The season of succulents has evolved into a prolonged plant fever in recent years, exacerbated by a pandemic that has pushed most of us indoors for months on end. Cue a crop of green-themed cafés that celebrate our growing appreciation for nature, including the greenhouse-like The Farm Foodcraft at The Sphere in Bangsar South, Kuala Lumpur.
It draws its name from the first-floor urban farming lab, where everything from herbs to fat tomatoes and crisp lettuce is cultivated. Now, an extension of the experience exists for those who would rather drink the garden than feast on the farmed.
A hanging shovel marks the entrance to The Curious Gardener. A tug on the tool turns on a light inside to alert the speakeasy’s bartender, who opens the door to welcome you into the upscale shed. The space is light and airy, outfitted in wood, glass and rattan furniture, but it is undoubtedly the plants that are the star of the show. They creep, crawl, stretch and cascade, surrounding visitors in a soothing verdant embrace.
My green-thumbed companions spent a good few minutes identifying all things flora, from the potted herbs on and around the gleaming bar to the spider and snake plants, fiddle-leaf fig, philodendrons, ferns and even a window-box in the corner dedicated to large-leafed monstera.
I, instead, busied myself with the menu, a charming catalogue of 18 cocktails (RM39++ each) laid out in the format of a gardener’s journal with detailed sketches of each ingredient. It is divided into three sections — Plant the Seeds (carbonated highballs), Water the Plants (sweet and sour) and Harvest the Crops (spirit-forward) — suggestive of the escalation in drink profile and strength. The ingredients used are somewhat unusual in the local cocktail realm. Think shitake mushrooms, snap peas, purple sweet potatoes, pumpkin and even artichoke. The “gardener” moniker is no mere gimmick here.
Getting Caught in the Rain is one of the bar’s bestsellers for good reason. Forget the creamy golden concoction redolent of sunny afternoons on the beach; this in-house take on the pina colada is vivid red and surprisingly zesty.
“I wanted to introduce a clean and refreshing take as I find the classic is not as popular with today’s customers,” says Alvin Au Yong, the original gardener and programme curator. He cut his teeth bartending in Melbourne, Singapore and Bali before returning to KL, when an interest in home gardening, spurred by the pandemic, inspired this themed experience.
“We took the DNA of a gin and tonic and gave it the topical base of pineapple and nuttiness of toasted coconut to create Getting Caught in the Rain. An effervescent roselle tonic water is bolstered by the citrusy and herbal flavours of lemon balm while basil seeds introduce texture,” he explains.
The result is rather mind-bending, with surprisingly Malaysian flavours soothed by an undercurrent of familiar pina colada notes. Accompanying the cocktail is a slab of sugary pineapple leather. Nothing goes to waste in this garden; leftover fruit is turned into sweet or savoury snacks, seamlessly fitting into the narrative at play here.
Like the banana “bacon” that comes with the Going Bananas. Banana peel is macerated in soy sauce, paprika and maple syrup, then pan-fried in olive oil and served with turmeric and orange gel. The slightly smoky flavours complement the nutty and spiced notes of the cocktail, in which banana-infused rum is paired with a pimento berries tincture, dill-infused fortified wine and hazelnuts.
Hands down my favourite drink of the evening was the Awesome as Duck, a liquid interpretation of the French duck à l’orange. Inspired by the leftover duck fat in professional kitchens, it features fat-washed brandy, sugar cane rum, artichoke amaro, curacao and black walnut bitters. It is gratifyingly sophisticated on the palate, a slow unfolding of spice, citrus, herb and nuttiness with thinly sliced baby radishes to bite into for a prick of uplifting pepperiness.
The thought and detail poured into every element here, from the cocktails themselves to the leaves used as coasters, immerse the guest in the mind of an experimental gardener with a taste for fine spirits. Not a sip did we waste, from the floral, sweet and sour To Pea or Not to Pea (mango-infused pisco, elderflower, snap pea cordial, lemon and egg white foam) to the Corny Parody, a sweet and zingy tribute to the Old Fashioned with fat-washed genever, peach, citrus oleo saccharum and lemon crowned with warm sweet corn foam.
As dusk set in and atmospheric lamps lit each table, the mood mellowed further. If you are following the progression of cocktails on the menu, this is around the time you want to be browsing through the more complex, almost sultry drinks in the back. A few more customers have trickled in, including a gentleman enjoying a pick-me-up on his own after a Monday back at work, but it is easy to assume this quiet, swish oasis turns into a lively den come weekends.
Part of the problem with personality-driven bars is that when its celebrity eventually moves on, the character of the space changes. Alvin intentionally developed the figure of the curious gardener as an enigma, an idea rather than a person: whoever is on duty that night assumes the role. The place is perhaps richer for it, with visitors able to imagine themselves in the gardener’s shoes (or boots). Drink in hand and savouring the fruits of a harvest, even I, who can barely keep a hardy snake plant alive, indulged in the fantasy of turning a corner of my house into a secret bar and shaking up cocktails made from freshly plucked ingredients.
But that was all it was, a brief fantasy. It seems far more sensible to leave the skill of balancing nuanced cocktails and chore of looking after an indoor garden to the experts. From the fond manner in which they speak about the herbs and flowers, it is apparent that here, they tend to the plants with as much care as they do the bar.
The Curious Gardener, G-01, Level Ground, The Sphere, Bangsar South City, KL. 011 3639 0695, Daily, 4am-12am.
This article first appeared on Mar 29, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.