Garlanded with titles that assert his expertise, CK Kho seems to have the Midas touch. The award-winning bartender is also the owner of illustrious gin bars Pahit and Coley, both enjoying steady crowds and rave reviews of their cocktails, interiors and service.
Coley appeared a couple of years ago in the early days of the local speakeasy game. It leveraged the hidden nature of those clandestine bars, tucked away in the back half of Dr.Inc Café in Bangsar. It was a small space that straddled cosy and crowded, outfitted with rattan chairs, Nala Designs-esque motifs behind the bar and concrete surfaces. I visited once and vowed never to return after experiencing the intensity of the Bangsar crowd — we shared our table with a merry-go-round of bar-hoppers and it was a loud, teeming night I did not care to repeat.
Pahit, while just as impressive, is a little quieter thanks to its location in a less-frenzied Kuala Lumpur neighbourhood. Sharing an address with Sekeping Sin Chew Kee, the comfortable intimacy of the 1920s house — rattan chairs in the courtyard, minimalist décor and a striking feature wall backing the bar — is reminiscent of drinking in a friend’s home. Cocktails are locally-inspired and consistent in quality, with a solid playlist to match.
Coley moved out of its Dr.Inc home into sleek new digs of its own earlier this year. It was the promise of additional space that lured me once again to Jalan Abdullah, just a couple of shoplots down from its original location. The entrance is concealed enough to retain some mystery without being too difficult to find — I personally identify it by the string chairs on its neighbour’s flat roof (I have no idea why they are up there nor know if they will serve as a permanent landmark).
A leafy façade gives way to sophisticated interiors that depict Coley’s maturation from experimental newcomer to established entity. The entrance proper into the bar is framed by a full-height hoop that serves as a visual counterbalance to the seemingly narrow, deep space. Dim lighting, recessed behind a feature wall on the right, illuminates the earthy tones mingling with gold accents, wood and potted plants. Low-hanging fans keep the air circulating as the sound of chatter rises over the clinking of cocktails being shaken. Seating features sectional couches and clusters of chairs as well as stools along the bar, which runs half the length of the space on the left. There is no mistaking it: the upscale ensemble of Coley 2.0 is a dramatic update of its rustic predecessor.
We arrive on a Thursday night without a reservation to find it is standing room only at the bar counter. It takes almost a half-hour for a couple of seats to become vacant, during which we while away the time with the menu.
The brand retains its local inspirations with the likes of Whisky and Bubble Tea (RM25), an adult take on a childhood favourite with Jameson, crème de cacao, milk tea and palm sugar studded with chewy tapioca balls. Both the alcohol and tea in this spiked treat are distinctive yet smoothly complementary. Whisky and Sour Plum (RM25) is a nuanced swallow that tastes exactly as it sounds while Gin and Coconut (RM25) throws together Beefeater gin and coconut water to allow you to indulge and hydrate simultaneously. Eco-friendly metal straws accompany these.
Outside the page of Malaysian must-haves, Paradise Lost (RM52) beckons. The bubbles from the prosecco infuse effervescence into the piquant pungency of the ginger shrub while a strawberry slice adds a touch of sweetness to this flirty drink. Lady Who (RM42) blends Calvados, Strega, lemon, clove syrup and lavender bitters to create a mouthful of sweet, spiced and sour notes that take turns to dance across the palate. The round brandy body opens softly in the middle and seems to get sweeter over time, leaving without a lingering finish.
Bar bites are a new introduction here and they make quite an impression. The Beef Tataki (RM32 for 100g, RM58 for 200g) is highly recommended — truffle ponzu, crisp garlic chips and pickled yellow mustard play wingmen to the well-marinated and seared Australian rib-eye tataki. Charred on the outside, pink in the middle and with just the right dash of spiciness, it makes for a succulent diversion in between sips. We savour it slowly over the Whisky and Sour Plum, Paradise Lost and Lady Who, and the beef holds its own effortlessly against the various combinations.
Coley’s refined expression stays true to its origins while answering a real demand of its regulars, asserting the reciprocal relationship of a bar and its community. Great cocktails remain the heart of the experience — that the drinks transposed easily from their homely stage of old to this sophisticated setting is testament to the enduring virtue of quality.
And with that, especially in accessible Bangsar, comes a crowd. I would brave the steady stream of human traffic again to spend an evening here, but not without a reservation. It’s definitely worth the trip out.
Coley, 6-G, Jalan Abdullah off Jalan Bangsar. Call 019-270 9179 to make reservations. This article first appeared on Dec 10, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.