If you like to work up an appetite before tucking wholeheartedly into a meal, Fig Tree Hill in Sungai Ara, Penang, is the place to start. You can begin at dawn, with dim sum for breakfast, or end your day with steamboat as dusk settles.
The treat that awaits guests at the new eatery nestled up the hill from Jalan Kenari is they get to feast on nature too. Instead of sitting on stools around a small table in a crammed downtown shop, you can take your time to chew and chat, surrounded by mature fruit trees, streams, waterfalls, insect calls and night sounds in the dark.
Hike up for a morning workout and eat your fill with buddies who share the joys of good food after a purposeful jaunt. The 3km trail is not punishing; it’s 45 minutes one way, with a gentle gradient. The exercise is invigorating, and there is a sense of camaraderie among the hikers you meet along the way.
If adventure is your idea of an appetiser, walk up for a steamboat dinner then meander back to your car parked at the bottom of the slope. But if no-sweat meals are your thing, phone ahead and have operations manager Moy Kim Hong, aka Kim, arrange a return ride. It is free for guests and the ride down is an experience in itself, especially on a dark, wet night.
The staff who doubles as the 4WD driver does various trips on busy evenings and obviously knows every twist along the narrow path. But sitting behind him with a full stomach and surrounded by dripping branches, you are thankful to be on the inner side of the road and find yourself praying that no vehicle suddenly appears at the next sharp turn.
Did the Hong Kong-style steamboat “compensate” for those queasy, uneasy moments when you kept wishing for the journey’s end?
A piping hot meal with family is always welcome, especially after two years of irregular lockdowns. But, honestly, it was quite the typical fare, with two options: Seafood with clear soup or tom yum soup, and Huadiao Wine Pot served with the usual selection of fish paste, shrimp balls, prawns, scallop, sliced fish, crab claw, tofu, clams, mushrooms and vegetables. A set for four, with some extras — shabu-shabu, eggs and noodles — and drinks, came up to RM210.
We were the only guests that Saturday night and every corner seemed designed for a pleasant, unhurried meal. A stream runs through the premises, adding to its charm. Sit at one of the chalets facing the colourful main counter and you have privacy as well as space. Upstairs, the balcony can accommodate more diners. A long table in the inside hall is ideal for a bigger family seeking sheltered cosiness. Wooden tables and big chairs spell comfort, while bright lighting marks the restaurant as the central spot amid the greenery.
The mainly Myanmarese staff are trained, Kim says, and service is attentive. But a couple of them, newly arrived it seems, are not so conversant in English and could not get that we were asking for garlic oil. They said there was none and that missing ingredient was felt throughout the meal.
Dim sum, served from 7am to noon, is a better attraction — price-wise, at least — with the little plates coming straight from Musion Mansion at Lorong Popus, George Town. Kim brings the tempting morsels up to Fig Tree Hill daily, the aim being to entice hikers to unwind after their trek, and enjoy an affordable breakfast.
“It’s the same quality but priced for hikers. A plate of siew mai [steamed pork dumpling] that costs about RM9 at the mansion in George Town is about RM6 up here,” he says. “Everything is fresh and prepared daily.”
Fig Tree Hill hurried to open two weeks before the Lunar New Year, he adds, to make up for time lost in the last two years. It took over the kitchen and various areas of the Fig Tree Hill Resort, which sits on the same lush property behind the restaurant. “We did minor renovations and modified some of the older structures, taking care not to tamper with what’s natural and leaving most parts untouched.
“We will see how things go before introducing new items on the menu. Our attraction for now is the environment — there are not many places in Penang where you can have dim sum and steamboat in the midst of nature, and outdoors, where it is cool and green.”
It is long hours for Kim and his team, even with the three-hour break between the extended breakfast — staples such as nasi lemak, curry chicken and eggs with toast and bread are available — and early dinner. Sometimes, straggling hikers may stop by to ask for snacks. If he and the staff are around, they oblige. After all, Fig Tree Hill is a place set up for them.
Fig Tree Hill, Jalan Kenari, Sungai Ara, Bayan Lepas, Penang. Call 010 228 9282 for reservations. Wed to Mon, 7am to noon (dim sum), 5 to 9pm (steamboat).
This article first appeared on May 23, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.