units on the Scoville Scale of spiciness. Cili padi, by comparison, comes in at a paltry 50,000 to 100,000 units. The ghost pepper is sparingly used at Joloko, judiciously added to the jerk and one of the margaritas for its fragrance and flavour. The partners decided to test the pepper’s intensity with a tasting party one day. They tracked down the spiciest tortilla chips in the world, which are dusted with jolokia, and dared friends to give them a try. Regret, tears and even dizziness were reported.
“It was really by accident that we opened the only Caribbean restaurant in town,” laughs Joore.
“There are many similarities between Caribbean and Malaysian food — the rich spices and tropical ingredients such as coconuts and herbs,” picks up Shin.
“It was quite easy to adopt and the flavours are familiar and comforting, but just different enough to be interesting and fresh,” finishes Joore. They seem to have had this conversation before.
The former bar manager and Chan oversee day-to-day operations, from creating the menus and curating the drinks to planning events that keep the restaurant hopping.
“We did the software, if you like,” Joore says. “I have experience in F&B. Kit is behind the events. We entrusted the architecture and design entirely to Shin and Penny of course. Everyone does their part.”
“And Shin is our resident party boy,” says Chan of the hitherto sombre Shin, as everyone bursts into laughter.
“There is a lot of trust and everyone knows what they are best at. Why change a winning team, right?” Shin deadpans.
And they certainly do seem to have a successful recipe on their hands. Since Joloko opened in July 2018, it has hosted a colourful diary of events, from parties to night markets and even a sound healing session, which saw participants lying on the floor and breathing deeply.
“People get really dressed up in vibrant colours and tropical wear. When you take it in as a whole — the music, the atmosphere, the décor and clothes — it is as if you are really out in the Caribbean,” says Chan. “Regulars come in the most fun outfits. This guy wore a giant bow tie once and a friend came in a banana outfit that she wore throughout dinner. There is occasionally dancing at the bar, but at the heart of it is just really good food, drinks and ambiance.”
Now that the restaurant has settled into its groove, a second collaborative venture is being discussed. The partners are keeping mum about their plans, but it involves wine, a vegetarian and vegan-dominated menu and the guarantee of a good time. Until then, the party continues at Joloko, starting with a dinner to rave about and going on well after the sun sets.
This article first appeared on May 20, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.