Archive for August, 2011

The Best for Last – Jackie M

It was a bit of a mad dash for the final week of the Malaysia Food Kitchen’s blogger summit. I’d just landed at Sydney International yesterday after 10 days travelling and eating through China, so I did as any good explorer does: I beelined for home, staggered into my apartment, and passed out on the couch.

I finally woke up bleary-eyed in the late afternoon, and through the jet-lag fog, suddenly realised that I needed to reconfirm dinner plans at Concord’s Jackie M restaurant. Luckily, some of my friends had already emailed me, including Leila from underground dining scene Tablenosh, and a mutual friend, Nikki. I also rounded up my Malaysian food expert Eunice, a long-term Sydney resident who’s a Malay native from the northern city of Ipoh.

I’d been hearing lots of good buzz about Jackie M’s midwest Sydney restaurant, and event Jackie herself had been quite active on Twitter when I was asking people for their top Malaysian eateries (even better that she talked about other people’s restaurants, rather than simply plugging her own).

So the four of us did something we never do – we went to Concord for dinner. That’s no mean feat when you’re pairing a couple of Surry Hillsbillies with two entrenched Inner Westies. There’s always a bit of inertia to overcome when escaping the comforts of central Sydney living.

Most of the drive down Lyons Road, as it eventually changes into Majors Bay Road, is residential, so the lights of Concord’s downtown strip appear like a nighttime oasis. As we enter Jackie M, the first thing that hits me is how small it is – there are just a handful of tables in a moody space with dark tables and splashes of red.

We wait for menus, then realise that they’re already splayed at the far end of the table. Even so, the service is fairly sluggish. When our server does arrive, though, she’s friendly, relaxed and helpful with suggestions. And we definitely need some advice to narrow down our all-too-greedy selection of shared plates.

We start with the ‘deluxe’ laksa nonya and the Hainanese chicken rice – the latter always being a good benchmark for a good Malaysian restaurant, and additionally listed as one of Jackie M’s signatures. The chicken arrives first, and it is beauty. The chicken slices are tenderly poached with a subtle fragrance, the chicken broth gives all the right notes for adding moisture and flavour to the rice, and the chilli-ginger sauce gives just enough kick. It’s the best example I’ve seen in Sydney to date.

Next comes the laksa. It’s a solid version, a comforting bowl of thick broth with large tofu cubes, half a boiled egg, fried shallots, bean sprouts and a mix of vermicelli and Hokkien noodles. The stock is a bit thicker than I’d like, and doesn’t have the same vibrant complexity of the beautiful laksa I discovered at Kensington’s Kaki Lima the other week, but it’s still enjoyable.

A mere minute later, the beef rendang and roti canai arrive. The beef is exactly what we want it to be: rich and fall-apart tender. In fact, the sauce is so thick and the beef so pliant, it’s often hard to figure out where one starts and the other begins. It hardly matters: the beef is delicious. And it’s perfectly paired with the roti. I’ve had few good versions aside from the wafer-light renditions at Mamak, but this is an exception. Jackie’s version is buttery and flaky – not as waif-like as Mamak’s, but with a richer flavour that keeps everyone at the table coming back to pull off more pieces to dip into the rendang sauce.

Eunice’s choice is the har meen: a noodle soup with a prawn stock with large prawns, chicken, egg, assorted greens and a generous sprinkling of fried shallots. The reviews at the table are mixed, but it’s likely a cultural thing. Eunice thoroughly enjoys the soup, while myself and the two other Westerners find the prawn stock’s fishy flavour too strong.

The top highlight of the meal arrives next: the chai tow kway, aka fried radish. The stir-fry features squares of shredded radish cake that are as tender as a fried square of silken tofu, and they come in a sweet-salty sauce clinging to preserved radish, garlic, beansprouts, Chinese chives and a scattering of egg. Groans of joy ensue, and we need to negotiate who eats the remaining pieces on the plate. It’s worth coming to Jackie M merely for this.

We polish off the night with dessert, sharing the ais chendol and a dessert roti with coconut. The chendol arrives with a sweet milky ‘soup’ swimming with teardrop strands of pandan, with a couple of icebergs of the still-frozen liquid floating in the centre. It also comes with a customary bowl of palm syrup, which we ladel into our bowls to take the dessert to even sweeter heights. The roti is nearly as uplifting, with a sweet coconut paste giving a stealth sweetness to the blankets of bread.

