Old Malaya Grill: OC's Second Malaysian Restaurant!
Have you had nasi lemak, the national dish of Malaysia? Unless you're from there or are familiar with the cuisine, chances are you haven't even heard of it. In OC, there are more Vietnamese restaurants than there are McDonald's, but I only need one hand to count all the Indonesian, Singaporean and Malaysian restaurants put together. But here's how prevalent nasi lemak is in Malaysia: A few years ago, when health officials in Penang noticed Malaysian children were getting fatter and fatter, they didn't fault burgers or sugary soft drinks; they went after the nasi lemak, blaming the dish for the higher rates of obesity and even attempting to limit its sale to minors. It might be the name. Translated literally, "nasi lemak" means "fatty rice."
The rice is indeed rich, steamed after being flavored with coconut cream and made aromatic with pandan leaf. It can be a satisfying meal on its own, but it isn't complete without sides of ikan bilis (fried anchovies with peanuts), slices of cucumber, hard-boiled eggs and a healthy dollop of sambal. Some might embellish it with a piece of fried chicken or the spice-laden braised beef dish called rendang, but these aren't essential. Up to about a month ago, the last nasi lemak I had was at Belacan Grill, then the only Malaysian restaurant in Orange County. Now there's another.
Old Malaya Grill, which has been open for roughly a month, offers a version in which the fragrant rice is formed into a dome and served next to a puddle of dark sambal that's more sweet than spicy. Included are all the required accouterments, but perhaps the best is the piece of ayam goreng berempah that owner/chef Nur Digiovanni adds by caking a piece of chicken with spices as though they were breading, then frying the bird until the skin turns a crisp mahogany and the meat bursts with juices.
Before she opened Old Malaya Grill, Digiovanni was a mortgage banker who occasionally moonlighted as a caterer for the consulate general of Malaysia in LA. And if I had to guess, it's her nasi lemak that must remind the Malaysian ambassador of home. Digiovanni's dish is flawless. But when I decided to take my family of seven to her restaurant on a Saturday night, she was already in the weeds. Hers is a slip of a restaurant that seats exactly 24, but she struggled to keep up with the 10 or so dishes we ordered. She later apologized, revealing that in the two and a half weeks her place had been open, she had to hire a new chef after the first one stopped showing up. And now, both she and the new guy were still getting used to working together. On top of that, the two front-of-the-house staff weren't available that night because of the long Memorial holiday weekend.
Throughout the evening, I noticed Digiovanni grow increasingly out of breath as she did double duty in the kitchen and dining room. After apologizing again, she vowed to do better next time. I know she will; despite being short-handed, Digiovanni still managed to produce a feathery roti canai, a lighter cousin of naan. Her roti jala—a lacy pancake that's a cross between a crepe and doily—has an omelet-like tenderness. She served both with a thick bowl of curry in which to dip them—the same one she doused noodles with for a curry laksa that could nourish for days. Her beef murtabak was also excellent, redolent of turmeric-seasoned ground beef and encased in a crispy cocoon similar to an egg roll skin. Her satays, though, could've used a little more char; and her satay sauce, which consisted of mostly coarsely chopped peanuts and a hint of lemongrass, wasn't what I'm used to. But that's just the proud Indonesian in me talking—nasi lemak might be Malaysia's national dish, but satays are ours.
My Indonesian family enjoyed her smoky mee goreng, in which egg noodles were wok-tossed with dark soy sauce, shrimp, egg and potatoes. There was also the simple but decent kway teow soup, for which tape-wide rice noodles and chewy fish balls swim in a golden broth sprinkled with chives and crispy fried shallots. We also liked the tender squid rings bundled inside a banana leaf with lemongrass and whole kaffir lime leaves, the entire thing roasted over the fire until the banana leaf's edges turned to soot. The ayam masak merah—a hearty dish of fried chicken pieces smothered in a reduced sauce of spices and tomato—was something I'm looking forward to eating again, along with more of that supposedly fattening nasi lemak. But maybe in another month or so, after Digiovanni has had a chance to catch her breath.
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