Restaurateur Teik Tiong Chan reminded me that the first time we met Cuisine Malaya, his first restaurant, it was under construction in Elizabeth. That was 1998, and I could not contain my excitement that Charlotte would have its first Malaysian restaurant, which had been on my annual CL wish list for years. Not having a Malaysian restaurant in town had been odd since some Charlotte restaurateurs were Malaysian, but they had opted to open Chinese restaurants instead.
Now, Chan has expanded to the Arboretum Shopping Center in south Charlotte. In February, he opened the 68-seat Malaya Kitchen Lounge and Restaurant in a space that has been a succession of banal by-the-number Chinese eateries. Chan has kept some familiar, yet finessed, Chinese dishes on his roster such as Sa Cha Chicken and Hunan Beef.
The majority of the dishes here are Malaysian, the prototype of fusion cuisine with its melt-in-the pot blend of Asian: southern Indian, Cantonese Chinese, Thai and Malaysian. To this, add the culinary influences and cooking techniques of Arab and Portuguese traders who passed through hundreds of years ago, and blend in indigenous fruits and roots. These fruits include coconut, pineapple, mangoes, starfruit, bananas, papayas, jackfruit, mangosteen — not related to mango — and durian. Galangal, the aromatic earthy indigenous rhizome, is present in other dishes. All of these ingredients and styles create a cuisine of incomparable flavors.
Chan has included many of the Malaysian food stars on his roster. Shredded jicama, cucumber, egg and tiny shrimp become the unexpected stuffing for the dazzling light popiah (spring rolls) when wrapped into thin wheat pancakes. Chicken skewers (satay) get spiked with a densely flavored peanut sauce. And the seductive roti cani, thinly stretched dough, grilled quickly and gathered into folds served with a dipping bowl of mild coconut milk curry, is worthy of Ebenezerian selfishness. But Chan's appetizer list is wisely and gastronomically inclusive with Buffalo wings, crab Rangoon, Cajun-seasoned fried calamari, and edamame.
The entrées also span a vast culinary kingdom with a long and tempting list. Chan transforms a simple cut of beef into a gorgeous, succulent comfort dish: beef rendang, framed with rings of fresh pineapple, offers a rich coconut milk sauce redolent of lemongrass and onions. The fragrant and tender poached Hainan chicken is delicately cut into thin strips with bone and skin intact nestled atop Hainanese rice. Simpler dishes, like the piquant nasi goring (fried rice) studded with slices of chicken, is exactly what it should be.
Other notable Malaysian dishes are here, too, such as char kway teow, flat noodles wonderfully brightened by shrimp, bean sprouts, garlic and eggs. Buoyant shrimp bob in the spicy coconut milk curry laksa with a tangle of rice vermicelli and egg noodles at bowl bottom. Lunch specials include belacan (fermented shrimp paste) okra. You know it has got to be good since it does not sound like it would.
Opening a new Asian cuisine in south Charlotte has its challenges, but Chan has balanced his menu with predictable Asian restaurant items. If you choose the Malaysian route, however, these creatively crafted dishes with robust and elemental flavors clearly outshine the ubiquitous Chinese ones, and you can have quite a meal. In fact, you will wish for patio seating near the South China Sea.