Before leaving for Kota Kinabalu we made a solemn vow to stuff our faces with seafood at every opportunity. Two words: Mission Accomplished.
Seafood in KK - as most anywhere in Malaysia - can cost a pretty penny, or next to nothing. Sparkling freshness is what sets the seafood there apart; from the cheapest to the most expensive, every fishy dish we put in our mouths tasted as if it had been swimming just hours prior.
Our most cost-friendly fish was had at the city's happening pasar malam (night market)/fish market, on Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen, within spitting distance of the new Novotel. Cooked ahead and reheated on the grill, eaten with nothing but a squeeze of kalamansi and a smidgen of sourish sambal, and more than enough for two people, that taste of the sea was a bargain: 19 ringgit (U$5) for a dinner that also included a hefty skewer of lip-smacking tasty grilled chicken wings (go figure -it's a Sabah thing) and two avocado shakes. Downside: wearing the smell of smoke for the rest of the evening.
Our second most wallet-friendly seafood fest was had under the direction of a colleague of Dave's, a born and bred Sabah boy. "Ikan bakar!" (grilled fish) was our request (more like an order, really), and L delivered with a fine meal prepared at a stall in a strip mall-sited coffee shop, about 15 minutes from downtown. Here, we dined on things from the sea subtly scented with the banana leaves they were griddle-grilled in.
We popped tender rings of sotong (squid) - cooked in a rimmed banana leaf 'platter' with onion, garlic, and a sour curryish sauce - into our mouths one after the other. When that dish was demolished and our second still hadn't arrived, we orded clams from another stall.
Simply stir-fried with green onions, garlic, and perhaps a bit of rice wine, these tiny tasties kept us busy while we waited for the piece de resistance, ikan pari (stingray).
It distresses me no end when I come across the largest of these beautiful, majestic creatures splayed on the floor of a southeast Asian fish market, but somehow I manage to get over it when I encounter them on the menu of an ikan bakar joint. The flesh of the wings is white, of medium 'fishiness' (to my taste, anyway - I don't shrink from fish flavor), and firm and meaty. In short, ray was born for the BBQ.
This specimen was rubbed with oil and a wet-dry curry mixture, sandwiched in a folded-over banana leaf (opening photo), and griddled for a good, long time. By the time it reached our table it was crisped outside, moist and tender in, and super smoky all the way through. To accompany, just halved kalamansis.
This meal that generously fed 3 (squid, ray, clams, a veggie, a plate of boiled and fried dumplings, and a couple of beers) rang up at about 59 ringgit (U$ 16).
Our first and final dinners in KK were what might be considered, relative to the two I've just described, blowouts. We headed first to a recommended restaurant located a 5-minute walk from the pasar malam. It looked promising - from the street we spied tanks and tubs of more live seafood than I would have imagined the entire city could put away in an evening. We ventured in, had a look around...and then took to our heels when we encountered men in 'native' dress complete with spears (spears?), waiting for their cue. 'Cultural' shows to accompany dinner - don't like 'em, never will.
Further up the street, Ocean Village Seafood beckoned. It's large and noisy, like KK's other 'upscale' (I use the word loosely) fish restaurants, and it's not on the ocean side of Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen. But it's set back from the street, it's open-air, and the lighting isn't flourescent. The routine, once you've been seated, is to proceed to the tanks and place your order.
Undisputed stars of these meals were the huge, meaty prawns at 28 ringgit (U$7.50) a piece. These things were easily 7 to 8 inches long, as thick around as three fingers, loaded with rich roe, and - most remarkably - had hardly any head to speak of, which translated into an edibilty percentage of around 95%. Well worth the price. We devoured them halved lengthwise and steamed to perfection (retaining a little bit of 'bite') under a carpet of roughly diced garlic and coriander sprigs.
Also on the menu, sizeable green-lipped mussels at 20 ringgit (U$5.50) per kilo; we ordered two. And a kilo of clams, dirt-cheap at 10 ringgit. Both types of shellfish were fresh and briny, but, unfortunately, overwhelmed by their preparations. Clams were 'stir-fried with chili', but arrived at the table cloaked in a harsh, cloyingly sweet chili-tomato goo. Thumbs up for the copious garlic in the sauce, but overall it was a big disappointment. Mussels (above) fared slightly better, but their delicate flavor couldn't stand up to a wok-tossing with scallions, garlic, and much too much rice wine. Next time we'll ignore the waiter's recommendations and order everything prepared as the fabulous prawns were - simply steamed with garlic.
Mention must be made of Ocean Village's way with Sabah's namesake vegetable, Sabah choy. This leggy green veggie looks like a miniature tree (in Chinese, in fact, it's called shu cai - 'tree vegetable'), all skinny green trunk with a fluff of leaves at the top. With a flavor that's something like sweet baby gai lan with a whisper of asparagus, its long stem is tender enough to stir-fry along with the leaves, resulting in a pleasing combination of both crisp- and meltingly tender greens in one dish. Not surprisingly this vegetable was the first to enter 'sold out' territory on both of our visits to Ocean Village.
The damage? For an obscene amount of shellfish our first night, more prawns and a small coral trout steamed with garlic and ginger the second; rice, veggies, beer, and a kelapa puding to finish, about U$65 each time. Ka-ching! Thanks to Air Asia, we were up for the splurge.
Kota Kinabalu night market, Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen, past the Filipino Market as your're heading towards Centre Point Mall. 7 nights.
Grilled seafood stall at Kedai Kopi Hilltop. We were driven in the black of night and have no idea where it is. But we do have a phone number for the coffeshop: 088-231093. 5-12pm.
Ocean Village Seafood Restaurant, Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen (between Jalan Kemajuan and the roundabout). 7 nights.