Appealing cafés and teahouses are in the vanguard of chic at the Unesco World Heritage Site of George Town, Penang — something to bookmark for when you need to get away from bustling KL.
Ome by Spacebar Coffee
Squeezed into a narrow niche of a long shophouse, with chipped bare brick walls, Ome oozes the charm and confidence of an established café of several years, well beyond the chippy, light tones of today’s Instagram-worthy outlets.
Sunlight from the central airwell spills onto a polished slab of tree trunk table, with a natural hollow fashioned into a cactus sculpture. The kitchen, a bar and a few tables make up the rest of the space, bathed in half-light.
This is a cake-and-coffee joint for a mature coffee-drinking crowd. Half the single half-sheet menu lists coffee drinks while the other half comprises teas, chocolates, juices and a seasonal flavour kefir. Homemade cakes and breads provide a filler while drinking coffee.
Fresh from the oven, the Olive Oil and Zucchini Bread (RM13/slice) was superb, the crisp crust yielding to a moist, soft interior that is not too sweet and flecked with salt, served with crème fraiche. The kefir of the day was Nada Natural Farm Kefir (RM9) with passionfruit, white wild honey and marigold — a refreshing, mildly fragrant and piquant drink with a nuanced, layered flavour, kept cold by a crushed ice ball.
A straight up Milk Coffee (RM10) served in an earthenware cup was just that — comforting, husky and deep — the sort of thing to keep guests lingering in this quiet and peaceful retreat from the heat of the street, on an obscure side lane in the heritage area of George Town.
Ome by Spacebar Coffee, 1, Lorong Toh Aka, George Town, Penang. 019 6908 259. Fri-Wed, 8am-6pm.
Norm Micro Roastery
An obscure entrance leads to an unexpected openness — a warehouse-like space with light tumbling from panels in the roof onto dirty-white brick walls, a gravelly floor, running cement benches curling around tree saplings, scattered tables and chairs and an open kitchen where the drinks are prepared. The airy space and industrial chic is a hangout for the young and trendy. On weekends, be prepared to wait.
Just a dozen items — a mishmash of breakfasts, desserts, pastas and burgers — make up the food menu, which is more than complemented by its selection of coffees, teas, wines, speciality drinks and cakes. Despite the lightweight food menu, the Prawn and Pumpkin Risotto (RM32) adorned with plump prawns, clams, shimeji mushrooms and crispy sage was fresh, pleasingly sweet and satisfying while the coffee (RM11, regular white) was throaty and foam-flecked.
The Tiramisu (RM15) was light and fluffy in keeping with the theme, with the taste of the genuine thing while the Lemon Tart (RM12) was similarly pretty and softly enticing — sweet-sour, more a tease than a serious dessert. Both kept company with the drinks, a ticklishly fizzy Espresso Tonic (RM15), a caffeine-light with citrus zest Osmanthus Pear (RM15), being a crowd-pleaser with its floral accents and smooth, sweet, tangy fizziness, and the spritzy and tizzy Matcha Yuzu (RM15), a pick-me-up grounded by the earthiness of matcha.
Despite its speakeasy-like obscurity and titillating suggestion of forbidden adventure, Norm encapsulates youthful vigour and sweet innocence — like the soft light that floods its spacious interior and the pale shades of its decor. The service is earnest (from a young and bubbly wait staff), the food and drinks wholesome and pleasing, but these are not its main draw. The only thing that is hidden is the entrance and that’s deliberate.
Norm Micro Roastery, 13, Gat Lebuh Gereja, George Town, Penang. 016 5276 273. Daily, 9am-10pm.
Bao Teck Tea House
The well-restored exterior opens into a gasp-worthy 1920s Shanghai teahouse recreation. The waiting staff wear berets and apron overcoats. There are dark wooden cupboards, panels, marble topped tables, chandeliers, side lights and tiled floors, which highlight the centrepiece — a magnificent mossy garden bathed in a fine water mist and lit by sunlight from the central airwell. The dense tendrils of staghorn ferns dangle from a central beam, adding an exotic element.
This wonderland make-believe is a serious yum cha house, with a menu of steamed, deep-fried and pastry items as well as a selection of teas and other beverages. There is a good selection of Chinese teas, freshly brewed at the table by a waiter. We selected the Liu Bao Tea (First Generation) (RM38, serves three), which was excellent, earthy and deep with a slight tanginess and no hint of bitterness, good for several serves without losing body.
The dim sum items were generally very good, better than what you would find in many a yum cha restaurant, with an emphasis on class and refinement in terms of taste and presentation. The staple lor mai kai (RM8.80) was moist and flavourful, with dry scallops served in a skirt of lettuce with sambal. Noteworthy was the Snowy Char Siew Bun (RM8.80 for three), with a soft thin shell covering minced meat filling that impressed with the balanced, not overly sweet taste and overall texture. The tasty Bao Teck Dumplings (RM8.80) were served in a soup with fish maw, dried scallops and oyster while the Siu Mai (RM8.80 for three) and Spinach and Prawn Dumplings (RM8.80 for three) elicited praise for their balance between delicate-ness and robust taste and texture.
The Golden Radish Cake (RM8.80) was a standout, crunchy crisp cubes with meltingly soft insides, deeply flavoured and refined lor pak ko. Balancing things out, the petite, exquisite-looking Signature Egg Tart (RM8.80 for three) had great pastry but was foiled by the custard, while the Ko Cha Siew Pao (RM9 for three) was the reverse — appetising, moist interior filling betrayed by the thin but hard and characterless shell.
This restaurant, which opened in July, is well worth the visit for yum cha in George Town. Reservations are recommended.
Bao Teck Tea House, 25, Lebuh Melayu, George Town, Penang. 04 2631 100. Daily, 8am-8pm; closed on Wed.
This article first appeared on Oct 19, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.