Thursday, December 30, 2010

1MB Travels: Sabah, Malaysia: Sutera Harbour Resort Dining

This holiday, my parents decided they wanted to vacation in Sabah, Borneo, and were nice enough to ask me to come with them as a 'stop' on the way to visit in Hong Kong for Christmas!

After a 14 hour flight and layover, we flew out together to Sabah to stay at the Sutera Harbour Resort, conveniently located just 10-15 minutes from the airport and a short ride from Kota Kinabalu's city center.

The giant complex, comprised of two resort hotels, a golf course, marina and country club, still managed to give off the vibe of a remote island retreat with gorgeous views of the South China sea and tropical islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, airy accommodations with architecture inspired by aboriginal culture (e.g. longhouses), a huge boardwalk lined with sunchairs and hammocks sandwiched between the ocean and free form pools with a swim-up bar - all the better to enjoy the beautiful 85-90 degree weather Sabah provided in the depths of December.
We had an amazing time and I would have been in heaven just to lay on the hammock, enjoying the sounds of the waves, and sun tempered by cool ocean breezes.  But I of course had to venture out to enjoy the island - and there is lots to report, but I wanted to start with dining at the resort, as it had been my parents' idea to stay in and relax, as Sutera provided all creature comforts in one complex.  (We did manage some island excursions on this trip - see separate posts on tourist activities and off-site dining - but on for now to resort dining!)

TARIK LOBBY LOUNGE (The Magellan Sutera Harbour)

While waiting for check-in, we were offered a 'welcome drink' at Tarik's Lobby Lounge off the far side of the registration area.  I loved this space, which very skillfully mixed Borneo heritage with western sensibilities - with lofty longhouse inspired ceilings with exposed wooden beams, and colonial style ceiling fans - while taking full advantage of the fresh ocean breezes and fresh air with wide open sides (no windows!) not only all around the building, but with the far side of the lounge dropping off into unobstructed views of the pool and ocean below.

The 'welcome drink' was a simple beverage, but a great twist on iced tea - it was basically iced peach tea with a lime wedge and salted plum added. For me, it was love at first sip - a perfect balance of sweet / bitter / tart/ salty - but I was unfortunately too jetlagged to capture any photos that first night. I did shoot the space later on, and of the drink when I was thick-skinned enough to order it at a later meal - see pic under 'Al Fresco'.  One thing I regret not doing was ordering "Teh Tarik" - Malaysia's pulled tea - supposedly a main attraction here - though I never saw anyone else order it during my stay...

AL FRESCO (The Magellan Sutera Harbour)

This casual dining space can be found pool-side on the lower-level of the lodge, to the left of the spa if you're facing the ocean (I love saying the latter half of that sentence!).

Every seat in the house here basically affords amazing ocean views, and you can choose to go 100% al fresco on the patio poolside, or catch some shade under the still wide open space where you can enjoy ocean sounds, smells and breezes.  (Or simply swim up to the bar attached to the pool!)

Al Fresco serves up food and drinks all day, and we were a fan of popping down for quick bites between meals. 

My parents started out with two Power Punch smoothies (which according to the server, consists of strawberry, orange and banana - but as we found throughout our stay, accuracy of information provided to guests is not necessarily a priority - perhaps part of the very laid back culture that allows us to enjoy our vacation in a very slow-paced, stress-free environment,
but with occasional, though not critical, drawbacks).

I asked if I could have the 'welcome drink' (aka crack) - which they readily provided. 

Pictured in the background is the pizza counter, where wood-fired pizzas are made from scratch in the small open kitchen.  Enticing as the smell of fresh pizza dough was, I could not bear to fill up on carbs when I was at one of the top locations for some of the freshest seafood in the world.

My mom agrees (we have pretty much the same taste, which makes eating out together easy and fun!  I think I inherited my love of / sense of adventure when it comes to food from her)  - and ordered the shrimp skewers with Romesco sauce
The shrimp was plump, juicy and sweet -and perfectly grilled to a crisp outside, and tender inside.  Also key: it was hot off the grill.  We hadn't tasted shrimp this fresh since...maybe Tsukiji!  Loved this dish.

My dad is usually a steak and eggs / potatoes kind of guy, but can 'tolerate' seafood of particular kinds in small doses (!!!!)  So he ordered the Linguini Aragosta

He was happy to report that the lobster was also juicy, sweet and fresh.

