RASA SAYANG: NOT QUITE FEELING THE LOVE IN CHINATOWN
It’s probably an age thing, but my recollection of London’s ethnic food offerings in the late 80’s and early 90’s is of them being less in number but, well, simply better than we have now.
As I said, I may be viewing them through the tumeric glow of a middle-aged man's eyes, but my memories are of Thai places making green curries with the pre-requisite types of aubergine, of Indian restaurants that escaped the clutches of brown slop curry houses without having to run to the arms of faux French dining styles and Malaysian restaurants that truly represented the bewildering variety of one of the world’s great eating nations. Now, we seem to have many more restaurants offering food from an even wider variety of regions, but the flavours strike me as muted, apologetic, neutered so as not to offend and with commercial pastes taking the place of time consuming fresh sauces.
I would certainly be interested to hear if anyone else feels the same.
Rasay Sayang means, I am told, to “feel the love” and I certainly loved my first experiences of the small chain bearing that name, who offered my first tastes of Malaysian and Singaporean food nearly twenty years ago. They are long gone now, the main branch, in Soho, has become a Nando’s which tells you all you need to know about the way we eat in the UK.
However, as Malaysia was one of the favourite stops of my EAT MY GLOBE trip, I was intrigued when I heard that a small restaurant of the same name had opened in Chinatown directly next to the disappointing Leong’s Legend and, I arranged a quick supper there with one of my oldest friends, Neal.
First, however, a quick dip into the fabulous new bar at Rules, where Brian Silva, one of the great mixers in town prepared me a “proper” Rob Roy using orange bitters from The Bitters Truth and Italian vermouth. Perfect to fortify against the sudden and unexpected snowfall, which was enough to keep sufficient diners away so we could walk in and get a table in the small dining room right away.
It’s a short menu with a mix of, as far as my limited knowledge could tell, traditional Malay dishes and some representing their considerable Chinese influence.
Starters were a mixed bag. The satay were slightly chewy, not comparing well to those on offer at Puji Puji, but the curry puffs were much better, with a filling of beef and potatoes and a light, grease free batter coating. The ones I had tried before had a short crust pastry, but, my love of all things deep-fried, made these an interesting alternative.
Nasi Lemak was one of the favourite dishes of my short time in Kuala Lumpur and the version on offer at Rasa Sayang is not bad at all. The rice, as it should be was gently flavoured with coconut and pandan, the accompaniments to the chicken curry all seemed to be present and correct including a small mound of salty dried anchovies and the curry itself was in a deep, savoury sauce.
Another high point scorer was a plate of crunchy morning glory stir fried with balachan, the potent shrimp paste mixed with chilli, which was good enough to have us both fighting over the last strands while other plates sat by.
Other dishes failed to live up to these high standards. The beef rendang lacked punch and simply made me long for the recipe I tried recently at home, which combined freshness, meatiness and fire to stunning effect. Likewise, the char kway teow, which, I suspect, was fried in oil rather than in pork fat as the best versions I have tried have been. With a generous amount of seafood on show, it looked the part, but as is so often the case, it simply lacked any discernable flavour soon ending up as cold, flat noodles.
The bill for the meal with service and a beer came to £44 for two, enough to make this an acceptable if uninspiring supper where the chance to catch up took precedence over the food. Sometimes, perhaps that is all you need, but I could not help thinking that, if we had eaten this meal twenty years ago, we might have done a whole lot less talking and been a whole lot more excited about eating.
Or, is that just me?