IPOH, July 28 — When one thinks of caves, images of dark, dank and even scary come to mind.
It is not often that someone thinks of dining in such an environment.
This particular cave in Tambun, Perak is large, grey, with stalactites that hung foreboding from above; it is just like the hundreds of caves that litter Ipoh and its surroundings.
But today, the cave is home to Jeff’s Cellar, a wine bar and fine dining restaurant that is attracting the attention of the international culinary community.
Located at the Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat, the restaurant is one of the city’s interesting wine-and-dine places, thanks to its setting — slap-bang in the middle of a limestone cave.
It recently made international headlines after being named in CNN Greece’s list of “Five Incredible Bars to Enjoy a Drink”, and was also a finalist for Malaysia Tatler’s “Best Hotel Restaurant” category.
According to the retreat’s general manager Alex Castaldi, the story began 12 to 15 years ago, when Sunway Group founder and chairman Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah had an idea to turn an ordinary cave into a bar.
He was also in search of the next business opportunity in his home state of Perak.
“When they found the cave, it was very different from the way it is now,” he told Malay Mail.
“It was 1.8-metre above the ground they were standing on and it had all the things you expect to find in a cave — moss, bats and pests,” he recalled.
“It was a lot of work but Tan Sri already had a vision of how the place would be.
“At first, it was a wine bar but we gradually expanded it into a fine dining restaurant.”
The vision has truly taken off, as Jeff’s Cellar, named after the founder of course, boasts an incredible ambience.
The entrance is guarded by two iron gates brought from Iran, while the walls bear the restaurant’s special crest, invoking the atmosphere of a medieval castle.
But once you step inside the restaurant, it feels like you have been transported to a European restaurant.
Soft light wraps around the tastefully decorated dining area, which has rows of wine bottles lining the walls.
Glancing up, stalactites and shining rock minerals lend an ethereal atmosphere to the dining experience, which manages to be intimate and majestic at the same time.
As Castaldi explained, the management were conscious of the need to preserve the cave’s natural splendour.
The set menu befits the high standards of the restaurant’s surroundings, serves dishes that feature lobster, foie gras, smoked scallops, and Wagyu beef.
Customers can also visit Cheah’s wine cellar, which houses more than 2,000 bottles of his prized collection.
However, the restaurant maintains a distinct local flavour, as all of the chefs are from Ipoh.
“In fact, every day two or three tables are taken up by locals,” Castaldi said.
“There is limited space but you don’t have to be a guest at Banjaran to dine here.
“We can only fit 20 to 25 guests in a single sitting. But the feedback is very positive and we get a good mix of local and foreign customers.”
As one would expect, running a restaurant in a cave has its own unique challenges.
Water can seep from random spots on the cave roof, requiring staff to cover up certain areas with white canvas.
Normal restaurants have in-built kitchens.
That was never an option for Jeff’s Cellar, and as a result, waiters have to carry dishes more than 50 metres up a staircase.
“We refuse to build into the cave, so we couldn’t construct a kitchen with the necessary exhaust systems in the cave space,” Castaldi said.
“On the other hand, the cave requires little maintenance because it is closed off.
“It is a small price to pay for the astounding natural beauty.”
Castaldi is an industry veteran who has worked around Asia, the Middle East, and the Seychelles, but he admits that Jeff’s Cellar still amazes him to this day.
“There are a lot of caves around Ipoh. The main thing is this: there are a million things you could do with a cave, but who would think of building a restaurant like this?”