I decided on the Seafood Combination - a small sampler platter of the fruits of the sea:  squid, shrimp, mussels, and salmon fillet accompanied by veggies, all lightly grilled.

In one word:  amazing.  Everything tasted so fresh, and like the shrimp, was perfectly grilled. 

The only unfortunate thing is that some small gnats / flies seemed to agree, and flocked to our table en masse as the
seafood arrived (they bizarrely left us alone when we had the sweet fruity drinks on the table). 

So my only complaints about dining at Al Fresco, is the pests you have to compete with and race against to eat your food - which of course is a hazard for any meal fresco.  It was just a little less idyllic and became stressful to have to use one hand to swat the gnats away while trying to eat with the other.   But it was starting to rain/drizzle during that meal, so my dad thought that brought the pests towards our table 'indoors'.  Also, service while very friendly is at 'leisure' speed - it took 25 minutes between arrival of our drinks and food.  That said, we were at a resort and knew we were supposed to move at a slower pace - so we tried to keep our three Type A personalities at bay from rearing their unwelcome heads while on holiday.

Otherwise, the setting was beautiful and convenient, the food was great and prices reasonable - so I would recommend this as a dining option within the resort or for guests staying elsewhere in the immediate area...ideally while it's sunny out.

(Note:  We did go back on another - sunny - day for Sicilian Ricotta Cheesecake and guava juice, and did not experience any gnats/ flies.  The cheesecake lacked structure and was a bit bland - but I would still recommend dining here and  focusing on seafood options instead.)

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 5.5 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 90%

FIVE SAILS (The Magellan Sutera Harbour)
As part of the package deal my family purchased, breakfast each day was included at the resort - we only needed to show up at Five Sails with our meal vouchers to be admitted to the buffet, which runs  6:30am-11:00am each day.

Five Sails is in the lower level of the main lodge at The Magellan hotel, and offers both indoor and outdoor seating.  Outdoor seats give a great view of the pool, and where blue sky meets blue ocean beyond. Indoor seats are in a glass enclosed area that makes it feel like any other restaurant, and is not recommended for that reason.

The food offerings at the breakfast buffet are extensive, and reflective of the diverse cultures that thrive in Malaysia - Malaysian of course (lots of interesting local dishes from mee hong noodles to curries and meat stews), Chinese (congee, dim sum, bao etc.), Indian (naan, curries), and of course western (scrambled eggs, made to order eggs and omelettes, pastries, cereal).

Pork was notably missing, as Malaysia is a Muslim country - and the resort has come up with creative alternatives for breakfast staples like beef bacon and chicken sausage.  My dad got creative with his breakfast items (pictured at left).

My favorites - that also turned out to be my go-to items every day (and I don't usually like routine when it comes to food) were the soft scrambled eggs, naan with fish/beef curry and vegetable dhal curry, and fresh-baked croissants. 

The fluffy / fresh off the grill naan was made at an outdoor grilling station - with a chef on one side making eggs and omelettes to order, and a second chef on the other making naan to order.  It's not clay-oven made, but hey, it's a 'free' (ok, pre-paid - free for me via the fam) AYCE breakfast with ocean views - everything in context!

There was also a huge spread of fruit, and I helped myself to way too much (if there is such a thing) - usually a 'best of the tropics' selection consisting of papaya (perfecty ripe, just the right firmness and sweetness), pineapple, longan (orbs in middle of plate pictured at left, sort of like lycees - like Asian cherries but semi-transparent and sweet), and lycees (orbs in foreground, right of plate pictured). The lycees unfortunately tasted like they were from a can (my mom thought they needed to them to represent a key local produce, but as it is out of season in December, they must have just decided to serve it out of a can rather than omit it from the buffet).

Another item that became a favorite was something that I tried without having any idea what it was besides being some kind of beef dish (see the enormously informative label pictured at left - I love discovering local dishes, but "Daging Deng Deng" was not exactly helpful for tourists, which formed the majority if not all of the diners at Five Sails)! 

I Googled it and learned that it's a beef sambal, or spicy chili stir-fried beef. Loved this rich, flavorful dish over coconut rice!