After a month of traversing the city’s Malaysian restaurants, this is the best meal I’ve had. I sneak into the kitchen to express thanks to Jackie, who’s rolling out dough for curry puffs. She’s a striking woman, with a platinum flash of short-cropped, youthful hair – not the staid nonya mama that I had envisioned in my head.

Then it’s time to call it a night. My fellow diners and I stagger back to our cars, bellies fully expanded, and weave our way back to our inner city confines, but happy in the thought of escaping our respective hoods for one excellent Malaysian feed.

85 Majors Bay Rd, Concord, NSW
(02) 9743 0390

Jackie M Malaysian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Seeking Sydney’s Best Laksa – Kaki Lima

I’m sure that finding the top laksa in this city is about as easy as choosing the best pizza place. And instead of the thin-crust vs pillowy crust debate or traditional vs gourmet smackdown, here we’re talking varying degrees of Malaysian: Chinese-Malay (nyonya) style, sour style, Malacca style, Assam style, Johor laksa and Sarawak laksa, curry laksa, etc.

I’m probably even repeating myself. I can’t yet call myself a laksa expert, but today I’m doing some dedicate research.

A bit of Google fossicking and Twitter soliciting, and I get the nod from a number of food people I respect – the Sydney International Food Festival’s Joanna Savill being one of them – that cite Kaki Lima in Kensington as the best laksa joint in Sydders. So I pack up the laptop, hop onto the Vespa and beeline there for lunch to survey the stock for myself.

And what I discover isn’t what I expect of a place that’s potentially making our best bowl of Malaysian soup – aside from another solo diner, it’s empty. I spend half of my meal wondering if there’s no day trade in this stretch of Kensington, until a chat with my friendly server helps illuminate me. “It’s Ramadan this month; that’s why it’s so quiet,” she explains.

Apparently everyone else, aside from a nice agnostic Jewish boy like me, is fasting for the holy month. Mariam – yes, my server and I have now been formally acquainted, as we’re two out of the only three people in the room – directs me to the evening’s paper-inscribed special: a Ramadan feast with a choice of main, dessert and drink, all for for a whopping $15. It looks like I can afford to come back in the evenings, when the hungry hordes come out after 5.30pm to have their post-fasting fill.

For now, it’s all about the laksa. And what’s curious is that the laksa isn’t even on the main menu, but rather on the specials board. Still, it is the first thing Mariam suggests when I ask her for some favourites, and I’m offered a choice of chicken, seafood or prawn. I go with the chicken, plus another plate of nasi lemak with beef randang for a bit of variety.

The laksa is as good as advertised. It’s rich but not overly creamy, the broth a vibrant orange from sambal paste, with blood-orange droplets from the coconut and vegetable oils. It’s filled with spongy triangles of rehydrated dried tofu, thin rice vermicelli noodles, camouflaged bean sprouts and two diagonal slices of green chilli. There are also cucumber batons that aren’t always cut through, so they’re sometimes joined together and look like fat Freddy Krueger fingers. Hey, it might not pass a TAFE knife skills exam, but with so much flavour in my bowl, I can overlook finesse.

There’s also a complexity in the broth that I can’t quite taste, so owner/chef Aida later informs me that it’s got a subtle layer of lemongrass in there. It’s probably why there’s enough acidity that I ignore the lemon wedge that floats on the far edge. Other ingredients include garlic, dried prawn and tamarind juice. “It’s not like a nyonya laksa,” Aida says, noting that the Chinese often use evaporated milk instead of coconut. “It’s more like Malacca style.”

Yes, the laska is a stunner, and true to its reputation. In fact, the only rival I can think of thus far is an old favourite from Melbourne – Blue Chillies in Fitzroy.

The nasi lemak, however, is simply serviceable. The coconut rice is fine, and a sprinkling of fried red shallots on top are so pungent, I nearly think they’re ginger… in a pleasing way. The paired beef rending is tender yet mild and undistinguished, while the halves of hardboiled egg have plenty of green around the yolk, a sign of overcooking (or, more likely, a lack of quick cooling afterwards). It’s also hard to distinguish the beef from the similar-hued ikan bilis, or dried anchovy sambal – the latter is chunky with whole anchovies, also mild and conjures childhood smells of fish food (for the guppies and angel fish, not me). With the rending and sambal, I’m craving some chilli heat.

