Dining with strangers can actually be pleasant when the food is extraordinary and the host exceptional.
WHILE on holiday, perhaps having had enough of only each other’s company for every meal, Lord Restrain and I decided to join 11 strangers for a Malay dinner (RM90++ per person, excluding drinks). Held at one of Langkawi’s best eateries, Bon Ton’s Nam Restaurant, it is hosted twice a week by the resort’s operations manager, Amirudin Zainal Abidin.
As a child, the affable Amir, a 23-year-old Bon Ton veteran, used to help his mum cook for their family of 11. So it is hardly surprising that his dining table would be an overflowing buffet spread, laden with dishes meticulously prepared from traditional recipes.
Throughout dinner, Amir regaled his guests with tales from his mother’s kitchen (like baking Raya cookies in a home-made oven) and his forays into customising meals (taking a can of sardines to a local restaurant and asking the chef to fry rice with it for him). “For me, cooking is an experiment of ingredients.”
Our evening began with a bottle of Prosecco Conti Neri (RM170++) as the sun was sinking in a sky awash with the soothing hues of dusk. Surrounded by antique furniture and objets d’ art, we lounged on a day-bed sipping from our fluted glasses.
Without quibbling, we agreed that here is where the glorious past meets the self-indulgent present in a unique Bon Ton experience. Thirteen of us were dining that night, mostly Australian holiday-makers and weekending expatriates from Singapore and KL. Lord Restrain, in his attempt to straddle both Eastern and Western sensibilities, asked in his pronounced English accent for sambal pedas as soon as the appetisers arrived.
The Cucur Udang with Kuah Kacang (Prawn Fritters with Peanut Sauce) was excellent. Generously filled with fresh prawns, the deep-fried batter possessed an added zing with sliced red chillies. When dipped in the thick, yet light, peanut sauce, each mouthful begged for more.
The Begedil Daging (Meat and Potato Patty), another deep-fried starter, was crispy on the outside, with an equal mix of beef and potato, delicious and soft inside.
Conversation flowed: from the worsening traffic in Wangsa Maju, KL, to “fine” living in Singapore. Lord Restrain, whose small talk skills I enormously envy, was busy engaging his neighbours. As the only “old Asia hand” on the table, he was in full throttle, while I took notes, photographs and sampled further morsels of delight.
The staple dish holding the plethora of main courses together was Nasi Tomato (Tomato Rice). Beautiful in texture and taste, it was flavoured with a comforting blend of condiments. I only wished the rice was served steaming hot. But that minor disappointment did not last long – the Kari Dalca (Vegetable and Chickpea Curry) came with a superb consistency and was the ideal gravy to complement our Malay meal. The chickpeas added bite, while the softened carrots and aubergines kept the curry smooth. It was good enough to eat on its own. “You know, if you keep this curry overnight, it’ll taste even better,” tipped our host.
In individually wrapped foil packets, with their juices judiciously contained, the classic Ikan Bakar (Grilled Fish) was an intoxicating mix of sweet and sour. Marinated in chilli paste, turmeric, shallots, galangal and lemon grass, the arising aroma was as tantalising as the taste. “One of my favourites,” the Lord announced to no one in particular, and proceeded to devour his second piece.
The Ayam Masak Merah (Chicken in Red Sauce), as is common in many Malay dishes, was another sweet, savoury dish. What I loved in this dish was that the chicken pieces, marinated in tumeric, salt and pepper, were deep-fried first. The red tomato puree and chilli paste were bold and thick, full of hidden flavours. “The chefs here cook these dishes as they would at home or for the relatives,” Amir confirmed authoritatively.
It was literally a feast for the senses, with plenty of people eating and drinking to their heart’s content. The mood lighting pivoted around the antique pieces in the private dining room. And the food, although more than we could eat, served as a marvellous introduction to Malay cuisine.
Next, the Acar Nenas (Pineapple and Peanut Salad) tasted of a time I had almost forgotten. The unripened pineapple added sweetness, peanuts the crunchiness, and chillies the spiciness while the firm cucumber slices helped cool the palate. The Kerabu Kacang Panjang (Long Bean Salad), cooked with grated coconut, chillies and onions, was very fresh and crisp, delicately flavoured without being too overpowering or overcooked, as is the usual case.
But the star dish was the Udang Goreng Bersalut Cornflakes (Fried Prawns in Cornflakes), a welcome surprise. Bracingly crisp, the fresh taste of succulent prawn is retained by a coating of crunchy corn flakes before being deep-fried.
Nicknamed by Amir, “Kellogg Prawns”, this un-Malay dish could be the consummate hors d’oeuvre. The inclusion of grated coconut added to the brittle texture, the potent spice mix trumpeted the taste, especially when dipped in the homemade chilli sauce. “Always popular,” Amir noted with pride, as the prawns flew off the plate.
We could not believe that we still had space for dessert. But that thought was dismissed as soon as we saw the Nyonya Ketayap and Ais Krim Gula Melaka (Pancake with Coconut Filling and Gula Melaka Ice Cream).
Although I would have preferred the pancake – coloured green with screwpine leaves – to be thinner, the filling was a delectable mix of molasses (Gula Melaka) and grated coconut.
The home-made Gula Melaka ice cream was out of this world. Thick, creamy but not-so-sweet, it was an unparalleled accompaniment to the kueh.
Even Lord Restrain, who used to shrug off the kueh dadar as a mouldy green flannel, polished off his helping in no time, including the sauce of thickened fresh coconut milk. And then advanced towards mine. And that was even before we had the live demo of making teh tarik – his favourite tea.
We can’t wait to go back. Even if it is just the two of us for dinner.