ANOTHER icon of Kuala Lumpur, Yut Kee, one of the last remaining Hainanese coffee shops in town, may soon bid adieu to its current premises at 35, Jalan Dang Wangi where it has been operating for more than 80 years.
The owners of the premises have plans to develop the place. Managed by the Lee family, it is fondly known as Jack’s Place. The restaurant serves a range of signature dishes and drinks from recipes as old as the shop itself.
“Many of the items on the menu like the chicken chop, lamb chop, roti babi and lam mee were created by my grandfather who started this business,” said Mervyn Lee, who is a third generation member of the family.
His grandfather, who came from Hainan Island in China, had initially worked as a cook for a colonial family — something many native Hainanese did after arriving here.
“Fusion food like the chicken chop probably started off with people like my grandfather who combined the best of both worlds — east and west, into one dish during their time as cooks,” Lee said, adding that it took passion to fuel a business apart from means to start it.
Initially, the coffee shop was run like a restaurant and offered tai chou which means regular dishes accompanied by rice.
“However, as the years went by, it became time-consuming and the focus shifted to food that required less processing time,” Lee said, adding that his customers include regulars who have been coming to the shop for years like working people in the area, tourists and a new generation of families who come to the place for sentimental reasons.
The shop continues to attract new customers through word of mouth, food reviewers and even Lonely Planet on one of its programmes.
Datuk Wong Sulong, who is a director of Bursa Malaysia, has been a regular customer for over four decades.
He said: “I frequent this shop because of my friendship with Jack (Lee’s father). The food is excellent, too, a unique blend of Malaysian, Nyonya and Hainanese cuisine which I cannot find elsewhere.
“I used to come here often for lunch and breakfast but now, I pop in at least once a month when I am in the area,” Wong said.
He also said the moderate prices for the food was good value for money while the ambience as well as the lively multi-racial customers made it interesting.
Adversity, however, is nothing new to the business as Jack remembers an incident some three years back when the price of turkey became outrageously expensive.
“We used to have pre-order roast turkey. But there was one year, the price of a turkey became quite high. So my wife Margaret started cooking roast pork instead and the customers loved it,” Jack said.
The pork dish — a permanent fixture on their menu every Friday, Saturday and Sunday — is a piece of pork belly rolled around a stuffing of ground pistachios and peaches featuring a crispy outer layer of skin, served with home-made apple sauce.
The restaurant also introduced other new items to the menu over the years and notable among them was the beef noodles. It is now one of the top selling dishes in the shop.
Lee said one of the reasons why he decided to help run the shop was because he had wanted to let his parents take it easy as his father would not want to give up on the restaurant.
When they move out to new premises — within a year from now — Lee hopes to leave his own mark in “Jack’s Place”.
“As for the business itself, I do not want to change it much but hope to improve efficiency,” he said.
Lee who has accepted to move out is still hoping for a miracle that will allow them to stay on. He hopes there will be a win-win situation for both the owners and them.
“One of the main challenges I foresee about the move is the loss of the ambience that we have enjoyed here.
“This will be a test to see how much ambience plays a part in making the business successful,” he said.
Lee, who has many fond memories of the place, said customers who have learned of the impending move had voiced their concern.
“They have sentimental ties with this shop,” he said.
“We plan to move to the lot that we own behind this one, where the Bodhi Tree Restaurant is, in Jalan Kamunting,” he added.
He said he felt touched by the concern of the customers.
“They kept asking us and said they would support any move we make after they learned about it from the Internet.”
Lee, however, said the family would not hold any grudges against their landlord for wanting to develop the place.