Venue Review: Malaya Kitchen
The Charlotte Observer
8200-400 Providence Road in the Arboretum
If you're the kind of eater who needs the jolt of adventure, you've got to check out Malaya Kitchen.
If you're the kind of eater who needs the comfort of plain chicken ... you've got to check out Malaya Kitchen.
This second restaurant from T.T. Chan, who opened the long-living Cuisine Malaya on East Independence Boulevard in the late '90s, is just as welcoming and just as quirky. The menu skips around, from the blend that is Malaysian cooking to dishes from the cuisines that influence it: most obviously Chinese, Thai and Indian. An abundance of common Chinese entrees and fried rice dishes are offered, along with Thai soups and noodles and some Indian curries, plus a Japanese twist or two (though not sushi, as at Cuisine Malaya - not yet, anyway, says Chan). Even Buffalo wings have won a spot among appetizers.
But make a point of trying specifically Malaysian dishes:
-- Sarang Burung, for instance, is listed on a separate specials menu (though I'm told it's headed for the regular menu). It's essentially a mildly sauced shrimp and chicken stir fry, tucked into a crunchy-outside, soft-inside "nest" of fried taro root, which tastes like potato. Filling, and delicious. (If you know the Puerto Rican mofongo, you get the idea.)
-- Roti canai is a sort of flatbread, flaky and layered but very thin, served with a mild curry; you tear off pieces and dip them in the sauce. Cue the addiction. Order two if you want to keep your tablemates from stealing yours.
-- Beef rendang brings chunks of flank steak simmered to silkiness in a coconut-milk-based sauce, rich enough for any beef aficionado. (Note to those familiar with Malaysian food: This is a curry-like version of the dish, with sauce aplenty, not the nearly dry version some make.)
-- Also with some heft are satays - skewers of chicken or beef with velvety peanut sauce.
-- Belacan sauce - made with the shrimp paste called belacan - comes over stir-fried okra or string beans, with your choice of meat. Yum.
Chan intends to keep adding Malaysian dishes as diners grow more fond of them, including Malaysian desserts, such as ice kacang (shaved ice with all sorts of toppings).
But even the shyest of diners can sup on something simple and mild, like the Chinese Hainan chicken: half a moist poached bird, hacked into manageable pieces. Theoretically, you can use chopsticks to lift each piece to your mouth, then strip meat from bone with your teeth - but I use my fingers, and you should, too. (Smokey chicken is presented similarly but marinated with spices, then smoked in a wok to a mahogany tone and served with a sweet/salty dipping sauce: Marvelous. Duck comes this way as well.)
On our visits to this Arboretum storefront, it wasn't particularly busy, but servers worked quickly and efficiently, then took time to explain dishes, suggest what to have on our next visit and generally make diners comfortable. That's what it takes to help people warm up, and it's crucial. More explanation on the printed menu would be a good idea, too.
The dining room is a golden cream with bright abstract art and pendant lights, with a long banquette down one wall. Booths make up seating to the left of the bar as you enter. Orchids (yes, they're edible) garnish most plates, and instrumental music is nearly as colorful as the flowers. Venture out.