As I tuck in, the sound of passing buses on Anazc Parade consistently hums behind me, slightly offset by Pearl Jam politely playing on the speakers. There are old black-and-white photos of Malaysia grouped together on a wall, while tiny faux birds dwell in half cages surrounding lights – switched off while the afternoon sunlight radiates through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The tables are covered in clear plastic, protecting colourful tablecloths endowed with flower patterns. it’s a kaleidoscope of tables that ranges from violet to lime, midnight blue, black and rose.

Two dishes mean that I’ve already overeaten, but I can’t pass up dessert. There are a handful of sweet offerings in a glass display by the counter, so I peruse the pandan- and tapioca-dominated serves. I go for the baked pandan custard, a Kermit-green square of spongy goodness. It’s a delicate taste, an intermingling of coconut milk, sugar and pandan flavour. Just as much taste comes from the sesame seed topping, but my favourite part are the browned edges that have a whisper of custard about them.

The laksa and dessert are enough to make me want to return, so I listen to Aida as she recommends I come back for her satay, her Indian Muslim-style northern fish curry and for her teh tarik (Malaysia sweet tea). Until she tells me she started the restaurant as a Malaysian coffee house, I hadn’t even considered that the drinks were a specialty. Plus there are several other sweets to try, so I’m determined to have enough repeat visits to get through them one-by-one. As you do.

Kaki Lima Restaurant, Shop 3/228-230 Anzac Pde, Kensington, NSW, (02) 9662 6868

Kaki Lima Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Gosstronomy dined at Kaki Lima courtesy of the Malaysian Kitchen, a group blogging initiative that encourages unbiased opinion.

Ayam soooo hungry – Malaysia Kitchen Blogger Summit

I hate it when bloggers talk about how they haven’t posted for a while. It’s not like you’re hanging on every word I say, anxiously waiting for the next update. You’ve probably got heaps of blogs in some RSS feed, so if someone isn’t posting, them you’re just reading other people’s stuff. Readers don’t notice if anyone’s been quiet – only the blogger notices (and if they’re lucky, maybe their sponsors).

So while I’m certain you’ve just been overloaded with Google +, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, BranchOut, email, RSS feeds, blogs, MMS, SMS and those strange people who actually ring you over the phone, I’m going to make a weak statement. I’ve been busy, and the blog hasn’t gotten the usual love.

Enter the Malaysian Kitchen Blogger Summit, an initiative to help spread awareness and know-how about Malaysian food and cooking in Australia. I was recently asked to be part of 13 (my lucky number) of the top food bloggers in the country, and try a different Malaysian restaurant every week and write about it. On their dime. No questions asked. I can write whatever I want: praise, indifference or aggravation.

Easy choice. I love my Malaysian food anyway, and there’s nothing like a good challenge to get a blogger back into the swing of posting regularly. (Of course, if you’d count MasterChef Magazine, the SMH Good Café Guide, OutThere and, among others, I’m basically ‘posting’ constantly – just for other media outlets).

Yesterday way my personal kickoff, so I started with a no-brainer: Mamak in Chinatown. I first came here in 2007, just days after the place opened, heeding a hot tip by a Malaysian-born friend of mine. It’s long been a favourite (as it is with so many others), even if I haven’t been back in a while.

Mind you, back in the early days, Mamak’s food did seem to have a bit more personal attention and spark; the flavours were a little more complex before the restaurant doubled in size, followed by the expansions to Chatswood and Glebe. But you could say that about a lot of great restaurants. I still relish my meal sitting in front of Shannon Bennett’s pass at the original, intimate Vue de Monde in Carlton. Shannon remains a great chef, but that upstart space and experience was special – like seeing your favourite band at a pub before they broke the big time – and it will never happen again.

So my flatmate, Candice, and I hoof it from our geographically desirable Surry Hills loft, and meander down Goulburn Street. And, amazingly, the lines at Mamak still haven’t abated after all these years. It flows back past the restaurant front and that of the adjoining Taiwanese dessert place. Still, I’m a native New Yorker. I’m happy to wait in line if I know I can get in (at Manhattan hotspots, waits can be measured in days or months). And I know the line wil move fast.