Overall, breakfast at Five Sails is not bad as a cheap part of a package deal with the hotel.  However, if you are a morning person, and inclined to venture out from the resort early - I'm sure there are lots of local discoveries to be had at venues in KK city center.  For us, we happened to want to save those for meals later in the day and went to Five Sails as a matter of convenience. 

Apparently Five Sails also serves a dinner buffet - we got to experience this on our last night (one dinner buffet is included free with the package).  Dinner involves - in addition to the spread of fruits we got at breakfast - roast beef (dry), more seafood (shrimp sambal is only thing of note, and not fresh tasting), soups (beef short rib soup - not done the local way, tomato-based more like a minestrone, and winter melon soup) and desserts (mango pudding so hard you almost had to use a knife, chocolate souffle with consistency of a brownie, various bland cakes - the only highlights were pandan coconut creme caramel pudding which was very tasty, and the ice cream bar with local flavors like yam and sweet corn).  There is also live entertainment in the form of a 3-piece band with an island sound, who will come to each table for your song request. 

Our verdict: we would never want to pay for this dinner buffet - the quality and selection was incredibly poor for a 5-star resort;  we speculated that probably everyone else there were also eating for 'free' with their package.

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5 bites
Presentation - 5 bites
Originality - 4 bites
Ambience - 5 stars (outdoors)
Service - 4 stars
Overall experience - 4.5 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 90% (breakfast only if free / cheap part of package)

FERDINAND'S (The Magellan Sutera Harbour)

According to the resort, Ferdinand's is listed as one of Malaysia's best restaurants by a local society magazine.  It is the only fine dining spot in the resort, serving Italian cuisine.
We had a fantastic Christmas dinner at Ferdinand's, which merits its own post - check it out here!

CAFE BOLEH (Pacific Sutera Resort)

After an all day excursion to Kota Kinabalu for spa treatments (I know, life is rough), and boat tour of Garama Wetland to see Proboscis Monkeys and Fireflies - we were exhausted and ended up at Cafe Boleh (open 24 hours) in the Pacific Sutera wing of the resort for a quick dinner.

Earlier in the day at the wetlands, we were served a variety of local dishes in a picnic style area - one of the items was a beef short rib soup that was so aromatic I wanted more of it that same night when I got back.  Luckily, Cafe Boleh had this on the menu.  It was not exactly the same, but still had that great lemongrass flavor that reminds me of pho, but is a little more hearty with big chunks of short rib and vegetables.  The portion size was big enough to serve three people!  It did get a little too oily near the end so I couldn't finish, but it was delicious.

Spotting Nasi Lemak, a Malaysian specialty, on the menu - I had to give that a try, knowing that it probably won't be super authentic and flavorful in a hotel cafe.  It turned out to be fairly decent - and interesting platter of fried fish, hard-boiled egg, shrimp sembal, dried anchovies, cucumber and peanuts.  I think the idea is to mix everything together with the coconut rice - bibimbap-style (again the servers aren't very informative overall, and mixed up my dad's order).  But, I can't quite get used to having big crunchy pieces of peanut and cucumber mixed in with my rice.  And unfortunately the shrimp sambal was single note in taste - salty.  I would give Nasi Lemak another try the next time I go back, definitely at a local joint in town, but did not have a great experience with it at the hotel cafe.

As the Cafe was completely enclosed and did not take advantage of the location and setting like its counterparts at The Magellan, and the decor reminded me of an old school Vegas casino buffet, I would most likely not be returning to this location.

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 4 bites
Presentation - 4.5 bites
Originality - 4 bites
Ambience - 4 stars
Service - 4 stars
Overall experience - 4 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 10%

Overall, it was an amazing vacation in an incredible city at a great resort - Ferdinand's was the best of the dining options at the resort, with Al Fresco not far behind on a sunny, pest-free day.  Hope this will be helpful to anyone looking for a place to stay / dine in Sabah!

Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia 
The Magellan Sutera Harbour Hotel
1 Sutera Harbour Boulevard, Kota Kinabalu, 88100 Sabah, Malaysia
Ph: (6088) 318 888


  1. Hmmm...Nice resort and delicious cuisines. I love Malaysia, the country is really best country for spending vacation during holidays.

  2. I enjoyed your post a lot. It is very informative. I was looking for a nice place for Christmas dinner, considering the option of The Five Sails at Magellan and stumbled upon your blog post, If I'd knew you are around, I would have brought you for some good local joints in KK.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...