Sunday, July 15, 2007

Divey, But Authentic: Malaysia Kopitiam

I was walking to work one morning when I noticed a woman holding a to-go cup of coffee from...McDonald's. It read "Premium Roast Coffee" in a fashionably brown ersatz earth-friendly cup. The juxtaposition of the quintessentially down-market McD's and anything near "premium" was amusing.

Premiumization is the new black. It's everywhere. Upscale has gone down-market. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Is it truly premium? What does that mean? Exclusive? Rare? Exceptional? I say true premium is outstanding quality, not a fad. It has to be great and true. And I'm not sure those things can be mass produced. Can they? Now I'm not saying that McD's new fancy coffee isn't good, but there's something manufactured about the whole thing. Perhaps the image; I don't know. I guess what I'm saying (and perhaps stating the obvious in the process) is that premium isn't an image. Indeed, sometimes, real quality might come in the form of a gritty, divey restaurant with ripped vinyl benches and amazing food (such is the case of Malaysia Kopitiam).

Anyway, I want authenticity, dammit! And I got it at Malaysia Kopitiam. On M street a couple doors down from the venerable "gentleman's" club, Camelot, you'll find a dark and dingy little restaurant that's always packed. It's one of the handful of Malyasian restaurants in the city. Ironically, just a door or so away sits the much more glamorous, and much less edible, Panang (which is, I would argue, premium in the McDonald's sense of the word).

Malaysian Kopitiam is quaint in its awkwardness. Everything from the sullen visage of the mama boss in native dress to our server forgetting to give us rice were all forgiveable for the amazing food. The super extensive menu was displayed in two ways: one was a long laminated sheet with names and descriptions; the other was a three ring binder full of pictures of the dishes. Now that's pretty awesome! Malaysian food is a very curious blend of what seems to be Thai (spicey entrees), Chinese (non-spicey entrees), and Indian (roti bread dishes), so the pictures really did help.

We started off with a very interesting sort of rice-based tamale wrapped in banana leaves. Rembah Udang is basically sticky rice stuffed with spicy minced chicken and shrimp paste and grilled in a banana leaf (you aren't supposed to eat the leaf). Unwrapped, the little green present revealed some spicey goodness with surprising flavors that were very enjoyable. Then we tried the pork Roti (Indian Bread) "wrap". The sliced pork was marinated in tamarind sauce topped with lettuce and abundant fresh, sweet onion, all nestled in a folded roti loaf. Delightful. It was slightly sweet, the meat tender, and the roti soft and chewy.

We shared entrees of (awesome) Assam Shrimp Sambal (quintessentially Malaysian, apparently) and spicey tamarind squid. Sambal, the base for the shrimp, is basically a spicey condiment paste made of hot peppers of different varieties . It was indeed spicey, but not overwhelmingly so. The shrimp was large and fresh, and the roughly cut green bell peppers, onions and tomatoes remained crisp and flavorful despite the slow cooked taste of the stew-like sauce.

The squid dish was equally nice, though the squid was a bit tough. The long cylinders of the scored seafood were chewy and a bit overdone. But the playful salty-sweet tamarind sauce filled with okra and pineapple compensated for it. Yum!

The best balance for all this spice was, of course, some cold beer. Singha we chose. So good. I want to go back and try everything on the menu. This stuff is good, and according to my Singaporean/Malaysian contacts, this is as good as it gets--the real deal. Premium=as good as it gets (no matter the image).

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