Most of Charlotte's business focus these past few months has been centered on the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets: the Bank of America tower. However, if you drive south on East Trade, another drama has been simmering.
At the intersection of Charlottetowne Avenue, Elizabeth Avenue is barricaded. The City of Charlotte has been involved with a street project of burying utilities and installing streetcar rails for a line which, eventually, will run down Elizabeth/Trade Street from Presbyterian Hospital to Johnson C. Smith University.
However, if you want to get to Cuisine Malaya, located on the corner of Charlottetowne and Elizabeth, good luck. You can see the flickering neon OPEN sign beyond the massive construction site, but how do you get there?
Going south through the CPCC campus, you can take a right turn onto Charlottetowne -- since you cannot take a left. I made the mistake of taking a left off Charlottetowne into the service drive beside the new CP parking garage. But all the parking lots and side streets which normally cross Elizabeth are blocked. You could take a left on 4th Street, another left on Hawthorne, pass Elizabeth, turn left on 5th Street which becomes Park, another left on Torrence, then a quick right on 5th Street, and finally turn left into a parking lot and drive to the Cuisine Malaya building.
Or if you're driving east on Charlottetowne, you make a right turn into the Double Door's parking lot, drive behind the strip center in which Cuisine Malaya is located, and park near the entrance.
Even some cornfield mazes have signs. Geez. This is like an 11-circuit labyrinth -- best to take breadcrumbs.
How long has this been going on? Cuisine Malaya owner Teik Tiong Chan says it started 18 months ago, but last November, the city blocked Elizabeth Avenue at Charlottetowne southward.
Cuisine Malaya is not the only restaurant affected by this construction. 1900 Mexican Grill, Carpe Diem, Customshop, Elizabeth Creamery, Leo's Deli, NOFO on Liz, and Nothing but Noodles are all on Elizabeth. Those located within Grubb Properties' Elizabeth Avenue project have a sign on Hawthorne facing Randolph, saying these businesses are open. Cuisine Malaya is not part of the Grubb properties.
I'm all for a streetcar, but as Blanche DuBois said, "Some things are not forgivable." Impeding the flow of customers into a segment of business already hurt by the recession is, quite frankly, indefensible. In Charlotte, sidewalks are paved around older trees. Why are small businesses not given the same consideration? Signage is not readily apparent, especially at night. If you do not know the back streets and parking lots in this section of Elizabeth, you might be tempted to give up. This is what many of Chan's guests did on Valentine's Day. "We had reservations, but one third did not turn up because they could not get in," says Chan.
This coming from a restaurant whose co-owners, Chan, James Chin and Ken Lam, achieved something no other ethnic restaurant had done in Charlotte: They won the Best of the Loaf's Critics' Award (my pick) for Best New Restaurant after they opened in 1999.
But over the past year, Chan has seen fewer new faces. Instead, only intrepid veterans manage to find their way to his tables, and he is also seeing fewer of those.
Cuisine Malaya is the singular outpost of Malaysian cuisine in Charlotte -- and the region, for that matter. What a loss this would be. Malaysian cuisine is archetypal fusion -- a melt-in-the-pot Asian blend of southern Indian, Cantonese Chinese, Thai, and indigenous Malaysian. Add to this the culinary influences of Arab and Portuguese traders and the result is a cuisine of incomparable flavor. At the helm of this kitchen is Malaysian native Chef Jeffrey Ho. The sushi chef is Robert T.
My favorite dish at Cuisine Malaysia is the Roti Canai appetizer, which is comprised of dough pulled paper-thin, griddled quickly, then gathered into folds, becoming slightly crispy when cooled. This crepe is accompanied by an aromatic dipping bowl of mild coconut milk curry laced with chicken and a bit of potato.
Of the entrees here, the Malaysian section still reigns. The Beef Rendang is what you would expect if New England pot roast had traveled to Kuala Lumpur. This is comfort food, Malaysian-style. Tender beef simmered in a rich coconut milk sauce redolent with lemongrass, onions, and chilies. Note: The heat is made to order.
Recently, the owners have been updating the menu, adding new dishes, and expanding the sushi and other Asian cuisines. Many of these dishes were added to attract the Indian ex-pats working downtown. But it's getting harder to attract customers, given the extensive construction blocking the entrance. The construction is scheduled to be completed June 11, 2009.
What's at stake, though, is losing one more note within Charlotte's culinary community.
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