Welcome to the hybrid jungle, one that blends the best of concrete and wilderness to create a lavish habitat for the herbivores among us. Splashed in pink and lush with potted plants — hanging, cascading, stretching aspiringly to the ceiling — The Hungry Tapir is the first vegetarian and vegan restaurant with a full-service bar in Kuala Lumpur.
Situated above Hawker Chan in Petaling Street, The Hungry Tapir immediately transports diners from the bustle of downtown KL to a private haven. Cement floors and exposed brick walls were the neutral canvas mother-daughter team Cynthia Rodrigo and Makissa Smeeton needed to pull off the bold mix of prints, textures and colours within.
Seating configurations vary from high stools with monochrome rattan weaves to wooden and cushioned chairs and sofas. The entire restaurant is an Instagram utopia but its most recognisable scene for social media users might be the al fresco corner in the back. Monochrome cushions and floor tiles offset the plush pink walls and potted and painted flora, while a stepped section seems an especially popular backdrop for photographs.
A restaurant that serves pretty better than it does tasty is of little value, but there are no such concerns at The Hungry Tapir.
We made a reservation — especially necessary on weekends — for Sunday lunch and arrived early to find a decent-sized crowd already there. One possible incentive could be the weekend drinks special: for just RM18, diners enjoy orange juice with a kick in the form of mimosas or garibaldis. We ordered a round of the former, a beautiful balance of citrus and bubbly that slipped down all too easily.
Whether you abstain from meat for ethical, religious or personal reasons, you will find plenty to graze on or gobble down. Curious carnivores need not fret about leaving the table hungry either as there are proteins aplenty in the form of mushroom, tempeh, tofu and egg. The menu features both Western and Asian favourites, spanning snacks, sharing platters, all-day breakfast items, main courses and desserts.
We started with Chili Cheesy Fries (RM10), skewers of Mama’s Satay (RM18) and Spicy Tempeh Fingers (RM10). The fries were neither spicy nor cheesy enough for our taste, but the hedgehog mushroom satay was meaty, firm and juicy, accompanied by a mild peanut sauce. The sticks disappeared quickly enough, as did the piping hot slabs of tempeh.
It was just past noon but the bestselling Jungle Laksa (RM20) was already sold out. Described as rice vermicelli in a Nyonya coconut broth with eggplant, beansprouts, tofu puffs, crispy fuchuk and bunga kantan, it is a must-order for a future visit.
Instead, we tried the Rainbow Ulam Fried Rice (RM23), so named for the medley of colours on the plate, with an optional fried egg. The wok-fried rice was slick and flavourful while texture was supplied by hedgehog mushrooms, crunchy papadum and a refreshing ulam salad with cherry tomatoes, paired with a mild sambal.
The I Love Tempeh Bowl (RM22) featured curls of cucumber, roasted oyster mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and too-firm chickpeas on a fat bed of microgreens with sambal and tempeh on the side. Drunken Masak Lemak Fettuccine (RM26) seems to be a local take on the carbonara — homemade and whole-hearted in flavour with ginger lihing, zucchini, basil, coriander and pine nuts sprinkled over thick fettucine twirled in a coconut and lemongrass-based cream. For those who simply cannot decide what to eat, the gluten-free Tapir’s Nasi Lemak (RM20) is a safe bet with hedgehog mushroom rendang bolstering the Malaysian staple.
Ready to trade in savoury for sweet, we sampled the Dragon Bowl T (RM20) and a tart, cake and cookie from the desserts display in the interest of being well-rounded (pun intended). The first was a vibrant smoothie bowl of blended dragon fruit, banana and mango dusted with toasted coconut and crunchy granola. The vegetarian Chocolate Salted Caramel Cake (RM15) is a solid contender in its category but we were frankly more enamoured by the velvety and not-too-sweet Chocolate Mousse Tart (RM20) and Stuffed Cookie (RM12). The last, served warm, deserves special mention for its chewy shell and gooey milk-and-cereal filling. This was comfort food at its finest.
Key flavours and ingredients are slightly repetitive, but the spread at The Hungry Tapir is nonetheless impressive, with neighbouring tables giving the thumb’s up to the Tapir’s Roti Canai (RM15) and Pink Bombshell Burger (RM30), starring a beetroot bun and patty with homemade vegan herb cheese and barbecue sauce. Malaysians are familiar enough with vegetarian food to know there’s more to wholesome platters than leafy greens, which The Hungry Tapir underlines well. That said, it is remarkable that it took this long for someone to realise that vegans and vegetarians might appreciate a good cocktail with their meal, so kudos to the founders for filling that gap.
Service was faultless, save for a minor hiccup at our arrival; our group, which included a septuagenarian, was shown to a high table with bar stools that proved unsuitable. Getting a change of table took some effort despite there being tables of similar sizes available due to the way these are assigned upon booking. Do specify any seating preferences when making a reservation.
All in all, portions are generous, prices are decent and the setting is ideal for brunch with your girlfriends, a family lunch or dinner with someone special. That plant-based dishes are good for body, soul and, maybe, the planet is a lovely plus.
The Hungry Tapir, 135, Jalan Petaling, City Centre, 50000 Kuala Lumpur. 03 2022 2137. Sun, Tues-Thurs, 11am-10pm; Fri-Sat: 11am-12am.
This article first appeared on Aug 17, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.