In the meantime, we watch the roti makers roll out their dough behind the glass frontage, flipping and smacking it into paper-thin layers. Even after all these years, it’s still a treat to watch the edible theatre and nonchalant prep work.

Candice and I chat, text and Tweet for 25 minutes, then finally get the call: “Michael, table for two”. As we enter, the place is pumping – as it should when there’s such a long queue. The crowd is more Asian than not. We spy one young male entertaining what looks like two female backpackers, and we gossip like schoolkids.

Regardless of the crowds, our waitress rocks up quickly, all service-with-a-smile. It’s a big grin, seemingly genuine. Menus come quickly, as do drinks, and glasses of water.

The usual menu negotiations ensue. I’m partial to the fluffy, angelic roti canai, but Candice prefers the flatter and more buttery roti planta. Candice wins. In any case, it still arrives on its tray with the usual, lovely, dual dipping curries, one spicer than the other, plus a dollop of spicy sambal. Let’s face it – fresh roti is fantastic in any form: stretchy, steamy and flaky.

I’m a bit under the weather, so I’m hankering for some comfort food. I order two pieces of the ayam goreng, or Malaysian fried chicken. Two thighs arrive. They’re moist and hearty, but the skin isn’t all that crispy and the seasoning errs on the bland side. It’s my most anticipated, but ultimately least favoured dish of the night.

I want to vary my old routine, so I order our agreed plate of nasi lemak with an untried side of sambal calamari. My ever-chirpy Malay waitress crinkles her nose. She says that the sambal prawns are much better. I let her talk me out of it. Good thing – the prawns are lovely and on the upwardly side of spicy hot, which is a plus in my book. I eat the prawns first, then my half of boiled egg and cucumber, then use the remaining sauce to mix with the mound of coconut rice, roast peanuts, restrained additions of the crisp-fried baby anchovies for salt. Ahhh, nasi lemak – I love a sure thing.

The rice-sauce mixture is good enough to get my cheeks misty, but the heat-threshold doesn’t rise higher after I’m saved by my spice-slaying mug of teh tarik – that classic Malaysian sweet tea mad of condensed milk and ‘pulled’ by pouring from a highly held pot (or kettle) into a low-dangled cup. Earlier, I’m tempted to try the ginger-laced version or the Milo tarik, the Malaysian ‘hot chocolate’ that pairs that classic ‘energy’ drink with condensed milk, but at the last moment, I change my mind. I’m not inspired enough to deviate. The tea is tasty as usual, but erring further on the sickly side of sweet than I’d like. In fact, I’m not sure what’s sweeter: my tea or Candice’s cup of Coke.

Next is the kari kambing, the spicy lamb curry stew – although ‘next’ is misleading, since all of the dishes are crammed onto our tiny two-seat table like an intimate buffet. Which I don’t mind at all, even if it makes for some creative table shuffling at times. The kari kambing is Malaysia’s counterpart to Indonesia’s beef rendang and Thailand’s beef massamam curry, and it falls apart in similar, ever-pleasing fashion.

We’re playing it safe with the menu tonight – probably because both of us are fighting off winter colds – so for dessert we keep the safety thread consistent and go for the sweet roti pisang. It comes fused with thinly sliced bananas and two scoops of vanilla ice-cream, which are relatively bland but let the caramelised bananas shine. Anything with bananas feels like backpacker food to me, conjuring memories of drunken late nights in Bangkok gorging on banana pancakes near Khao San Road. I joke with the waitress that, considering the astronomical price of bananas right now, this has to be the best-value dish on the menu. She giggles, and agrees, then struts off in her Mamak-uniform Croc clogs to the next table.

We’re stuffed, and happy. Mamak seems to have settled into its size, and the food is more consistent than my last couple of visits. We stagger out the door, and I bid the new round-up of queue bystanders a mental good-luck. We’re off to home, and if my nightcap of Panadol Cold & Flu doesn’t fully put this cold to rest, I’m hoping some of that hot sambal sauce has killed off a good lot of those germ invaders.

Gosstronomy dined at Mamak courtesy of Malaysia Kitchen Australia.

Mamak on Urbanspoon